Recent findings published in the journal Psychology & Sexuality suggest that men who catcall are unaware of how this type of harassment is perceived by women. A survey revealed that most men who catcall do so to flirt with women, and many of them hope for a smile from the woman or flirting in return. Still, men who catcalled scored higher in hostile sexism, self-ascribed masculinity, social dominance orientation, and tolerance of sexual harassment.
Catcalling is a form of street harassment that usually involves a man directing unwanted sexual comments, gestures, or whistling toward a female stranger. Catcalls typically draw attention to a woman’s physical appearance, reinforcing the notion that women are sexual objects. Studies have shed light on the extent that these encounters negatively impact victims, with physical responses including difficulty breathing, numbness, and nausea, and emotional responses including embarrassment, helplessness, fear, and bodily shame.
Study authors Kari A. Walton and Cory L. Pedersen contend that cutting down catcalling requires understanding the type of men that engage in the behavior, a topic that has received little research attention. The researchers carried out a study to explore motivations for catcalling and to identify characteristics that distinguish men who catcall from those who do not.
“Not only is street harassment an incredibly pervasive social problem, it is also very personal to me. As a young woman who has frequently been targeted by catcalls and immersed in a culture of sexual objectification, I am familiar with many of the physical, emotional, and social consequences experienced by victims,” said Walton, a research assistant at the O.R.G.A.S.M. Research Lab.
“This led me to become very passionate about reducing street harassment and objectification; I wanted to conduct this study in an effort to inform interventions aimed at doing such. If we want to discourage men from engaging in street harassment, we must first understand why they do it and what they are hoping to gain from it.”
Walton and Pedersen distributed an online survey among 258 heterosexual men between the ages of 16 and 75. The men were shown six items describing different types of catcalling behavior (e.g., leering at an attractive female stranger, calling out to a female stranger while drawing attention to her physical appearance). The men were asked to indicate if they had engaged in any of these behaviors during the past year.
Respondents who indicated that they had engaged in one or more of these catcalling behaviors were then asked a series of follow-up questions addressing how often they catcalled, their reasons for catcalling, and the reactions they hoped their catcalling would elicit from women.
The findings revealed that roughly 33% of the men engaged in catcalling. When examining the reasons these men engaged in catcalling, it seemed the majority of them did not intend to cause harm to women. The most commonly endorsed reasons for catcalling were “to show that I like the woman” (85%), “to show my sexual interest in the woman” (83%), and “because this is a normal way of flirting” (73%).
The least commonly endorsed motives were those rooted in misogyny. For example, 7% endorsed the motive “I don’t like feminism and this behavior is a way to punish women for trying to take power away from men,” and 6% endorsed “to make the woman feel self-conscious.”
The most common reactions that men hoped to elicit were friendly or flirtatious, with 85% saying they hope the woman would smile, 81% hoping the woman would flirt, 78% hoping she would engage in conversation, and 73% hoping she would feel flattered. By contrast, fewer men were looking for negative reactions, for example, with 12% hoping the woman would be shocked, 9% hoping she would be intimidated, 5% hoping she would feel anger, and 5% hoping she would feel fear.
“Men were primarily motivated to catcall by a desire to express sexual interest in, flatter, and flirt with their victim. Half said that they catcall to improve their mood, because it turns them on, and/or because the victim was dressed provocatively. Few participants reported being motivated by blatant misogyny (i.e., dislike/contempt for women),” Walton told PsyPost.
Still, the researchers note that men who catcalled demonstrated greater hostile sexism, higher self-ascribed traditionally conservative masculinity, and greater tolerance of sexual harassment compared to the men who did not. They also scored higher in social dominance orientation, an ideology that supports an anti-egalitarian hierarchy where certain social groups dominate over others.
“While most catcallers claimed no desire to demean or harm women with their actions (rather, they expressed a desire for the victim to feel flattered and attracted in response, and least frequently endorsed a desire to provoke negative emotions such as anger or fear), their attitudes and behaviors conflict with their stated intentions, as women tend to experience negative emotions in response to being catcalled,” Walton said. “In other words, many catcallers appear to interpret and intend their behavior as innocent flirting without realizing their victim is likely to feel uncomfortable by their actions and to be impacted negatively by them in a variety of ways.”
The researchers note that some respondents may have misunderstood catcalling to include sincere attempts at flattery and consequently been mislabeled as catcallers. This means the study’s findings may have overestimated the number of men who mean well when catcalling and underestimated the distinction between catcallers and noncatcallers.
“There is an important caveat to note about my study: the majority of participants were White, university educated, and reported engaging primarily in more ambiguous/covert forms of street harassment (e.g., leering/ogling, commenting on appearance such as clothing or hair),” Walton added. “Additionally, half said that they engaged in the behavior ‘not very often.’ Thus, the results of my study may not represent catcaller’s as a whole, but rather, a specific type of catcaller.
“Undoubtedly, there are many men who catcall more frequently and in much more obvious and intrusive ways (such as by making sexually explicit comments, name-calling, etc.) who were not captured in the present study and who’s motivations may be very different from the men who participated. Future research on this topic should seek to investigate these differences among catcallers.”
The study, “Motivations behind catcalling: exploring men’s engagement in street harassment behaviour”, was authored by Kari A. Walton and Cory L. Pedersen.