Awkward: How to respond to catcalls—in person and online

By Summer Hoagland-Abernathy, Copy Chief

Sedona Steffens

You are really feeling yourself today. You like your hair, your eyes, your stomach, your toes, your thighs—you’re into it all, which you can’t always say. It’s refreshing to love the way you look, so you post a mirror selfie on Instagram.

A few friends comment and tell you how cute you look today, and what’s this? Someone sent you a direct message?

“You got great legs, baby. Wish you’d open them for m—”

Before you can read the rest, you back out of the chat and go to this guy’s account to block and report him. This feels gross. You knew that guy from high school “Honors Chemistry.” You can’t help but think you could have handled that another way, but what else could you have done?

The Chronicle spoke with sex experts, communication professionals and mental health specialists to figure out how to respond to catcalls—in-person and online.

The instinct to retreat, block and report may not always be the most satisfying conclusion to a catcall, but it is a practical one.

“It’s a strategy to get attention, a strategy to get validation, a strategy to actually—as ironic as it is—connect,” said Catalina Lawsin, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist specializing in sex and relationships at her private practice. “We don’t want to do anything that is going to positively reinforce that, and so disengagement is one strategy.”

Regarding catcalls that happen in-person, Lizzette Arcos, a psychotherapist at Youth & Family Counseling in Libertyville, Illinois, said catcalls are an assertion of power, so to remove that power the aggressor is trying to take, you can ignore them in real-time too. This is a great option if you tend to freeze up during situations like this.

But if you like to scratch back, and only if you feel safe and are around other people, have a go-to clapback prepared, and call out the catcall for what it is: harassment.

Because catcalls are typically aimed from a man to a female-presenting person, any male-presenting friends nearby have the opportunity to be an ally and speak up for their friend being harassed, said Sylvia Mikucki-Enyart, relationship researcher and assistant professor at the University of Iowa.

However, be cautious if you’re going to speak up because you don’t want to be baited into engaging in a confrontation.

“We see this a lot with bullying,” said Jennifer Litner, sexologist and director of Embrace Sexual Wellness. “As long as it creates the rise and the reaction of feeling upset and wanting to be defensive, … then those people tend to continue.”

However, Lawsin said if this is happening to you on your online platform, you have an opportunity to model better behavior. She said when this happens to her, she acknowledges it and uses it as a teaching moment.

“[You can say,] ‘I won’t be talked to like that, … and if you want to share and support my posts, this is an alternative way you can compliment me,’” she said. “It may be a pain in the a, particularly if you get it all the time, but then that’s also where you just copy [and] paste.”

If you choose to do this, you are creating an environment in which shutting down catcallers is customary, even though their behavior is not your responsibility.

While social media can be a scary place with catcallers and trolls crawling around, it can also be a place to cultivate a supportive community. Arcos suggested letting the cat out of the bag and sharing your story if you feel comfortable doing so.

In doing this, your online space can become a positive outlet for others to see another person dealing with the same thing.

When you share your experience and how you handled it, Arcos said, it gives the opportunity for others to do the same, therefore fostering a supportive community.

Hearing other stories of catcalls and sexual harassment can help you and others see that these problems are not about you, but they are happening to you.

“Catcalls have nothing to do with you,” Lawsin said. “It absolutely has something to do with the person making them.”