A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 17, 2014

For those not familiar with the term, to catcall is to whistle, shout or make a comment of a sexual nature to a person passing by. In general, the term is used when the person being harassed is a women, but men can also be subject to such harassment.

Thanks to a video documenting a woman’s 10 hours of being catcalled as she walked New York City, catcalling has garnered considerable attention. While it is well known that men catcall, it is less obvious why men engage in this behavior.

Some men seem to hold to the view that they have a right to catcall. As one man put it, “if you have a beautiful body, why can’t I say something?” This view seems to have two main parts. The first (“you have a beautiful body”) seems to indicate that the woman is responsible for the response of men because she has a beautiful body. It is, I think, reasonable to accept the idea that beauty, be it in a person or painting, can evoke a response from a viewer. The problem is, however, that a catcall is not a proper response to beauty and certainly not a proper response to a person. Also, while a woman’s appearance might cause a reaction, the verbal response chosen by the man (or boy) is his responsibility. To use an analogy, seeing a cake at a wedding might make me respond with hunger, but if I chose to paw at the cake and drool on it, then the response (which is very inappropriate) is my choice. To forestall any criticism, I am not saying that women are objects—I just needed an analogy and I am hungry as I write this. Hence the cake analogy.

The second part (“why can’t I say something?”) seems to indicate that the man has a presumptive right to catcall. Put another way, this seems to assume that the burden of proving that men should not catcall rests on women and that it should be assumed that a man has such a right. While the moral right to free speech does entail than men have a right to express their views, there is also the matter of whether it is right to engage in such catcalling. I would say not, on the grounds that the harm done to women by men catcalling them outweighs the harm that would be done to men if they did not engage in such behavior. While I am vary of any laws that infringe on free expression, I do hold that men should not (in the moral sense) behave this way.

This question also seems to show a sense of entitlement—that the man seeing the woman as beautiful entitles him to harass her. This seems similar to believing that seeing someone as unattractive warrants saying derogatory things about the person. Again, while people do have a freedom of expression, there are things that are unethical to express.

Some men also claim that the way a woman dresses warrants their behavior. As one young man said, “If a girl comes out in tight leggings, and you can see something back there… I’m saying something.” This is, obviously enough, just an expression of the horrible view that a woman invites or deserves the actions of men by her choice of clothing. This “justification” is best known as a “defense” for rape—the idea that the woman was “asking for it” because she was dressed in provocative clothing. However, a woman’s mode of dress does not warrant her being catcalled or attacked. After all, if a man was wearing an expensive Rolex watch and he was robbed, it would not be said that he was provocative or was “asking for it” by displaying such an expensive timepiece. Naturally, it might be a bad idea to dress a certain way or wear an expensive watch when going certain places, but this does not justify the catcalling or robbery.

There has been some speculation that catcalling, like everything else, is the result of natural selection. Looked at one way, if the theory of evolution is correct and one also accepts the notion that human behavior is determined (rather than free), then this would be true. This is because all human behavior would be the result of such selection and determining factors. In this case, one cannot really say that the behavior would be wrong, at least if something being immoral requires that the person engaging in the behavior could do otherwise. If a person cannot do otherwise, placing blame or praise on the person would be pointless—like praising or blaming water for boiling at a certain temperature and pressure. Looked at another way, it might be useful to consider the evolutionary forces that might lead to the behavior.

One possible “just so” story is that males would call out to passing females as a form of mating display (like how birds display for each other). Some of the females would respond positively and thus the catcalling genes would be passed on to future generations of men who would in turn catcall women to attract a mate.

One reason to accept this view is that some forms of what could be regarded as catcalling do seem to work. Having been on college campuses for decades, I have seen a vast amount of catcalling in various forms (including the “hollaback” thing). Some women respond by ignoring it, some respond with hostility, and some respond positively. While the positive response rate seems low, it is a low effort “fishing trip” and hence the cost to the male is rather small. After all, he just has to sit there and say things as “bait” in the hopes he will get a bite. Like fishing, a person might cast hundreds of times to catch a single fish.

One reason to reject this view is that many of the guys who use it will obviously never get a positive response. However, they might think they will—they are casting away like mad, not realizing that their “bait” will never work. After all, they might have seen it work for other guys and think they have a chance.

Moving away from evolution, one stock explanation for catcalling is that men do it as an expression of power—they are doing it to show (to themselves, other men and women) that they have power over women. A man might be an unfit, ugly, overweight, graceless, unemployed slob but he can make a fit, beautiful and successful woman feel afraid and awful by screeching about her buttocks or breasts. Of course, catcalling is not limited to such men, though the power motive would still seem to hold. This is clearly morally reprehensible because of the harm it does to women. Even if the woman is not afraid of the man, having to hear such things can diminish her enjoyment. While I am a man, I do understand what it is like to have stupid and hateful remarks yelled at me. When I was young and running was not as accepted as it is now, it was rare for me to go for a run without someone saying something stupid or hateful. Or throwing things. Being a reasonably large male, I did not feel afraid (most of those yelling did so from the safety of passing automobiles). However, such remarks did bother me—much in the way that being bitten by mosquitoes bothers me. That is, it just made the run less pleasant. As such, I have some idea of what it is like for women to be catcalled, but it is presumably much worse for them.

I have even been catcalled by women—but I am sure that it is not the same sort of experience that women face when catcalled by men. After all, the women who have catcalled me are probably just kidding (perhaps even being ironic) and, even if they are not, they almost certainly harbor no hostile intentions and present no real threat. To have a young college woman yell “nice ass” from her car as I run through the FSU campus is a weird sort of compliment rather than a threat. Though it is still weird.  In contrast, when men engage in such behavior it seems overtly predatory and threatening. So, stop catcalling, guys.


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17 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on November 17, 2014 at 11:01 am

    The catcalls are from low-status men striking back at privilege.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 17, 2014 at 12:45 pm

      I do recall some leftist analyses of catcalling that made just that claim. The men are expressing not their sexism, but their class identity and criticizing economic injustice.

      • ronster12012 said, on November 18, 2014 at 11:22 am

        Is that because (as far as I understand) all of the catcallers were black or hispanic? If that is indeed so then is it racist to seek to excuse some on the basis of skin colour?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2014 at 12:10 pm

          Some folks have expressed concerns with the color of the catcallers. I did see an article explaining that white men also catcall, but also harass in other ways.

  2. TJB said, on November 17, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    “This is, obviously enough, just an expression of the horrible view that a woman invites or deserves the actions of men by her choice of clothing.”

    Mike, are you going to discuss the Philae scientist who was hounded into a tearful apology based on his choice of clothing?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 17, 2014 at 2:09 pm

      I can. While the shirt is clearly tacky, there seems to be no reason to think he had any malign intent in wearing it. Hounding him about it was disgraceful. As others have pointed out, he gets attacked for wearing a sci-fi shirt as he guides a mission to land a probe on a comet, while Kim Kardashian is lauded for displaying her rump to the world. Who is setting back human civilization?

      • ronster12012 said, on November 18, 2014 at 11:04 am


        Nice comparison with the Kartrashian….no shortage of sexism out there.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 18, 2014 at 12:34 pm

        I only wish that Taylor had had the cojones to say: “What, are you saying that I was asking for it because of the way I dressed?”

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2014 at 12:14 pm


          His shirt was probably not a good pick for an event that would be televised around the world, but it seems to be a nerdshirt rather than a misogynistic shirt. He probably should have just said “sorry, I didn’t have any idea people would overreact to my lucky shirt. I apologize to those who took offense and encourage women to go into science.”

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 17, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    I’m all for the evolution explanation. It seem people are happy to believe in evolution until they perceive something to be immoral. But evolution is amoral. The universe is indifferent. And morals are an illusion.

  4. TJB said, on November 17, 2014 at 11:46 pm


  5. ronster12012 said, on November 18, 2014 at 11:38 am

    Is this video real and not a hoax? There was another one recently where a ‘drunk’ woman was accosted by men.
    Total hoax…all scripted.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2014 at 12:12 pm

      An excellent question. There seems to be no evidence it is a hoax, but when it comes the internet it is wise to consider that possibility. However, I have seen catcalling for real in various cities over the years, so the video seems plausible.

  6. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 21, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    Man Stabbed 9 Times For Asking Man To Stop Catcalling His Girlfriend http://elitedaily.com/news/world/man-stabbed-asking-catcaller-stop/858711/ via @EliteDaily

  7. ajmacdonaldjr said, on March 3, 2015 at 10:21 pm

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