Part of it, I think is that different types of people “catcall” in different ways. This probably is part of the reason you don’t see it often and you have that “complaining about catcalling/compliments is just bragging” response. While you might never see a woman get the wolf whistles and yelling that you might associate with “catcalling” in, say, a middle class white suburb, you will get more “why don’t you just smile more, you’d be so pretty if you smiled” all the time. If you have a mental image of lewd yelling as “catcalling” and street harassment you probably don’t notice the other types of “catcalling” out there. Especially if you are male and aren’t subjected to it constantly. And it is constant for most women because most of the time these interactions are coming from the guy trying to be polite or nice. When we are kids the go to “compliment” we get/give someone that we don’t really know well or care for is “s/he is really nice”. For women, at least, the go to compliment is “she’s pretty” because for many people woman=pretty in their minds. They may or may not actually mean it. They probably won’t go to lengths to extol a girl’s beauty if they think she’s unattractive, but if they want to be nice or polite they may call her pretty or cute and leave it at that. I don’t know what the adult male equivalent of the empty compliment is. Maybe it continues to be “nice?” I’m not a man. I just don’t know. But women get told by random people that they are pretty or look nice all the freaking time.
Honestly it’s the constant part that causes the problems, both in how women feel about getting cat called (in any form) and in why it is so hard for guys to understand the problem. Guys get complimented occasionally. For them, it is a rare treat. They feel great. They want people to say to them that they look nice. It doesn’t happen very often in our culture. And it probably won’t because girls get it all the time. All the time. From everyone. Really. Even wearing while wearing baggy sweats and an old t-shirt while running to the grocery store for milk at 10pm. It’s “smile lady, you have a pretty smile” from the old man in the dairy aisle. “Would the pretty lady like her receipt in the bag?” From the guy at the register. “No, wait, stop, I’ll get the door for you miss!” from the young guy behind you and carrying way more bags of groceries than you are which is silly as you only have your milk and are already at the door and everything would be so much easier if you opened the door and held it for him but when you try that he won’t go through the door you are holding. And who could forget the “DAAAYUM DAT ASS!” Comment from the drunk guy in the parking lot. But it’s more than that. It’s being an integral part of a group and when it is time to introduce everyone on the team its “Brian, brilliant computer coder and software engineer; Mike, savvy businessman with an MBA from X university; John, former marine and current electrical engineer; and of course the beautiful Sarah.” Just beautiful, no mention of college or talents or what you actually contributed to the group (like, say, designing a functioning product and building the prototype based off of the formerly incomprehensible ramblings of the business guy). This happens a lot. Pay attention to panels of anything where one woman is introduced along with a group of men. The word beautiful or lovely is generally thrown into the woman’s introduction no matter what is about to be discussed and usually it doesn’t really fit with the description of her role (unless she is a model or pageant winner or something and is known for her beauty) while there is usually no such disclaimer on the men’s appearance. It’s just accepted and expected that if you introduce a woman to an audience you will usually use the words Beautiful or Lovely right before her name. So girls often come to not appreciate the appearance based “compliments” they get, especially when they are vague and come from strangers. It lacks meaning for them. If you want to compliment a woman point to something specific that she DID (this can include lifting a table over her head, skateboarding past with style, drawing a picture, singing a song, saying something clever or even mentioning that she did something interesting with her hair, put on a lovely shade of lipstick or put together a really sharp outfit, if it is an appearance based compliment aim for something that required her to actually be involved in its execution rather than pointing to a body part). Unless you are romantically involved with the girl, that is. In that case, yes, tell her she’s beautiful, but don’t forget to mention other things too. Appearance based praise to women is often perceived as insincere at best. Especially coming from strangers. Which is probably why women don’t typically go up to men and tell them that they are attractive. They know that they don’t appreciate strangers commenting on their looks (because it’s constant for them) so they look for other things to compliment. They say “you are so intelligent!” Or “you are really good at this (where ‘this’ is whatever you are doing)” or some other comment on what you can do. Because those are the types of statements that they themselves value. But men get told those things all the time and want to be told they are attractive. So they tell women that they are attractive, because that is the kind of comment that they themselves appreciate. And so you get a never ending cycle of good intentions that lead to misery.
That’s my view at least. Of course there are women that love being called beautiful and love having their appearance remarked on. And there are some people that through a combination of lifestyle, location, attitude and appearance will have more or less experience with their looks being commented on by strangers. For example, while I was on medical leave from college and staying home all day I rarely had to deal with such things. While at college it happened daily, with the polite versions happening more often than the crude ones. While in the hospital I was inundated with the overly polite versions and the smile lines (and seriously, I know that usually I’m fairly pretty but I doubt I’m actually that attractive with wires glued to my head, needles shoved in my arm, dressed in one of those terrible hospital gowns and of course while sick enough to warrant being hospitalized for over a week). While working at a camp for inner city youth I was exposed to more of the wolf whistle and holler variety. While studying abroad in China I got hit with everything in the book from “you look really nice today” to “-in Chinese which they didn’t know I spoke- GUYS COME OUT HERE AND LOOK AT THE HOT AMERICAN CHICKS” to wolf whistles, horn honks and lewd comments. Of course that was also the only time I actually lived in a city so I don’t know how much could be attributed to being clearly not Chinese in a city in China that doesn’t get much western tourism, Chinese people being ruder than they would otherwise be because they thought I didn’t speak Chinese or being in a large city. Probably some of all three. Visiting cities briefly occasionally gets similar responses. I also get the fun of contrasting the types of interactions with strangers I get when I’m in a wheelchair or without. With the wheelchair I generally get either ignored completely or I get a lot of the more condescending “pretty little lady” remarks.
Also note, I specifically tried to focus on less overt catcalling here- obviously if a stranger comes up to you and says “I’d f — - you, your boobs are huge” that is not cool. It’s just not. Neither is assaulting them. That’s never okay.
Did my reply make sense? I hope so. It went on much longer than I meant for it to go. I’m honestly much better at communicating through pictures or numbers or pitch than I am with writing words which is why I’m studying engineering rather than literature but I hope I made some amount of sense. Oh well, have a nice night!