Is Catcalling Ever OK?

Sofia Vergara never wants men to stop wolf-whistling her. She’s not alone.

Sofia Vergara.
Sofia Vergara at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 30, 2016 in Los Angeles. She told Edit that she doesn’t understand why women get so offended by being objectified.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Turner

Catcallers have gotten mixed press in recent years. Through sting videos, photo essays, and apologist editorials, women have plumbed the complexities of their feelings toward those strange men who comment aloud on their physical attributes. Sofia Vergara is the latest to enter the conversation: In an interview published in Net-a-Porter‎’s the Edit, the Modern Family star came down on the side of the vocal romancers. “Watching myself age onscreen is awful,” she said. “It just makes me want to kill myself, but what can I do? I’ll be sad when the wolf whistles stop.”

Vergara is a routine contributor to public discussion on the politics of objectification. At the 2014 Emmys, she partook in a bit that found her rotating on a dais like a new car in mock confusion while Academy president Bruce Rosenblum murmured innuendo about her body. Vergara brushed off critics back then: “Somebody can be hot and also be funny and make fun of herself and enjoy her work and make money,” she said. In her Edit interview, she doubled down on her stance:

I’ve never understood why women get so offended [by being objectified]. I just don’t believe in all that drama, which is why I’ve made a whole joke out of it. I am secure enough not to take it all that seriously, and I like to laugh at myself. My husband played a male stripper in Magic Mike—do you think he was offended by [the objectification]?

There is absolutely nothing wrong or anti-feminist about wanting to be objectified, whether all the time or in specific situations with specific people. But women aren’t creating drama when they resist their own objectification, and there is no parallel between a man playing a stripper in a movie and a woman confronting sexual power imbalances in her everyday life.

In her comments about catcalling, Vergara has hit on a provocative double bind of the female experience. A woman in the world exists in one of two planes, she implies: sexual and harassment-worthy; or old, useless, and discardable. Women aren’t necessarily the ones placing themselves into these categories—men are, and catcalling is their preferred method. One retirement-age woman I know has told me that she remembers very vividly the year she stopped attracting comments on the street, and how it made her grapple with her body’s visible signs of aging that she’d never noticed before. She felt relieved, and also disappointed, and also amazed that it seemed like men could tell, even from far away, that she was too old to be a sex object.

At the other end of the temporal objectification spectrum are preteen girls. I can mark the exact moment of my entrance into womanhood with the first time a pair of middle-aged men hollered at me from a passing pickup truck. It was the summer before eighth grade, and I still thought of myself as a girl. I looked at TV love scenes and seductively posed women in magazines with detached curiosity—that was what I might be one day (and oh, how I wished for that day) but that was not me. One catcall, and it was me. Some near-imperceptible change had taken place in my bearing, or my body, or the way I did my hair, and I was suddenly harassable. I felt desirable and mighty, like I could bend powerful men to my will with a flick of my eyelashes. It only took a few years of street harassment for that welcome rush of flattery and power to turn threatening, eroding my confidence in public spaces instead of boosting it.

While threatening and overtly sexual remarks are never OK in the public sphere, all catcalls get filtered through cultural differences and personal histories. Vergara is from Colombia; in many Latin American countries, catcalling is more prevalent and accepted than it is in U.S. cities. If a woman derives self-confidence from external approval, she might be more inclined to accept random, shouted praise of her looks as a compliment. And such comments may land differently on the ears of women who mostly experience street harassment in the form of insults (“fatcalling”) rather than come-ons. “I am far more likely to have people yell ‘fatty’ at me on the street,” one woman told me. “So yeah, if a guy is nice and smiley at me, I don’t get that sense of fear, and it is a little bit flattering.”

Catcalling and fatcalling aren’t so different after all: They’re both products of a culture that treats women’s bodies as public property, and they both have more to do with the harasser’s insecurity and desire to exert dominance over women than they do about the harassee’s looks. I’ve compulsively tucked my butt in and crossed my arms over my chest while waiting for the bus in a summer dress, only to be catcalled while biking to work in an androgynous helmet, puff jacket, and balaclava.

Some of my cisgender male friends have asked me if it’s ever OK to approach a woman in public and compliment her looks. This comic offers a helpful delineation between specific, nonsexual compliments (“I love your hair”) and street harassment (“Hey sexy, nice tits!”), but even the former can turn into more aggressive sexual posturing if the harassee engages it. I take a hardline stance on this: If a man wouldn’t say the same thing to another random man, and he’s demanding my attention and polite response while I’m minding my own business, I consider it harassment. I’ve never seen men yell greetings at other men as they’re biking past or walking briskly with their heads down—to me, that’s one way men wield disproportionate power over women in public spaces.

But I’m from New England where there’s not a lot of friendly chitchat on the sidewalks and checkout lines. Washington, D.C., where I live now, takes much of its cultural influence from the South, which is more accepting of call-outs from strangers. There’s also the complication of sexuality. I haven’t been with a cisgender man in years, and I’ve never gotten catcalled by a woman; I sometimes wonder If I’d feel differently about uninvited compliments from men if I were trying to date one. And appearance-based flattery takes on a completely different form, with a more balanced power dynamic, when it’s woman-to-woman. It’s a mostly sweet, sometimes sad kind of female bonding that both reinforces the importance of women’s looks and creates a space for solidarity and mutual support.

Vergara’s comments in the Edit, while reductive, say a lot about a woman’s relationship to catcalling as she ages. In a 2014 episode of the Culture Gabfest podcast, Slate critic Dana Stevens recounted feeling a kind of lighthearted ambivalence about being catcalled soon after the birth of a child:

Picture the almost 40-year-old me, having just had a baby three or four months before, walking down the street in my neighborhood in glasses, jeans, and a T-shirt, just feeling like a frumpy mom, and getting some sort of mild, polite … passing comment from two dudes walking by. Can you possibly see, how in my isolated moment of being sure that I was an over-the-hill frump, that that might a little bit of an I’ve-still-got-it feeling?

“I do worry that for all my annoyance and sometimes disgust when it comes to catcalling, that once they stop, I will feel as though I’m no longer of value to the world,” Slate writer Aisha Harris says. Through pop culture depictions and beauty norms, women are socialized to believe that one of their greatest contributions to society is sexual desirability, and that when their youthful beauty fades or never materializes at all, they’re worthless, or at least worth less. Women of any age deserve to feel beautiful, desirable, and of great import to the world. Whether she enjoys catcalls or not, she shouldn’t have to use them to measure her value.