Here it is: sometimes there just aren't any good answers. Catcalling is one of the most difficult subjects to address as a self-defense teacher. It is invasive, threatening, scary, and it is everywhere, all the time if you walk through the world as a woman or a gender nonconforming person. It can range from sounding fairly harmless--"Hey baby" "You'd look prettier if you smiled!"--all the way through overt insults and threats of what the catcaller (henceforth known in this blog post as The Asshole) would like to do to the target.
Physical self-defense generally isn't warranted (or legal) unless The Asshole makes a move to DO something to you. Verbal self-defense strategies often aren't effective because The Asshole is often looking merely for reaction--any engagement will do, including "not interested" "in your dreams" or best of all "fuck off, asshole!". Any reaction is a sign they bothered you. And any response creates an opening for them to engage further. "I was just giving you a compliment!" "Lighten up!" "Why are you such a bitch?"
And, responses like "fuck off" are problematic not just because they can escalate the situation (or more accurately, give The Asshole the opportunity he's been looking for to escalate). Hostile language can be a real problem if the situation escalates and the police become involved. Witnesses may perceive you as having started the fight.
But ignoring them is awful in other ways. It can feel like powerlessness. It can feel like letting the person get away with their terrible behavior. And ignoring them provides another kind of opening for further engagement. "Hey, I'm talking to you!" "What, you too good to talk to me?"
(This woman recorded over 100 instances of verbal harassment-not including winks, leers, and whistles--in 10 hours of walking silently through New York, not engaging in any way.)
So what should you do? What is the self-defense answer to catcalling? This is one of those situations where I have to be candid and say that I don't know of any truly good, reliable ways of handling catcallers.
I do think this is a situation in which bystander intervention is particularly effective. The power dynamic that The Asshole is relying on is: I am singling you out for attention and there's nothing you can do about it. If another person steps up, particularly another man, and calls them out on their bad behavior, the power dynamic is completely altered.
And it is important to acknowledge that catcalling is inherently violent and intended to make you feel powerless. If someone harasses you this way, get some support. Call a friend and vent. Spend some time with your pets. Do something nice for yourself and something that validates the fact that you were the target of violence.
How do you deal with catcallers? What has your experience been? If you've got a strategy that works for you, please share it!