Men who catcall claim it’s a “normal way of flirting” — while at the same time demonstrating greater hostile sexism

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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.
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 behaviour 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.
“These results provide evidence to suggest that while catcalling behaviour is deliberately motivated by misogynistic ideologies in some men, the majority do not intend to cause harm or negative psychological outcomes,” Walton and Pedersen report.
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 claim no desire to demean or harm women, their attitudes and behaviours are in tension with their stated aims,” the authors observe.
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.
The study, “Motivations behind catcalling: exploring men’s engagement in street harassment behaviour”, was authored by Kari A. Walton and Cory L. Pedersen.