The XX Factor

You Say Flirting, I Say Harassment

DoubleX is starting a new partnership with The Washington Post Magazine . Each week our contributors will argue over a certain question, and we invite you to join in. This week: At what point do catcalls, wolf whistles. and flirtatious street comments go from compliments to harassment?

Nina Rastogi : Catcalls usually skeeve me out more than anything else, but when they do cross the line to scary harassment, it’s usually because a) it’s dark on an empty street, or b) it’s a group of guys collectively appraising my “bits and pieces.” Generally speaking, I prefer the compliment-as-statement (“Damn girl, you look like J. Lo!”) to compliment-as-interrogation ("What’s your number? Where are you going?”). The former lets me smile and keep walking, but the latter makes me feel like I’m being pulled into a conversation I don’t want to have.

Margaret Johnson : I’ve tried to take catcalls as compliments. At the very least, I try not to let them annoy me. This behavior can’t actually get these guys very far, I tell myself, but, hey, if this is their mating ritual of choice, let them keep hooting and bellowing. Still, I can’t quite get over it. I want to walk down the street without being shouted at. I wouldn’t be treated this way if I were a man. I know, there are a lot of things I’m offered that I might not be if I were a man. But I would happily give up the occasional drink on the house or seat on the subway if it meant that random strangers would stop calling me out for their own gratification.

J essica Lambertson : The worst are the attempted pick-ups while I wait for the bus. There’s no walking away, and the perpetrators are far more tenacious than the standard construction worker with a whistling problem. A drunk, middle-aged man began to overtly flirt with me while I waited on the late-night X2 bus in Chinatown in Washington, D.C. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and actually followed me home.

Jessica Dweck : To my knowledge, I’ve never been hit on, hollered at, or propositioned by a stranger. I’ve always found women’s complaints about unwanted male attention akin to thin women who lament that they can never find size 00 pants in stores. I can recall only one incident that comes close: In college, a homeless man approached me and told me I looked beautiful. Whatever boost of self-confidence it gave me was completely negated three seconds later when he used the same adjective to describe a nearby food cart.

Liza Mundy : A friend and I once marveled that the sidewalk catcalls stop, almost magically, when one turns 35. Maybe there is an evolutionary biology thing going on? Maybe they are wolf-whistling at perceived fertility? At any rate, I sure don’t miss it.But I do sometimes ask myself: Has a wolf whistle or catcall ever worked? Has any woman in the world ever responded favorably?

Julia Felsenthal : I find it hard to imagine that the goal of a catcall is actually to win a woman over. I believe there was a Sex and the City episode to that effect-some construction worker repeatedly harasses a sexually frustrated Miranda as she returns her Blockbuster movie each week, until one day she gets so desperate she tells him she’ll do it with him. He uncomfortably mumbles something about being married. I think it’s more about a macho display of aggression or dominance than it is a genuine statement of appreciation or interest.

Lauren Bans : I don’t think it’s always an act of aggression. There are definitely cultural distinctions. In some places, hollering a compliment at a gal walking by can actually end in conversation, maybe courtship.

Hanna Rosin : I spent my teenage and young adult years on the New York City subway. Wolf whistles were a fact of life, and I could never convince myself that they were flattering. (In general, I can’t take a compliment). In my senior year of high school I developed a strategy. Whenever I passed a crew of construction workers, or a posse of boys on the E train, I headed them off by picking one, smiling in a very no-nonsense, dorky way and saying “Hello.” It always worked.