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The Real Reason Why Women Get Catcalled

Find out what society needs to do to stop it.
PHOTO: Emmet Malmstrom

Facebook posts and tweets on catcalling in recent months have brought this behavior to public consciousness. Although catcalling is still a long way from becoming socially unacceptable, people are slowly realizing that the acts of hooting, wolf-whistling, and leering at passing women shouldn’t be considered compliments.

The public is also becoming aware that men utter these supposedly harmless “compliments” for dark reasons. These include wanting to exercise their power over women, thinking they might have a chance to get laid, or even just to show off to their friends how macho they are or to prove that they are straight. Now while they are true for the catcallers, these statements do not paint a complete and accurate picture for why catcalling happens.

In fact, it is a symptom of a much darker undercurrent: destructive gender expectations. It’s barely talked about, but it affects at least half of the world’s population.

The gender expectations for women are a well-known and much-discussed topic. Society tells women that their worth depends on their appearance, that they need to look a certain way in order to attract a man, find love, marry eventually, and be supported by him. Through media and advertisements that portray women mostly as sex objects, it’s then easy for women to be objectified by men. The men are being guided in doing so. In some cultures like ours, virginity is also a factor in determining a woman’s worth—that virgins are “worth more” or “still have worth,” and the nonvirgins are sluts—women to fuck, not love. This just furthers how women are not valued beyond their bodies or sexual desirability. (Authors’ note: We can go on and on, as the discourse on this topic is vast, and the various ideas on how women are discriminated cannot be summarized in one paragraph.)

For men, their gender expectations are not as known or nearly well-discussed.

We may now have an entire generation of girls who are growing up being told they can be whatever they want to be, but we still continue to tell our boys that they have to be physically strong, to be stoic, to be independent and successful, and ultimately to be the provider. “Boys don’t cry,” “Man up!” and “She has you whipped” are just some of the many phrases that echo throughout the entire lifetime of men, said by fathers, uncles, brothers, friends, strangers. Did you know objectifying women is a way for them to fulfill these expectations too? These words and ideas are therefore ingrained in each of their minds. Subconsciously or not, men’s perceived value and self-worth are contingent on fulfilling these expectations, never mind if it’s at the expense of the people around them—that’s part of it since their focus is looking tough and cool. Failure to do so has dire consequences, and it affects more people than we realize.

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Masculinity is just as much a social construct as feminine ideals of beauty.

Oftentimes, men’s behavior is simply blamed on biological forces (“It’s the testosterone!”), without considering the immense pressure men feel from society. For example, while they have the natural urge to find a mate (humans are sexual beings after all), men are also expected to bed one, if not many women. After all, “manly” men are supposed to view sex as a conquest. Masculinity is measured by how many women they’ve dated or slept with. How will shy, painfully awkward and tongue-tied men fair in those standards? The torment these boys feel, and to a lesser degree most men, is real and can have very grave consequences affecting their personal lives. 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, the man behind a campus shooting in California that left six people dead in 2014, is an extreme example of what happens when you have a psychologically unstable individual tormented by societal expectations. A day before the shooting, Elliot recorded this terrifying video, explaining why he opted to murder. It's not difficult to imagine that other guys go through the same kind of torment (but aren't necessarily sociopaths or murderers).

Yet there isn’t much defiance against male gender expectations because boys, if they want to be men, just have to suck things up and not complain. Talking about their problems (like how hard it is to get a girl or to conform to such expectations) is interpreted as a sign of weakness. It’s no wonder that this discussion is not on the table: (1) because if found weak, these men will be considered worthless and (2) because even the few who are capable of recognizing that other men are oppressed will probably be bullied by the same people they are trying to help.

According to Medicaldaily.com, men bottle up their frustrations since they don’t have an outlet for “healthy emotional expression.” This has led to depression because of intense feelings of shame, humiliation, and a sense of failure. If people suffering from a mental illness are already stigmatized, what more a guy who’s expected to have everything under control? “If you never cry, you have all these feelings stuffed inside of you and then you can’t get them out,” a boy says in The Mask You Live In, a documentary on hypermasculinity in America.

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For many men, the only outlet that fits the stereotype is violence or aggressive behavior.

It’s not surprising then that men dominate suicide statistics by 3 to 7.5 times in almost all countries including the Philippines. Male suicide even garnered the description “silent epidemic,” being committed by many vulnerable, emotionally unstable teens and young adults.


While suicide rates are low in the Philippines compared to other countries, it’s important to note that men channel violence and aggression in different ways and towards different people. There’s bullying, brawling at bars, street harassment, to name a few. In Mexico, where traditionally a man must be macho (brawny, doesn’t express pain, and sexually aggressive), catcalling happens there more frequently than in other countries. It’s actually one of the five worst cities for verbal harassment and physical harassment. We can assume that many men there don’t believe in sexual equality, and a study has already confirmed that.

The same can be said for the Philippines: We have a number of men who view women as sex objects—and you know that.

What you might not know: The United Nations and Social Weather Stations found that three out of five Pinays in a part of Quezon City alone have been catcalled at least once in their lives, and that 34 percent out of the 800 respondents experienced harassment worse than being catcalled. Those women were groped, flashed, or witnessed a man masturbating to them.

So when we try to reason the ulterior motives of catcallers, from reinforcing their dominance or proving their sexual prowess, we need to be aware that these men are oppressed by the very same society that considers their sex superior.

When they were just boys, the catcallers we have today were taught that women are just sex objects to exercise their masculinity on. That said, catcalling isn’t just about women being degraded or violated (in the mask of a compliment). It’s also about men being insecure about their masculinity and being so caught up in appearing manly in society’s eyes. Catcalling is a way for men to satisfy the gender expectations of them, to brandish their masculinity and reinforce their perceived value to society.

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And while this should never be an excuse for their behavior because it harasses women, we will never be able to stop it unless we recognize how men are just as oppressed as women. The solution? Let's help boys deal with their emotions and notions of masculinity starting at a young age. Catcalling does not make someone a man. In fact, nothing should.

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