Advice Goddess Blog
« Previous | Home | Next »

Girls Against For Cat Calls
Via Jim Romenesko's Obscure Store, I found a link to a story about Hollaback, a site that lets women post photos of guys who "harass" women in public. Meredith May writes for the SF Chron:

In September, San Francisco joined more than a dozen other cities and states that have HollaBack blogs. Women fill the sites with pictures of men they say verbally, and sometimes physically, harass them on the street.

"Some men assume they have a right to comment out loud about a woman, and we're supposed to just shrug it off," said Jessica, 22, who started HollaBack-SF out of frustration over the catcalls and kissing noises she heard whenever she left her San Francisco apartment. She asked that her last name not be used to avoid being harassed. The point of HollaBack, she said, is to shift the power dynamic so women have an alternative to simply hanging their heads and walking away.

"I don't necessarily think the men who are photographed are going to stop because of HollaBack, but this could start a discussion among women and their male friends about what is appropriate and what isn't," Jessica said.

Great. I'll start one right here, with the comment I left on Romenesko's site, and it isn't going to be some victim'y Eve Ensler tract:

Sure, there are those few construction workers ready at the crack of dawn with, "Hey, baby, I wanna eat your pussy." The truth is, it's rare a guy says something really rude -- at least, in my experience, and I've lived in New York and Los Angeles, and visited plenty of other cities.

Now, I go to a good deal of trouble getting dressed in the morning. If some guy whistles or says something in the realm of complimentary, I simply smile and say thanks.

Hint to the ladies out there: it takes on a whole new tone if you don't think and act like a victim.

And another thing. Here's the first comment left on Romenesko's entry about the Hollaback site, by "vksjk":

There needs to be a website for men in which they can post the names or just simply describe the rudest rejections they've received from women. In my years on the dating scene I've seen some women reject men in some incredibly harsh and rude ways. It'd be nice if there was a website for men to post rude rejection stories.

I wrote a column last week which got into how to reject a man. Again, unless a man asks you out in a most rude and disrespectful way, I think you owe it to him to be kind in how you respond. Remember: He laid his ego on the line to ask you out. Does it really cost you to be gracious, to act grateful? Just have an excuse ready if he's not for you: You're married, a lesbian, you're 35 and still grounded, whatever. The important thing is that he understands your answer is no -- you don't have to squash him under your boot like a bug in the process.

Posted by aalkon at February 14, 2007 10:27 AM


I have to say I think it's really pathetic. It's really hard at times being a single guy not knowing if the next girl you approach is going to post your face on some hate website because you asked her out. I love to read about how you treat nice men, Amy. It's good to know there are some women out there who won't punch us in the eye for asking them out. A simple "no" is often hurtful enough.

Posted by: Alan H. at February 14, 2007 3:52 AM

Is this really all that different from posting the address and phone numbers of bad drivers and loud cell phone users?


Posted by: Speedy at February 14, 2007 6:05 AM

I've had some pretty rude and threatening shit yelled at me (or gestured) by guys on the street on occasion. This mostly happened when I was in my 20's; now that I'm pushing 50 it's a distant memory. I was always able to distinguish between the smile and "hello gorgeous" comments (which alas were altogether too rare) and the "hey bitch, do you take it up the ass" variety (usually from men in groups). I think it's the latter that the Hollaback sites were meant to expose (no pun intended).

Posted by: deja pseu at February 14, 2007 6:06 AM

"I was always able to distinguish between the smile and "hello gorgeous" comments (which alas were altogether too rare) and the "hey bitch, do you take it up the ass" variety (usually from men in groups)."

I am so with you, deja pseu.

If a guy has to rely on the protection of a group to do the old Ev. Psych. chest-thump in response to a passing cutie pie, he's probably a creep.

And a woman who reacts furiously to an individual whistle, wink - or even a slightly more hot-blooded expression - probably really needs to lighten up.

It's really not that complicated.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at February 14, 2007 7:04 AM

Wow, deja pseu, yes, I think that would feel threatening.

I've only extremely rarely had anything rude said or gestured at me. For the run-of-the-mill catcalls, it's amazing what just a sweet smile of acknowledgement and a little eye contact will do to improve the manners of the catcallers. It's like you're changing your interaction with them to a person-to-person level, and suddenly you're no longer an object, and it turns out many people who yell and whistle are actually rather shy.

Posted by: Melissa G at February 14, 2007 7:11 AM

Hell yes, Amy! "and it isn't going to be some victim'y Eve Ensler tract:" I love it. Preach it, sistah! I am calling my paper immediately.

Posted by: kg at February 14, 2007 8:23 AM

Aww, thanks.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 14, 2007 8:34 AM

Just another attempt to fine tune our cultural sensitivities to the bottom ten percent.

Posted by: Casca at February 14, 2007 8:38 AM

On the contrary. Who's more powerful in the equation, the guy who tries to say something shitty to a woman or the woman who turns the tables on the guy? I don't know about you but I feel a lot better if I smile and say thanks and take it as a compliment. As my dad once said, don't worry if the construction workers notice you; worry if they never notice you.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 14, 2007 8:50 AM

Here is my favorite women rejecting men rudely and men not taking it story: my friend was in a club in San Francisco; he and his buddy were standing at the bar. There were two attarctive gals next to them, and my buddy's friend asked one of the gals, "Would you like to dance?" She looked at him as though he were a turd, gave that little throat-clearing derisive grunt, and said, "No." Then she turned her back on him. He stood there for a second, and then tapped her on the shoulder.
"I think you misunderstood me," he said. "I said, your ass looks fat in those pants."

Posted by: nancy at February 14, 2007 9:14 AM

You know, I live in Oakland and I've used the "I'm a lesbian" line. Frankly, it doesn't work. The guy just becomes more interested. I've also said I'm married and it's a rare guy that, despite the presence of a ring on my finger will let it go at that. I haven't tried 35 and grounded, though. Maybe that will work.


Posted by: meshaliu at February 14, 2007 9:24 AM

That's very funny, Nance.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 14, 2007 9:47 AM

Hang your head and walk away? Who does that? I usually laugh at them if they're hopeless and smile if they're not. If they say something really obnoxious, I give them finger. I also have my phone poised to speed-dial the police if I have to.

I'm not sure whether it's been mentioned here, but there was a study where rapists were shown pictures of women and were eerily able to pick out the ones who had been raped. Preventing assault has a lot to do with being careful, but it seems that scurrying around like a scared little mouse is not part of that.

Posted by: Christina at February 14, 2007 11:05 AM

Christina, that's fascinating. Any idea where that study was?

They say the theme song for relationships in psychotherapy is "unfinished business."

Posted by: Crid at February 14, 2007 11:39 AM

Hang your head and walk away? Who does that?

Um, women like me who were raised in the 50-60's to be "nice girls" and to not talk back? Not everyone is given instruction in self-confidence and assertiveness when they're young...some of us have to pick it up on our own once we get out in the world.

Posted by: deja pseu at February 14, 2007 12:08 PM

I'm not surprised to hear about that study. There's a fantastic book by Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer on rape, A Natural History Of Rape/Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion:

I can't find the study in there at the moment, but they show how rapists rarely go after grannies or babies -- that rape is a crime of sex, and rapists tend to go after the most fertile women. Perhaps they also go after women who look victimizable - perhaps that was what was apparent to rapists in photographs. A confident woman carries herself -- perhaps down to the most seemly imperceptible ways in a photograph -- differently than a woman who feels like a victim. Perhaps this speaks to my point - don't take it like a victim and maybe you won't be a victim?

And no, I'm not suggesting anybody deserves to be raped. The truth is, however, sometimes people are culpable in some way for being victims of a crime (not being prudent, etc.) Which, again, isn't to say anyone deserves to be raped.

I gave in a column the example of a time I was cursorily attacked on a NY street in my old neighborhood -- when I wasn't guarded or paying attention about where I was or when I was walking in an isolated area. It was partially my fault I was attacked, because I was acting like an idiot.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 14, 2007 12:56 PM

What bothers me about some guys is an arrogant attitude that every woman that comes within their gaze must meet their standards. When I was younger, about 30, I had my back turned to some young guys. I was blond and my hair was long, but I'm not very good looking; I have a big nose - doesn't bother me. I've never had a problem getting a boyfriend, or a husband, for that matter. Well, these guys were talking about me and when I turned around they said "yuk" or something like that. I think that's the kind of thing some women are talking about; not just comments about how good looking a woman is, but just the idea of passing judgment like that. It's jerky. Oh, by the way, they were a couple of fatties that would have probably had trouble getting in the sack with a woman, which makes it kind of funny.

Posted by: Marge at February 14, 2007 1:55 PM

Remember, it is all about status and the behavior is based on peer pressure. Notice that most of the guys are in groups? Alone... they will be quiet. A face in the crowd. A passing blur.

I'm not excusing their behavior, but explaining it.

Posted by: Joe at February 14, 2007 2:19 PM

Here's Virginia Postrel on beauty, from The Atlantic:

Like the rest of the genetic lottery, beauty is unfair. Everyone falls short of perfection, but some are luckier than others. Real confidence requires self-knowledge, which includes recognizing one’s shortcomings as well as one’s strengths. At a recent conference on biological manipulations, I heard a philosopher declare during lunch that she’d never have plastic surgery or even dye her hair. But, she confessed, she’d pay just about anything for fifteen more IQ points. This woman is not insecure about her intelligence, which is far above average; she’d just like to be smarter. Asking women to say they’re beautiful is like asking intellectuals to say they’re geniuses. Most know they simply don’t qualify.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 14, 2007 2:32 PM

> raised in the 50-60's to
> be "nice girls"

Sincere question: Are you sure it was the times, and not just the nature of your surroundings (parent's personality, family background etc.) that made that happen?

The best verse in the Bible goes like this: "...there is nothing new under the sun."

> perhaps that was what was apparent
> to rapists in photographs.

Men in their forties shouldn't listen to teenage radio, but in the Carolla years I did. Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear ('01-'05):

As troubled teens and others up to age fifty phoned in to the radio show, a couple fascinating themes emerged.

First was that people almost always return to whatever they had as kids. If Dad was a drinker, or sexually intrusive, or divorced and left the family when the caller were eight, then that's what would happen in their own lives... They too would find a reason, or create a reason, to bring the same fate to their children in the same years. Obviously a lot of this stuff isn't conscious, but it happens anyway. People capable of being abused put out a pheromone to those who are looking for a target, and those guys have nose for their preferred weakness.

Second was something they called the Little Girl Voice. When a grown woman called in with the pitch of a child in her speech, the hosts could predict almost precisely the month of the caller's childhood at which they'd been sexual or violently tormented, but it only worked with women. This means that Marilyn Monroe was not really cute, and if you're the sort of guy who never saw the appeal of Betty Boop, good for you. The Little Girl Voice is even more reliably a clue than the Gay Accent, and nobody's written a good book about that yet, either.

> What bothers me about some
> guys is an arrogant attitude

You're right; guys shouldn't be shitty.

> must meet their standards.

In the 90's, HBO used to do these vaguely risque documentaries about sex, maybe they still do. One of them was about the sex lives of the crippled and deformed. They interviewed one guy (quad) in his late 30's who was wonderfully forthcoming about how things had worked and not worked in his life. He said "When ever I see someone new, I put them into one of two categories, whether I would or would not have sex with them." This was from a guy who had not had a lot of sex. Ever since then I've walked through banks, grocery stores, jury duty and every setting saying to myself, "Yes, no, no, no, no, yes, no, yes, yes...."

It's saved a lot of time. But my point is just that we're all making those judgments anyway. The guys were assholes only for sharing their judgment.

Amy, did you notice in the Atlantic piece that Etcoff was a (fucking) CONSULTANT to the Dove campaign? I feel betrayed.

Posted by: Crid at February 14, 2007 3:46 PM

Sincere question: Are you sure it was the times, and not just the nature of your surroundings (parent's personality, family background etc.) that made that happen?

Probably a bit of both but in talking to other women my age (I turn 50 next month) and socio-economic class (white, middle) this is a pretty common experience.

Posted by: deja pseu at February 14, 2007 4:04 PM

Made me hurl a little, too.

More and more, companies are trying to give their campaigns legitimacy or make them feel like they're doing some sort of good by doing stuff like this. Really, they just want to sell stuff, and that's fine. Just don't try to gold-leaf shit and call it a trophy, thank you.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 14, 2007 4:05 PM

As LYT said when this first came up "It's not that I wouldn't nail every one of those women..."

Posted by: Crid at February 14, 2007 4:17 PM

And for the record, white, female and middle isn't the normative condition it once was, and this is one reason so many people won't cop to being feminist anymore.

Posted by: Crid at February 14, 2007 4:20 PM

P.S. I do that, too; i.e., yes, yes, no, no, absafuckinglutely not, etc.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 14, 2007 4:25 PM

My favorite cat call story took place about 16 years ago in a Marine town. I had just left the local drug store and was carrying a couple of shopping bags. Three young Marines yelled some lovely though juvenile compliments, no doubt encouraged by my wide grin.
Ahh, the looks on their faces when the car between us moved and I shifted the bags. I was eight months pregnant at the time. The poor boys just slunk into the store without another word.

Posted by: Kimberly at February 14, 2007 10:42 PM

Hahaha, Kimberly, that brings back one of my favorite memories of my own pregnancy! At nine months I was big as a whale, but it was all out in front, so if one saw me from the back I didn't look pregnant. I was out walking in my neighborhood, as I did every day for my health, and I got catcalls from a passing car! I was so shocked that I turned around with an incredulous expression on my face, and one of the guys laughed and said, "Go, momma!" Cracked me up.

Posted by: Melissa G at February 15, 2007 8:43 AM

I love that. Visual revisionism!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 15, 2007 9:08 AM

Another interesting catcall story, although from imagination of the writers of 'Sex and the City'. Miranda is pregnant (but not showing yet) and very horny. She walks past some construction workers who of course, catcall. She walk up to one of them, and demand sex right then and there. It scared the crap out of the guy!

Moral of the story; these guys are really just cowards and afraid of women. Women, you've got the power!

Posted by: Chris at February 15, 2007 9:09 AM

I don't remember that story line as Miranda being horny, rather she was tired of the daily catcalling from the construction site and called the guy's bluff. (IIRC he stammered and said, "hey lady, I'm a married man!")

Posted by: deja pseu at February 15, 2007 9:44 AM

I agree with Amy that catcalls alone are nothing more than annoying (or flattering), however there is a difference between the basic "Hey baby, don't you wanna ....." or whatever, and something that can be truely threatening. For instance, when I was freshman in college, I was walking alone, in the middle of the day through a scarcely populated exit of a train station. A man pulled out his penis and started waving it around at me. It really scared me especially as there was no one around. I took off running for the doors. I am a tall strong woman, I walk with cofindence and I know how to be proactive and would know how to protect myself if it came to it. But even so I was shaken by this experience.

Posted by: Esther at February 15, 2007 10:05 AM

I think your reaction to any of this depends on your level of confidence, and your ability to accurately assess the actual danger of the situation. A guy alone waving his penis around is actually pretty pathetic and funny, so I would definitely keep a wide distance while I laughed at him. A group of guys who were trying to get too close would be threatening, so I would instantly start running.

An unfortunately reality of life is that women must always be aware of their surroundings (so no music jammed in your ears!). If you do notice some creep checking you out, stand up straight, don't show any fear and they'll figure that you're going to be way too much trouble. Since you won't show the fear that makes them feel powerful, you won't give them what they want anyways, so they'll move on to someone else.

Posted by: Chris at February 15, 2007 10:52 AM

Chris is right. And what I've been getting at is this: Just because somebody means to make you feel small doesn't mean you have to continued with their planned agenda. You change the tone (and the power structure) simply by deciding to.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 15, 2007 10:58 AM

I can't find that study, but where I saw it may come to me later. I agree with Amy's point. I have known since middle school that people usually treat you like what you project yourself to be. If you don't look like what they're looking for, or that you'll give them what they want, they usually stay away.

Posted by: Christina at February 15, 2007 11:38 AM

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. After a while you start to recognize the variations, but you can deal with all of them the same way.

When you get good at that, you won't need to be on the defensive all the time, and you can be really nice to the nice guys that approach you. It takes a lot of nerve for a guy to risk that kind of rejection, especially if you're an attractive woman. It's all about being very Zen with the whole thing, seeing what's actually there instead of projecting your fear and anger onto somebody else.

Posted by: Chris at February 15, 2007 12:26 PM

If there's no fear or anger you can just smile and say "No, thanks" like you would if somebody offered you a canapé you weren't interested in.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 15, 2007 12:53 PM

I live right by a major highway, and whenever I walk down it, some asshole has to honk at me or scream epithets out the window. I hate it. Hate it hate it hate it. Usually when I'm walking, I'm working something out in my head, and honking really startles me. I'm not feeling flattered; I'm hoping they ram their car into a tree and die in the flames. There's a difference between a compliment, no matter who it's coming from (I find the panhandler who always proposes to me when I give him change or a soda really sweet and funny) and language meant to demean and insult.
If I'm out at a club wearing two strings and some tape, hit on me all you want, baby. I'm asking for it. But if I'm walking to work in a suit, leave me the fuck alone.

Posted by: amh18057 at February 15, 2007 2:05 PM

I sympathize with amh. And the poster above is correct too. There's no difference between what the Holla Back girlz do and you're outing some inconsiderate cell phone users. Except the Holla Back girlz are documenting something far more invasive and demeaning.

Posted by: Mao See Tung at February 16, 2007 1:39 AM

"I don't remember that story line as Miranda being horny, rather she was tired of the daily catcalling from the construction site and called the guy's bluff. (IIRC he stammered and said, "hey lady, I'm a married man!")"

Deja, I think you might have been watching the TBS version of Sex & the City, which was so censored, you may as well call it '& the City' because there was no reference to sex in it. I clearly remember that Miranda was horny, because she was in the early part of her pregnancy and her hormones were going crazy. That was what was supposed to be funny about it-she wanted him to deliver on all his sexy talk right then and there and he backed off!

Anyways, the details don't matter, I think what's pretty obvious is that most women have a very negative reaction to this kind of attention, which is making them unhappy. Since this kind of behavior isn't likely to stop anytime soon, it would probably be healthy for women to find a way to view the experience in a diffent way, if for no other reason than their own psychological health. Being afraid and angry stressed out your system, and letting other people push your buttons means you're at the mercy of pretty much everyone, and have no control over your own life.

amh18057, I know how you feel. I don't think that women are ever asking for it. Maybe the guys who are hollering at you think that you're asking for it wearing a suit, and that you should really be wearing a burka. They're the ones with the problem, mainly that they have no self-control.

Posted by: Chris at February 16, 2007 6:35 AM

Mao, you don't find cell phone shouting in public invasive? I do. I'm not questioning their right to post people's photos and info -- it's news, after all -- I'm suggesting that women should not react to every situation as if they've just been victimized...which, sometimes, is all it takes to make you a victim.

If somebody shouts something ugly at me, or whips it out, no, I'm not going to smile and placidly traipse along. But, if a guy whistles, and you want to not have it be an insult, maybe just don't take it as one? This, of course, takes having self-esteem, and the lack of self-esteem in women is probably the single biggest problem I see in relationships today -- let alone in life.

So, Mao, do you actually enjoy when somebody's shouting their business into a phone next to you in a restaurant?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 16, 2007 6:42 AM

I agree completely with deja. There are comments, and then there are comments.

How about a preemptive strike? I used to bike past a construction site daily. The guys would whistle and make kissing sounds and the like, but didn't shout anything offensive. After a couple of days, I called out "Good morning, Gentlemen!" as I rode past and waved. "Good morning Gorgeous / Sweetheart / Honey / Little Lady / Sunshine!" they shouted back in chorus, some of them even bowing and taking off their caps.

But the obscene or threatening stuff, yeah, that's bad. For the exhibitionist crap, there's that old joke: "Oh, that looks like a penis -- only smaller." Although I don't think even I would use that one in a deserted train station.

Personally, I've never had problems of this kind. Maybe that's because I'm 5'10" (a good 6' in heels) and my Mama taught me to walk tall. But even if I didn't have the stature, I agree completely with Amy -- a lot of it has to do with the attitude you project plus common sense. No acting victim-y and whining about male attention.

Posted by: Marie at February 20, 2007 2:39 AM

Oh here we go "waaaaaaaaa but but , if I can't say "hey baby" to random women because as I guy I'm entitled to say whatever I want to them, HOW DO I MEET WOMEN????"

jackass, think about it for just a moment that "hey baby" you yelled was just added on to the other 5 times a woman has heard it that day , or that week but lets say day. if you don't know her, if she's a stanger, if you just "feel" like commenting on how fuckable she is to you (because that's all you're doing by the way) what are you honestly expecting? WHY on earth do you feel you are allowed to make comments at women you don't know if they are going about their day like you are? How would YOU feel if EVERYDAY you EXPECTED huge gay biker guys to say how sexy you are how they want to have sex with you, touch you and yell at you at least 3 times for JUST walking down the street ,taking the bus or going to the store.

You would feel like prey and that is what women become on the street because of this ridiculous entitlement you think you have. If you HONESTLY wanted to connect with women (I snort at this because this is not what this is about at all) then for fuck sake GO TO PLACES WHERE WOMEN ACTUALLY WANT TO SOCIALIZE WITH YOU , heard of a bar, a club, a party ? Do you honestly belive you are trying to find the love of your life on a piss-smelling subway or a busy street while she's going to work or in a line at a store while she's picking up cat-food at 5 in the afternoon? Of course you're not, so what it actually boils down to is that you belive you can say whatever the fuck you want to women and not give a toss if they are completely uninterested or uncomfortable talking to you.

And what's this now? Women OWE you by giving you a nice reply to your shallow remarks and pick ups when you know fuck all about her and decide to do this in areas where NO WOMEN wants to be bothered (excuse us for lining up and trying are damdest to ignore you)? *laughs ass off* we don't owe you fuck all mate, and that's where you have to wake up , women don't owe you ANYTHING , if you you go up to a woman waiting at a bus stop and say "hey wanna go out sometime" she's allowed as PERSON not a potential fuck to tell you to get lost, if a woman at a bar turns you down she's not a bitch she's a PERSON who is ALLOWED TO SAY NO to you , if she says no once leave her alone. This entitlement has got to go , seriously , the "lighten up"'s and "laugh it off"'s get on my nerves because to you a woman should giggle and smile at your remarks and observation of her body , "they should be lucky they are getting my approval that I would fuck them, I'm brightening their day"

take a look at holla back, hundreds of woman are telling you themselves THEY DON'T LIKE IT. stop telling women how they SHOULD feel and actually listen to what they are telling you. I'm sorry if this ruins your lovely entitlement but please prove you actual view women as people and are decent human beings.

Posted by: MM at February 22, 2007 5:49 PM

Leave a comment