I’m 15 years old, walking behind my relatives at an airport overseas – one of the first holiday trips I can remember taking. It’s busy, but somehow my attention is directed towards three male flight attendants a few feet in front of me.
I think nothing of it as I continue to walk, but as I pass them by, I can’t help but glance over and they’re staring, all three of them. They grin when I lock eyes with them and they call out a “Hello” and “Assalamualaikum” as their gazes on me move from head to toe; I hurry past them, feeling confused, and my aunt, who’d seen the whole thing only shakes her head.
I’m 22 years old, on my way back to my apartment in LA after some grocery shopping. Just as I’m about to cross the street, a car stops right in front of me, blocking my path. The window rolls down, and the driver leers at me. I can’t remember what he said to me for the next two minutes.
I only remember clutching my keys, wondering if I even had the strength to lift my fist, should he step out of the car.
I only remember collapsing in the middle of my bedroom 10 minutes later, my breathing shallow and angry at myself for looking so weak. Angry at myself, as I wondered if I’d blown the whole thing out of proportion. Angry at myself, that I had to ask my roommate to accompany me the next few times I needed to get groceries again.
I’m 26 years old, taking a brisk walk to the office – parking is a little scarce around these parts and the only walking path available is right beside the street. I’ve walked that path numerous times before today.
A pick-up truck slows down beside me this morning and I hear the wolf-whistles, clear as day.
I ignore them, like the veteran I am now.
Cat-calling: What is it really about?
Cat-calling. It comes in all shapes and forms — but they’re all very rarely welcome.
In all three incidents, I did nothing to commandeer anyone’s attention. Nothing, except perhaps for the sole fact that I am female. I wore a loose dress when I was 15, and I was an unkempt mess in my hoodie and sweatpants at 22, perfect for a quick run to the grocery store. And maybe work-appropriate attire does it for some men, but I was more preoccupied with trying to get to work on time rather than worrying if my appearance would somehow give a random stranger justified cause to call out to me.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not really about the way you dress, as evidenced from my own experiences. I’d as soon as get cat-called in a body-hugging outfit and in a loose pair of sweats.
It’s not really about one’s state of attractiveness either, although I can’t deny that it does play a part, to a certain extent. But I’ve gotten cat-calls when I had a full face of makeup, and when my face was bare.
And here’s the final thing that a lot of people, specifically those who can’t see why exactly I had to make two articles on this entire issue, don’t seem to be able to grasp.
It’s never been about you trying to make me feel good about myself, no matter what you say. It’s not about you telling me I look better if I smile, and it’s not about you “having a right” to give me an unsolicited opinion on my appearance that you call a “compliment”.
In the first part of this ‘Cat-Calling’ series, I talked about how there were plenty of women’s views on the entire issue, and the lack of men’s voices in the discussion. I interviewed four men, and got to know what they had to say about the issue, because as much as we don’t see it sometimes, they’re just as big a part of this conversation as women are.
That doesn’t mean, however, that women are done talking about this issue yet.
This time, I had a chat with five women, the youngest at 17 and the oldest at 34, and talked with them about their experiences with cat-calling, as well as their views on the severity of the issue. A couple of names have been changed or kept undisclosed to protect their identities, but their opinions are their own, and only edited for clarity.
What’s your most memorable cat-calling story?
Sharon, 17: I don’t usually pay attention to my surroundings, but I remember a time when I went out with friends to walk around Bandar. One of them was wearing clothes that were kind of revealing and she was being cat-called by a man. She actually went up to him and mocked him, so he walked away after that, probably searching for another victim.
Mel, 24: I remember walking Snowball around the kampong pretty often. I could only assume one house took notice of me, and one day, there were like five boys sitting in chairs at their open garage, waiting for me to walk by and they cat-called me, and they started shouting questions like which house I lived in, will I be back tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that (I was like, 15 then.) I stopped soon after.
Also the reason why Snowball grew up fat, because no more exercise.
Michelle, 27: I was in Form 5 and had just finished one of my O level exam papers. I lived quite near to my secondary school and would often walk to and from school. One afternoon, I was walking my usual route back home, through a tamu. I saw a group of women and men in front of me. I didn’t think much of it as there was a mix of people within the group and they looked completely harmless. Or so I thought.
As I walked past the group, a tall man made cat-calling noises at me. I chose to ignore him and continued walking, I even smiled at the women in the group. They seem to be Bandaran workers. However, the man didn’t let up and actually walked with me, asking me questions like: “Where are you going?”; “Are you a student?”; “Did you skip school?”
I was taken aback but kept my stride. I didn’t want to answer him but he was persistent so I gave him yes and no answers.
I was getting anxious as I was approaching the flat I lived in and this man was still walking beside me. But before I got home, the man just trailed off and stopped following me. I kept on walking and as I was approaching my apartment, I kept walking on because I didn’t want him to know where I stayed. I hid out of sight for a few minutes and peered back to check if the man was still there. Once the coast was clear, I quickly hurried home.
R, 28: I was in an elevator in Penang and all my friends had exited, I was left alone. I heard a sucking motion coming from my right and I turned to look. A man was cupping two hands to his chest and he had a sleazy look on his face.
Needless to say, I was traumatised.
L, 34: I yelled back at the cat-caller, “Apa moi moi?!” angrily. Needless to say they were stunned speechless, haha.
Have you ever cat-called?
Mel: Not to a stranger, no. To a friend yes, in front of them, not like driving past them on the streets. (E.g. When they’re showing me their outfit in the fitting room).
Michelle: I have to admit that I have, but only as a joke with my closest friends.
L: Yes, among friends when someone is dressed up and looking fancy, or if they have a new haircut or their makeup was on fleek.
Has a cat-call ever made you feel good?
Sharon: No, it would just make me more uncomfortable.
Michelle: Honestly, no. There is nothing complimentary about being the recipient of a fleeting moment of lust. If you’re serious about my a** being the best thing you’ve seen all day, then take this a** out to a fancy dinner and see things through.
L: When it’s from friends (similar to my previous answer). It’s funny but it’s also quite good for the self-esteem when a friend notices you look good. If it was a stranger, I would usually just ignore it. Doesn’t spoil my day.
If a man you knew was cat-called, how would you feel about it?
Sharon: We don’t usually see that happen, but if I knew a man was being cat-called, I’d feel annoyed, because cat-calling itself is already an annoying thing.
Mel: Yikes. I honestly don’t know. But maybe me saying “yikes” will probably speak for itself.
Michelle: I would definitely be able to sympathise with him on the terrible feeling of being cat-called. However, I don’t think I would worry as much about his safety as I would if a female friend were cat-called.
R: If he had a low self-esteem and wasn’t a looker, I’d feel bad for him. It would be less of a cat-call and more a taunting of sorts.
L: If it was in the context of a random cat-calling in the middle of the street, I would find it hilarious that a girl would do that (I’ve yet to see it happen!) But also a bit shocked at her boldness. If a man cat-called another man… I don’t know. Does that happen? ?
Sharon: I believe it’s overblown in a way, but it does affect women and it should be stopped. But if we’re only talking about this because of the attention it gets, then it’s also useless to make it a big issue if there are no changes happening.
Mel: I don’t think it is overblown. Cat-calling asserts domination over the victim. It’s not just a whistle, it’s basically like an “AY IMA SMASH MA D*** INTO YOUR P***** AND YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT THAT” kinda thing.
I feel like women are definitely more fearful about that, whereas for men, them being cat-called might just feed their ego. Ignoring cat-calls could also sometimes lead to us being harassed, and them telling us, “Why are you ignoring me, b****?” So, we don’t really win in this situation, lol.
Michelle: I feel that this issue is such a normal occurrence in the lives of many women that it doesn’t have to be exaggerated, because it is as bad as it is. We should be able to walk down a street and not be called out for the way we look in such a derogatory manner. However, people see it as something women should just shrug off their shoulders, some even dare say to take it as a compliment. You know what a compliment is? It’s “Hey there, I just want to say you look really nice today.” It isn’t, “Hey baby, can I see if I can make that a** clap with joy?”
I believe that both men and women have and should practise self control. We are not animals that can do whatever we want. It boils down to respecting one another.
I mean, how would you feel if someone cat-called your mother, sister or wife? In instances like these, I believe that the phrase ‘cat got your tongue?’ should be practised more fervently.
R: Nope. It happens and it sucks.
L: I think it can be overblown. It is considered sexual harassment by many (and by law in some places) but sometimes it could just simply be a person who sees someone attractive and reacts, albeit not the best way to react.
I think if it was consistently occurring to someone, like in the workplace and from the same person all the time, that definitely is a cause for concern or legal action.
Subjected to a norm
There’s a couple of parallels in the answers above; for one, every single woman here has experienced cat-calling. None of them except for one has ever felt comfortable about it, unless it was from a friend, as a gesture of support, encouragement or to boost their morale.
And while some of them do feel sympathy for a man who has been cat-called, they’re not as worried about it as they would be for a female friend.
However, whether cat-calling is an issue that’s exaggerated or not is where the women are a little less united. Some of them understand it to be potentially overblown, while others are firm on the fact that it is a form of sexual harassment and a pretty significant issue that affects many women.
Unfortunately, women are still continually subjected to this act, no matter what. Some believe it to be trivial, and the rare few do find validation in it, while others are vehemently against the entire notion. Some have fought back with righteous anger, loud in their protest, and others found it safer to look down and walk away — ignore, don’t interact and perhaps they’ll finally shut up.
No matter how divided we seem to be on the matter, there’s probably one thing most of us can agree on: We’re all better off without the very notion of cat-calling.
No more having to decide whether to fight back or run away, no more having to wonder if it was your fault for wearing that cute black dress, no more having to plan out a different route that’s less convenient but ultimately safer. No more talking about it to your girls and having them nod their heads in comradeship, no more asking your male friends why some guys think it’s a good idea to cat-call and being dissatisfied with their answers, whatever those may be.
Why we’re not as worried when men get cat-called
In the previous article, some of the men I spoke with have been cat-called. One was creeped out, one would brush it off and another would react.
Admittedly, I felt sympathy. I felt bad, because people shouldn’t be cat-calling people in the first place, no matter what gender does it to another, especially when it’s at the expense of a person’s dignity and comfort. But there’s a part of me that wonders how nice it must be, to be able to have the option to fight back and guarantee myself that I can walk away from an encounter unscathed, just because biology has deemed it that way.
I’ll let you in on the big reasons why us girls probably aren’t as likely to be worried when a man gets cat-called — even if we want to, or if we probably should be.
Society has allowed the idea that women are to be protected and men are the protectors to be so deeply ingrained in us that when the tables are turned, it takes too long for both to form an appropriate response. Just take a look at the way society reacts when a man comes forward and admits that he has been taken advantage of by a woman, one who’s supposedly the weaker sex. They tell him that he got lucky, that he was desired, that because he reacted, it must have been consensual.
And it’s not all great for women either. They tell us that it was our fault for walking alone down that street, that it was the way we dressed, that we provoked our attackers, that we didn’t learn enough and we weren’t vigilant enough.
I mentioned biology earlier. Most cis men, thanks to biology, are physically bigger than most women.
There’s a primal instinct based in fear when we hear the footsteps and breathing of someone heavier, and it intensifies when we hear that low voice calling out to us. We review half-forgotten lessons about dealing with a potential attacker and wonder if we’re even tall enough to reach their nose, their eyes — whatever few vulnerabilities they may have.
And I hear some of you men rightfully say, “It’s not like we can punch a girl!”
(If only more men think that way.)
However, as sweet as that notion is, it’s also wrong. You choose not to. And that’s your prerogative. But if you absolutely had to, if you were sober and in full control of your physical motions and your female attacker was of an average woman’s height, instead of someone bigger than you, chances are you’d be able to physically overpower a girl, if you chose to do so.
Most women don’t have the luxury of choice.
And finally, it’s the cold, hard fact that as much as a man will experience this form of harassment in the same way that most women do, it will probably never amount to the amount of disgust and terror that spikes up in us when we hear the wolf-whistles and the calls. It’s how we get so frustrated at ourselves for being so scared of a few words. It’s how we walk down the street with keys in our balled up fists, constantly scanning our surroundings, wondering if this is the time that the “Hey babe” will escalate to something more sinister.
More than a “Hey, sexy!”
Another problem here, to be honest, isn’t just the act of cat-calling, although that’s still a significant issue in itself. Cat-calling is inherently degrading because it reduces the victim to becoming an object for the benefit of the cat-caller. It vilifies the victim because if they choose to fight back, they’re considered to be overreacting; if they don’t, it means they wanted it, or that it’s their fault for allowing the harassment to continue.
The other problem here is what cat-calling can lead to.
Who’s to say there are some sort of loose, sketchy moral boundaries when it comes to cat-calling? Who polices the act and says, “Okay, five kissing noises is a good bar, any more than that is crossing the line”? Who decides if the girl was being a “b****” for ignoring the cat-calls and “had it coming for her”?
It’s more than a “Hey, sexy”. It’s the implication it carries, that a woman’s purpose is to look attractive for the unwelcome benefit of a stranger, no matter how fleeting that benefit is. It’s being told you look “pretty” one moment and having sexual comments directed at you in the next second. It’s being made to feel like you’re naked in public when you’ve got your baggiest jeans and t-shirt on. It’s wondering if feeling safe has become an unreachable ideal instead of the norm it should be.
How do we stop it?
I’ve spoken to several men and women about this issue for this series, but now, we’re opening the discussion to you. What do you think we should do to curb this issue? How do we teach our children and our peers to respect others?
We’d love to hear from you. Let us know in the comments below, or on Neue’s social media.