Hey Kitten, Smile! – Catcalling: From the Playful, to the Predatory, to the Pissed Old Men on Buses

Photo illustration by Martin Musialczyk

“Hey, sexy!” A stranger hollers to a woman outside a nightclub in downtown Seattle.

“Can I have a lick?” an older woman calls to a younger man eating ice cream in the University Village.

Catcalling is one of the gross, baser habits of humanity, and it knows no gender. Some argue that today, harassment is viewed as more permissible, not less, because the president of the United States has called women dogs, slobs, and has suggested Megyn Kelly was on her period because she asked a question he didn’t like.

Oftentimes when discussed, catcalling is thought of as one type of scenario, with little to no variation: A beautiful, young woman walks down a public sidewalk, and gruff, dirty construction workers yell obscene nonsense at her.

The demure, irritated woman continues on her silent, passive way, and the construction workers resume their work until the next pretty little thing comes along, so they can drop their blowtorches, cast off their hardhats, and whistle and shout at her until she’s out of range.

However, just as talent, athleticism and flatulence know no gender — despite what some would have others believe — catcalling is confined to no gender nor class. Idiocy is universal.

Ricky Garcia, 22, is an SCC student from the East Coast where, according to him, “People are more aggressive, and less flirty.”
He’s been catcalled twice in his life. Once by a man, aged 40-50, on a bus in New York City. Garcia thought the man had just been angry that Garcia, who was much younger, had not given up his seat for him.

The other time, Garcia had been outside a Target in Florida and a woman yelled at him from her car: “Hey! You’re really cute!”
“Hey!” Garcia replied. “That’s really awkward!”

Garcia believes catcalling can be, in some ways, fueled by male friends egging each other on. From his experience in his band, his friends and fellow band members feed off each other’s energy. In a group, they feel like they can speak with no filter.

“Some of the band members suffer from ‘testosterone poisoning,’” he joked. “They need to assert their masculinity.”

But Rachel David, SCC professor of women’s studies, doesn’t believe catcalling is motivated by lust.

“To yell at a complete stranger things that are very likely to make her — or him — uncomfortable is not an expression of lust, it’s an expression of power,” she said.

David believes that when one person makes another uncomfortable or fearful without being uncomfortable themselves, that person has the power.

David described catcalling as “very subjective.” To her, “It is any time a person makes sexual or objectifying comments to a stranger in a public place.”

Sophie Lee, a 21-year-old international student from Taiwan, occasionally indulges in the nightclub scene in downtown Seattle, and has to deal with men propositioning her when she’s uninterested. However, Lee sees a bright side.

“Sometimes, sex is for fun,” she said. To Lee, body language and facial expressions are large factors in determining whether something is offensive or just playful.

For some people, crossing the line and catcalling is an easy thing to do — but for most people, it’s not always easy to see exactly where the line is, unless it’s happening to you.

“If it’s not really serious, it’s fine with me,” Lee said.

A lot of catcalling and unwanted flirtation have a history of being directed at a group some would say are solely responsible for fueling the city of Seattle: baristas.

Kayla Peeples, 23, works at the Coffee Spot in the PUB. It’s a barista’s job to be nice, she said. When she’s been catcalled in the past, some people became angry when they were ignored, according to her.

“Show me a smile!” a man told her once, as if he thought all pretty girls should be smiling all the time, Peeples speculated. If totally ignored, some catcallers feel insulted and lash out, calling the object of their harassment “a bitch,” in Peeples’ experience.

Cameron Smith, 20, an SCC student studying music, agreed that catcalling is a power play, and that being in a group can exacerbate that. However, Smith believes that “people are complex.” He has seen his father occasionally catcall women, but Smith believes “he’s a good person in other ways.”

For Smith, the presidential election changed how he views catcalling. He has a more difficult time being passive when another person’s actions strike him as wrong. The rise to power of Donald Trump, a man who has bragged about sexual assault on camera, has made Smith more mindful of acting when he feels the need to call someone out on something they said. When someone makes a comment that bothers Smith, despite social pressure, he speaks up now.

“I can’t just give people a pass,” he said.

-Nellie Ferguson