July 18, 2015

The Difference Between a Catcall and a Compliment - Defined.

I love compliments. I hate catcalling. No paradox readers - they are not one in the same.

I recently got this really silly response to one of my tweets, and even though it was ridiculous, I’m glad it happened because it brought something to my attention that I hadn’t realized previously. 

Some people actually think catcalling is a compliment. 

The response was to one of my catcalling tweets a few months ago. I “bitch” about catcalling on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, wherever quite frequently. My goal is to promote awareness about what catcalling really is - street harassment - and how it makes women feel so that both men and women can speak out enough to stop it. 

My Twitter admirer (wink) said: “you write erotic romance novels and you can deal with someone’s compliments? Oh the ironing…”

So when I got done laughing at the “ironing”, I thought to myself - no, actually. There is no irony. 

While I discuss feminist and equality issues on this blog, among other things, I also have a sex blog that focuses on female sexuality, and I’m currently finishing up my romance novel (in Paris!!!). But those things are not in conflict. I write about sex that is consensual and respectful, with sex partners mutually benefitting. I do not write about, nor do I support, the objectification of women. Which is exactly what catcalling is, and why it’s very different from complimenting. 

What is a compliment, exactly? Compliments are not merely declarations of what you observe. The word compliment, believe it or not, has manners built in. 

compliment: (n) 1. a polite expression of praise or admiration
“she paid me an enormous compliment
(v) 2. politely congratulate or praise (someone) for something
“he complimented Erika on her appearance”

(Thanks, Google.)

Note the operative word showing up in both forms of the definition - polite. A compliment and a comment therefore, are not the same thing. A compliment and an observation are not the same. It isn’t just about saying something, it’s about saying it politely in a way that is actually flattering to the other person, while demonstrating good manners and taste within the context of the situation. 

Here’s an example that has nothing to do with sex, catcalling or gender that demonstrates how comments and observations aren’t compliments:

I’m a petite woman. I’m 26 (going on 27!), 5’2 and 102 lbs. Something that’s been happening to me all my life is people saying things like, “Oh my God, you’re so skinny! Do you even eat?”. Or doing things like standing next to me and comparing the circumference of our thighs. Or asking me whether I shop at normal stores or if I still buy children’s clothing or doll clothes or whatever. 

Or a recent example - when I got my Apple Watch someone grabbed my wrist and laughed that the Milanese Loop looped all the way around my wrist, then pointed at me and started saying to others “she’s so little!” with me still within earshot.

Charming, no?

When I start to look uncomfortable or upset they go, “No no no, but it’s a compliment!” Sometimes they throw in what I’m sure is meant to be a comforting, “Well at least you’re not fat.”

Making crude, potentially embarrassing observations about a person - whether it’s about the way they look, what they’re wearing, the way they speak, where they work, their social status, their economic status - is not a compliment. It can’t be, because compliments are supposed to make people feel good about themselves. Note some of the other words from the definition: praise, admiration, congratulations. Compliments are all about creating or reinforcing a good feeling in the other person. 

We even have a term for when someone highlights a good quality in a mean way. Ever heard of a backhanded compliment? Something like, “That dress makes you look thin,” or, “Your hair looks so much better like that.” These don’t count as compliments because the person ends up thinking, “Wait, so I usually look fat?” or, “You’re saying my hair looked bad before?” and ultimately feeling bad about themselves.

It also isn’t automatically a compliment if the quality you’ve highlighted in the other person is one that you want but don’t have. Joking that a thin person has an eating disorder isn’t a compliment because you struggle with your weight. Teasing a tall girl for struggling to meet men isn’t a compliment because you’re short. Rude is rude, and mean is mean. The fact that you’re being rude or mean about something that you actually envy doesn’t turn it into a compliment by some magic.

For example, if I say to a very well off friend in a snide tone, “Well whatever, you’re filthy fucking rich.” - is that a compliment? Of course not! How can it be a compliment when it’s mean! I’m using harsh language and an offensive tone which will naturally make a person feel bad about themselves, regardless of the fact that without the context, the thing I’m talking about could be praise worthy. I can’t turn around and then say, “It’s a compliment. At least you’re not poor.”

So now that we understand what compliments are and are not, let’s bring it back to catcalling. 

Catcalling is not a compliment because:

1. Catcalling ignores the feelings of the recipient. People who catcall don’t care about how the recipient feels about what they’re saying. They only care about saying what they want to say. Compliments, on the other hand, are all about the feelings of the recipient. 
2. Catcalling is not polite. More often than not catcalling is actually extremely impolite, inappropriate, abrasive and offensive. 

Here’s a recent example where a stranger commented on my appearance and it was a real compliment:

I was boarding a plane, leaving Atlanta. It had been extremely hot and my shoulders were getting burned so while I was there I bought a floppy, straw hat. But not just any floppy, straw hat. The perfect one. Glittery, with a thin, pink buckle going around the top. I was clearly in love with my hat.
When I sat down and took it off the gentleman in the row behind me said, “Excuse me?”
“Yes?” I said, turning around to face him. 
“That’s a fabulous hat.” He grinned. 
“Thank you!” I smiled back.

Boom. Compliment. 

So why was it a compliment? He was polite and appropriate in the way he got my attention. He didn’t say anything rude or disrespectful. He shared his admiration for my hat and made me feel good. It’s a perfect fit of the definition. 

Here’s another recent example where a stranger commented on my appearance and it was not a compliment:

I was meeting a friend at a burlesque club, and despite the fact that we go there all the time I’d managed to get lost. As I walked slowly down the street, typing the address into Maps on my phone, I heard a whistle. 
In case you all don’t know, I’m a New Yorker, so I tend to ignore sounds (like screaming, cursing, whistling, honking) unless they’re coupled with my name or indicate a clear and present danger. That said, I continued on my way. 
I heard the whistle again. 
Then, “Hey! Hey miss!” I looked up, and a man across the street was waving his arms at me. “Yo, you mad sexy. Can I buy you a drink?”
“No thanks,” I said sarcastically, and kept walking. 
He continued to yell (across the street!) in my direction. “Yo, what’s your problem? Why you being so stuck up?” 
And then I found the burlesque club and went inside. 

Now many who seem to have a problem with advocating to end street harassment would see no issue with this scenario. They would say that I should be flattered. After all, he did say I was sexy. Would I rather not be sexy? Other women may be dying to hear that, so maybe I should just be grateful for what I have. Right? 

Wrong. It’s not a compliment. Let’s dissect this example as we did the previous one. 

This was not a compliment because first, his manner of getting my attention was impolite. He whistled at me from across the street. I’m a woman. Not a cab. Not a puppy. Whistling to catch the attention of a stranger - especially for his purpose - is rude. No two ways about it. Next, the things he said to me were inappropriate and disrespectful. And not because of the slang or the grammar - I just included those because they were true. Even if he’d had perfect English, even if he’d said it in an English accent, shouting that I’m sexy from across the street is rude! Shouting any adjective would have been rude anyway, but “sexy” is particularly presumptuous. Finally, when I declined, he proceeded to insult me. It was basically a less harsh version of “Oh, you’re not swooning from my disrespect? Well then fuck you!” 

Oh, and that too has happened. 

Compliments and catcalls are two entirely different things, and they’re quite obviously different. Even if I hadn’t written a preamble to define a compliment, you’d be able to recognize it when you read it. If I handed you a worksheet and listed 10 compliments and 10 catcalls all mixed up, I’m confident you’d be able to label them correctly. It’s more than obvious. It’s common sense.

The only thing more disrespectful than the catcalls themselves is asking women to ignore them. The truth that women are subjected to disrespect of a sexual nature on a daily basis, multiple times a day, is an obvious one. And no, it isn’t okay. It isn’t something women should just shut their mouths and choke on. 

Women have a right to respect which catcalling completely ignores. When women’s feelings about catcalling are ignored - feelings of being disrespected, of being sexually harassed, of being violated - this sets the stage for similar feelings about bigger violations to be ignored. When someone passes you by and decides to cop a feel along the way. Don’t call the police and report an assault, it was a compliment? He just thought you were sexy? When someone grabs you by the wrist as you’re walking with headphones on because he wants to talk to you. No big deal, don’t be so uptight, how else was he supposed to get your attention? (Happens to me all the time.) When someone follows you for blocks until you call a friend to come meet you or detour into a public place and wait for them to leave. Stop being dramatic he probably didn’t mean any harm? Worse crimes of a sexual nature are ignored and made light of every day - I don’t think I have to spell it out - and it starts right here, when you allow and even protect the existence of a culture where sexual harassment (street harassment, catcalling, etc.) is tolerated.

Instead of making fun of women for being legitimately upset and even angered by clearly inappropriate behavior, you should be getting upset that it exists. You should be getting angry about the behavior itself. 

Want to stop hearing feminists complain about street harassment? Oh good. Because I want to stop being harassed on the street. 

I think there’s a way we can both get what we want. 

Change it. 



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