Privilege Blog

What Do You Think About Catcalls For The Over 50?

Deep breath. I have to gird my loins for substantive posts.

The other afternoon I was at a party with people in their early 30s. I was telling a story about things street people have said as I walked in San Francisco. Male street people. And I was surprised by the young women’s reaction. These are the stories.

  1. Two or three years ago I was walking down the street, wearing Levis and a t-shirt. Nothing terribly tight, but since I learned not to wear my pants too big, nothing baggy either. I give you the details not because you want to replicate my experience, but to set context. Passed two men in their 40s, sitting on a set of concrete stairs. Probably drinking beer from a paper bag. Said one man to the other, “She’s sexy,” *pause* “for an old lady.” In fact he pronounced it “Sexay…,” drawing out the last syllable. I laughed, said “Thank you,” and kept walking. That was that.
  2. Last summer, in 7FAM Dojo jeans, sensible Beautifeel heels, a white tee, blue knit blazer, and my Goorin boater, I passed a street man standing in a bus shelter. “Nice boater,” he said. I was a little surprised he knew the hat genre, but said, of course, “Thank you.” Then he said something else. I didn’t respond. “You could answer,” he said. I kept walking. “YOU STILL GOT IT!” he yelled at my back. In a friendly but loud tone.

I objected to neither event.

But at the party, as we sat in dappled sun, the young women listening made noises of mild outrage. Had they spoken fully, they might have said, “Can you believe it?”

But where’s the rub? This calls for deconstruction. More numbered points.

1. Ageism?

Should I have minded that the men pointed out I am no longer young? No. No and no. I much prefer “Old Lady” to the saccharine “Miss.” “Miss” implies you think I mind being 56. I don’t. That’s one reason I have let my hair go gray, to make it clear that I am exactly what I am, crepey neck, veiny feet, remnants of pretty and all.

Should I have minded that they implied that old isn’t supposed to warrant catcalls in the first place? Why? It is what it is. As a Darwinist I see it as mostly biology. The species’ relentless rush towards propagation built desire’s infrastructure. Not all desire follows the male-female plan, of course, but the underpinnings remain. Now that I’m out of the fertility game, I expect expressions of desire from those who do not know me, who see nothing other than my hip-to-waist ratio, to dwindle. To disappear, eventually.

I will continue to require them from the appropriately near and dear.

2. Aggressive Sexism?

Should I have minded that men made comments about my looks at all? That they referenced desire, albeit politely? As long as women are victims of sexual assault, yes, perhaps. While neither of my recent experiences happened in at night, no comments were made about my body parts per se, I felt no threat, I still respect the larger concerns around harassment and violence.

3. Passive Sexism?

But on those days, walking down the street, I didn’t mind the by now rare polite and threatless comments. I kind of enjoyed them, truth be told. However, there’s one last part of all this that I don’t like. I wish I were brave enough that when a beautiful man – hair springing from his forehead, broad shoulders, a certain smile – passes by, I could say, “Hey gorgeous!” But think of the rules I’d break, the mores I’d disrupt. A shift is required. For polite male comments of appreciation to ever be completely OK, I think society would have to come to accept the same from women. Of every age. Certainly we’d have to give up all talk of Cougars.

I expect in another 5-10 years I will relinquish all liniments of stranger desire. I will prompt nothing but courtesy. I will try not to mind.

79 Responses

  1. The age old question! Here’s a thought, if you and a female friend were walking along together and the gorgeous man you described walked toward you, would you respond with a “hey good-looking?” It’s been my experience that the safety in numbers rule applies – and yes, on more than one occasion I have made eye contact and remarked in good fun. Sexist or not? I don’t know. I think we all like to be noticed – not for separate body parts, of course, but in general. Just in knowing that no matter what age we’ve reached, we still “have it.” Whatever that “it” is…not exactly clear. But being noticed really just means we haven’t become invisible…yet.

  2. The outrage might be generational – let’s face it, we grew up in an era where catcalls and wolf-whistles were more or less socially acceptable; it was something an attractive woman simply had to put up with. Now having said that, I certainly never enjoyed being approached by creeps (once a man cut me off in his car as I was walking down the sidewalk and insisted I give him my phone number – he wouldn’t leave me alone until I told him it was “9-1-1”), but a man expressing his appreciation for my looks in a non-threatening manner never bothered me.

    You are a vibrant, attractive woman, Lisa. I hope men with canes are giving you appreciative looks and comments 20 years from now.

    1. I love that you told that man your number was 911, I’ll have to remember that one..LOL.

  3. the “nice boater” guy actually started out alright, from where i’m sitting; i happen to enjoy it when people on the street compliment something about the way i’ve put myself together (i tend to get polite, appreciative comments about my hair, and i…appreciate them). then that guy got awful, and unforgivable; _no one has the right to demand a response from you_, and “you could answer!” is precisely the sort of progress along the threat spectrum that catcallers’ critics point out. i was once catcalled in london, pretty crudely and then verbally abused because i “didn’t thank” the men who had called at me. let’s pause for a moment and contemplate, if you’ll pardon my french, how fucked up that is.

    the problem with catcalling is that it’s presumptuous at best and assault at worst. if someone like you is comfortable with being sexualized, well, that’s nice – but the caller had no way of knowing that. and what if, say, the broad-shouldered fellow you wish you could appreciate aloud is on his way home from a therapy session where he worked through memories of childhood molestation? society at its best is a series of guidelines which steer us away from impeding one another’s freedoms and doing one another harm. the best guideline for catcalling is, i think, to avoid it altogether.

    1. You’re staking out one end of the spectrum that these comments describe.

    2. quite intentionally. as i said, i think non-sexual comments are reasonable, but i think sexualizing a stranger aloud without their consent is dodgy at best.

      1. Understood. I think it’s in part a privacy thing, where one’s feelings about sexualization begin and where one’s feelings of publicly acceptable statements begin.

  4. Haha! I love this post and I love an appreciative comment. And I have been known to comment myself…usually something generic along the lines of “mm. You smell good, love that cologne” to men passing by. Occasionally my teenage daughters tell me I shouldn’t flirt with the boys in the drive thru lane. I think a little flirting is harmless and good for everyone’s ego.
    But then again I spent most of my teenage years in Mexico where I was quite disappointed if I walked down the street and DIDN’T hear a whistle or a “mamacita”. And I did learn quickly that ” no tengo hijos tan feo come usted” got a grin and a little distance. I do think a bit of it is generational.

    1. And you are staking out the other end. I am so fascinated by this discussion. Thank you everyone!

  5. I truly and honestly love the invisibility of midlife. I find it such a pleasure to move around the the world without male commentary regarding my appearance. Perhaps I experienced too much of it as a young woman, but I never enjoyed it and never sought it out and now I am happy it is behind me.

    1. I’m with you, cgk. It’s much more relaxing to walk around now than it was 30 years ago. With that invisibility comes confidence and happiness. And if no one notices that confident, happy 50+ woman walking down the street, well that’s just fine with me.

    2. Oh, I could not agree more with you, either. i am still considered attractive for my age (57), but I am more than glad (relieved, indeed) that these days are behind me. Never thought about it until i read your comment.

    3. I found it scary as a young woman. Now it just makes me laugh, as long as I perceive no threat. I am happy to hear that you don’t miss what’s gone.

  6. For me as a woman of a certain age, these experiences are about being “visible” vs. being “invisible”. In a culture that reveres youth – in the media, on the street, wherever – it seems inevitable that we will become more invisible as we age. Regaining visibility in the eyes of a stranger on the street is fun and refreshing.

  7. I think the fact that you get comments as you navigate the streets of SF says volumes about the fact that you know how to dress well and that you have kept yourself in tip top form.
    Compliments like these are pretty cool IMO.
    It would be fun to be able to say hey gorgeous to a great looking gent!
    I’ve winked at a few men…

    1. I find that hard to believe, that it hasn’t happened to you. Must be your neighborhood.

  8. I like to think there is more to me than just tits and ass, so I do not like catcalls. If people I know want to tell me I look nice or that a top is particularly becoming, I will say thank you and appreciate the kind words. If a rando on the street feels the need to shout something at me or worse stop me on the sidewalk to talk about the way I look I will ignore them or respond with the fuckoff-word. When I am out in public it is not an invitation to comment on how fuckable I may or may not be.

  9. Rushing off to a meeting although I’d rather linger here — I’ll be back as this promises to be a fun conversation.
    I did want to note that it seems class factors in here as well as gender (sexism) and age, no? Even the slight surprise that a street person would know the genre of the hat. . . . A man of your class, dressed at a parallel level to yourself, would be as unacceptable in offering a comment on your looks in this manner as you might be commenting on a gorgeous young passing male. . . Such an interesting and complex world we live in!

    1. I’d be surprised that anyone who wasn’t nattily dressed knew the name of my hat. So there is some class component. I agree, street people have decided to ignore many mores, so when they break rules it’s less notable.

  10. The older I get, the older the men are who notice me. A polite whistle is flattering. Sadly it hasn’t happened in many years.

    1. Now that I am in my mid fifties, the men who notice me are quite elderly. I don’t mind them because they are pretty harmless, plus they try to be charming rather than vulgar. It happens frequently since I volunteer at a senior center!

  11. This is a great example of why your blog is worth reading. Great writing, interesting topic.

  12. This is a brilliant post! I’ve never liked catcalls or wolf whistles or whatever – as a younger woman, I found that kind of behaviour quite offensive. Now, so long as it’s not aggressive, I just think it’s funny. Maybe I’ve mellowed in my old age? Maybe I’m just glad of the attention?

    1. Same here. I used to be annoyed (ah, youth) but now it occurs with such infrequency that whenever it happens I can strut around for a delusional day thinking this old girl’s still got it!

  13. I must be strange. Catcalls and whistles (not a frequent occurrence in my life, but enough to make me feel noticed) have always made me giggle. In my 20s, up to now, in my 50s, when they are rare. (In fact, here in Arabia they are illegal.)
    As to the street person recognising the boater–wow, careful Lisa. You never know a person’s back story. There but for the grace of God go most of us…

    1. You are quite right. But one forms assumptions on visual cues I don’t think it’s possible to avoid the habit, but should be possible to avoid unkindness as a result.

  14. I love to get a genuine compliment on the street, but catcalls and wolf whistles are flat out harassment to me. Having received many as a young woman, as well as a few more aggressive advancements from men in cars and on the street, I find such behavior disgusting and vulgar. To be told you look nice is one thing, to be objectified is another, no matter what your age.

    1. I agree- I am under 30 and any comments with a sexual tone, about hotness or worse, make me both uncomfortable and angry. A comment about an item of clothing from strangers is always welcome, though, as are complements about my constant smile (a rare trait in the city.) The difference lies in whether the complement is for me (my demeanor, my sartorial choices) or for my sexual desirability.

    2. So if it’s about something you choose, it’s OK. This gets more and more interesting.

  15. Interesting. The cultural differences.
    Way over here in Finland, men are actually shy in expressing any kind of emotions.
    They might do it when they have had a few drinks, the whistling and comments.
    But then I´m not interested in drunken men and try to avoid places, where I might meet them.
    But the oldies, the older men, do flirt with a younger woman. I find it rather bothering, but try to be polite.

  16. I have been reading your blogs for a while but this is my first post. There is a website that has been discussing these kind of issues for a year or so

    My reaction is that if someone simply compliments me on the way I look, that’s fine. If it’s taken further or is sexual in nature that is not acceptable from anyone – male or female.

    1. Ceri, thanks for commenting, and for the link. It would be really interesting to take this further, to see what parts of one’s looks are aesthetic, and where sexuality begins.

  17. I won’t go to Home Depot during the week days because inevitably some geezer follows me around trying to talk to me. Yuk.. I don’t care that I am 58.. All my men are still younger , including my husband. I make hinm go to Home Depot with me on the weekends anymore.

  18. I do not wish to grow invisible as I grow older. In that regard, attention is better than being totally ignored. On the other hand, compliments vs. creepy is in the eye of the beholder. There is also the issue that our dress and bodies are fair game for comments – both positive and negative. If it is OK for a man to wolf whistle, is it OK to fat shame or make other negative comments? Finally, no stranger has a right to an answer or a smile (“Smile for me, honey”) – allowing him to presume otherwise starts down a VERY dangerous path of male entitlement.

    1. Fat shame is never acceptable. And I agree, no compliments should ever be offered with a requirement of response, or they are not really compliments. Compliments means given freely.


    Well, and so obviously true, we all agree with you mister. Gawd, honestly, the nerve. But here’s a guy who’s telling us he neither possesses, nor cares about, ordinary social boundaries so, given that revelation, the emotion that rushes to the front of my mind when I hear a taunt or a whistle or a howl on a city street is always Observe Caution. This person does not process the world like you do, Caution.

  20. They were called ‘wolf whistles’ mostly made by men on building sites over here…

  21. This is a thought provoking post and fun reading the comments.

    Personally, I would no more make a comment on an unknown man’s looks as I would invite a serial killer for tea.

    On the other hand, if a woman is brave and witty enough to handle the responses, then I believe she is entitled by our constitution to express her observations. But if any woman thinks men are going to ignore her comments or just utter a polite “thank you” — like a woman does — she is delusional. Looking like a gorgeous gentleman is zero guarantee he is one. Let’s hope she is fleet of foot as well as brave and witty!

    Great post.

    1. Well, yes, women run away from these comments, I suppose men might run towards them. That I mind.

  22. Other than in my residential neighborhood, I don’t walk around the city much, so who knows if I would encounter anything similar. If so, I doubt that I would reply.

    I have been at a large social occasions and had an older man (I’m 61) come up to me and say, “When I saw you, I wished I was a young man again.” I was flattered.

  23. Were you smiling when you attracted these interchanges?

    I went to lunch with a co-worker, Paula, who is maybe 45, and to put it gently, plus-sized. Never have I walked with anyone who attracted more whistles and cat-calls. I basked in the glory – sad that it wasn’t for me- as she sashayed down the street with her big friendly smile. It may be about reproductive prowess but it’s also about attitude.

    When you’re young and pretty without effort that kind of thing happens to you more often and can be a bit threatening.

    I took a lesson from Paula and make sure to smile and look friendly as I go about my business in town, even if it mostly involves declining panhandlers requests for change.

    1. It’s quite possible I was smiling. In which case I wonder about what signals a female smile sends.

  24. I’ve rarely been catcalled at any age. Maybe it’s my size, maybe it’s that I look like I’m on stable footing and might just throw a punch. It’s not really a compliment though — to have your body open for public comment. Why are women’s bodies open to evaluation by any wino with a paper bag? He’s claiming his right to non-consensually take your attention, to judge you. Not a compliment.

  25. I’m with materfamilias and, as a native American, I will be blunt; I immediately read the reaction of these women as attached to class; the subtext seems to be, How dare this kind of man address us with familiarity? We (or you) are not for them.

    I find the attention from both incidents to be what I get all the time in certain cultures, what I call Respectful Flirting: Hey, you are an attractive person and I’m acknowledging that.

    Cut that out of public discourse and you lose what Tom Robbins once called “the panpipe hootchy-koo of life.”

    1. Just realized “native American” could be misread; I mean I was born in the US and lived there through my university years.

    2. Respectful Flirting. If it can exist, which I personally hope, how do we define it and recognize it, vs. the assault?

  26. I agree with your sentiments 100%. And I still look forward to your post on interacting with trophy wives. I am sure it will be instructive.

    1. Thanks. And yikes! I had put the Trophy Wives out of my mind:). I will have to write that post. And gird my loins again…

  27. While I find that on some levels catcalls are flattering, I am not comfortable being on the receiving end and never respond. I don’t like being put in a position where I would have to be ‘rude’ by not acknowledging something that under normal social occasions would be rude (disrespectful) to begin with.

  28. I always make a point of complimenting both male and female if I think they look particularly eye catching. Not catcalls per se but I think it’s a nice outreach in an increasingly caustic world. And as my husband says, “Hey, didn’t cost anything and it made them feel good”!

  29. We humans appreciate admiration, a stamp of approval, acknowledgments, and depending on circumstances can gracefully accept such offerings from nearly any quarter and all along the spectrum, from “sexaaayyyyy” to “gee, don’t you look pretty today.”

    Bet we agree, though, that certain expressions do indeed confer greater value. Some bring forth smiles, whereas others make us squirm.

    All bear witness to our existence, which may be all one needs, in a given moment.

    1. I think the component is being recognized is important. Humans like to be seen – how we make the transition to assault fascinates me.

  30. I don’t mind an appreciative comment from a stranger, but I don’t feel comfortable with assessments that are more sexual in nature.

    At the same time, I like not being invisible.

    Case in point: two or three days ago as I was walking home from an errand, a man about my age said, “Hola, guapa,” as I went past. I smiled.

    In Spain, it’s culturally acceptable, though much less frequent than in the past, to give a passing woman a “piropo.” But a piropo is a flirtatious remark, not a comment on shag-ability. And women do give them to men, though rarely.

    It’s also worth noting that spring is piropo season, especially after a long, cold, bundled-up winter like this year’s. He may just have been happy to see a female form in fewer than umpty-million layers!

    1. So there’s a word for it. “Piropo.” Huh. Thank you for that information. I am learning so much.

    2. Oh the piropo! I learned about those in Chile, where they are thrown.

      It was hard to get used to them at first, as in the US, I am not one who attracts male attention, at least, not vocal male attention. But once I was used to them and realized they were not threatening (“St Michael opened the heavens and you fell to the earth” is pretty inoffensive, although, “If I were your pants….” is not), I didn’t mind. Indeed, I missed them once I moved back to the US after two years. I felt invisible and ugly!

  31. I have mixed feelings about these types of compliments. It’s always nice to get a compliment and for the most part they are completely harmless.

    But, as in the second guy who tried to demand a response, they can get very demanding. Sometimes catcalls are downright bossy. They’re part of a pervasive bit of culture that is demeaning and reduces women to our bits and pieces and judges our worth by our desirability. Though with most situations like this that’s not the intent, entirely.

    The combination of reactions makes me really awkward when it happens.

  32. I’m with lauren on this, perhaps more stridently so. Strangers don’t have the right, and women shouldn’t give it to them, to make mention of our looks. There are women who might appreciate the attention – I don’t appreciate them condoning this behavior. This kind of stuff is intrusive, often aggressive even when it might not seem so, and it’s a way to subjugate a gender by sexualizing that gender. We women need to find our self-worth within, not provided to us by strangers or even men we know.

    1. There’s logic here I don’t quite get. Is sexualizing a gender always subjugating them? Or just male to female? Which would make some sense, given the biology.

  33. “We women need to find our self-worth within, not provided to us by strangers or even men we know.”

    Yes! Not just women, society as a whole. We all need to work on grounding ourselves via a rich interior life (self-worth) rather than behaving like sponges with an endless need for external feedback.

  34. Thank you all very much for such thoughtful commenting. This is clearly a multivariate issue. I am struck by how little anyone felt the age part mattered, that the men noted out loud that they were catcalling me despite my age. I suppose the issue of female desirability in aging pales in comparison to the issue of what constitutes verbal assault. As it should.

  35. One thing I don’t miss about being in my 20’s at NYU was the constant comments on my appearance, and people actually trying to follow me home. It was too much for a young girl to have to deal with. Now, I am older, wiser, and sadly, heavier. But I am glad to be free of the catcalls. You, however, you definitely still have it!

  36. Great topic! I too disliked the attention (late 70’s and 80’s NYC and waaaay too many construction workers noticing shy me). I have two funny stories on the subject: once I was catcalled from behind by a car of high school students whose smiles turned to horror as they noticed I was hugely pregnant, and once recently I saw a car pass me looking at me with interest (so from behind, in yoga clothes, I look pretty good?) and then once the driver saw my age he quickly refocused on the road. I appreciate anyone noticing me in a friendly, appreciative way, and try to smile in return. It happens infrequently enough to be just a pleasure.

  37. The joy of being ignored as I get older is that it makes it easier to shoplift.

  38. As a man over the age of 50 who once got my share of admiring glances, double-takes, and appreciative comments from strangers on the street/at clubs/ etc., I mightily enjoy it when I still get the very occasional response when out and about. I once had a young woman who worked for me enter my office in tears, angry and upset that she had been wolf-whistled at on the street. I responded that contrary to being upset, she should take it as a compliment and laugh it off as there would come a time in her life when such whistles would become rare, if not non-existant. I suppose I was being unsympathetic, but I think the occasional whistle or shout out, particularly if non-threatening or invasive, is something to give one a bit of a lift in one’s step as it is an affirmation that yes, you still (as you write) “got it!” — Reggie

  39. Years ago I went to lunch with a friend and her friend. I was in my late 40s, my friend was in her late 60s and I would guess her friend was in her late 50s / early 60s. HF was wearing a fitted, above the knee, leather skirt, sexy heels and fishnet stockings. She had the figure for it. When we left to go to the car park, a couple of young men – in their 20s maybe – wolf-whistled. They looked a bit startled when she turned around, but I’m not sure she saw that. I’m not sure where the line is, but there is one. ‘You still got it’ sounds like a lovely compliment – you are still attractive. ‘Sexay for an old lady’ isn’t too bad, but at some point it’s a little scary, like Baby Jane with raging hormones. I’m sure the women you were with were envious; I was certainly envious of HF. At no point in my life did or would I ever have it like she did. But at some point there is a line…

  40. What a fascinating discussion! Lisa I always head to your posts first thing. At my age I haven’t been “catcalled” in a very long time. Although at a recent funeral (of all places!) one of the attendees appeared to wink at me. I wasn’t sure if it was really a wink or just a tic. It was an older crowd. My reaction was a giggle bubbling up and a mad dash to family males for safety. I too have been admired from behind only to have it rescinded when viewed from the front. My favorite recollection is of striding down the sidewalk on my way to work in Washington, DC in my high boots and new coat made of Army blankets – definitely feeling empowered. A street person greeted me with a big smile and a “looking good”. Of course a few days later another street person strolled toward me with an Army blanket thrown over his shoulders. I crossed to the other side of the street! How the mighty have fallen . . . Bottom line – I think it has to do with both the situation and how you are feeling at the time. True admiration is always welcome.

  41. This discussion facinates me as a feminist who’s never had nasty attention from strangers on the street. I suspect it’s less common in New Zealand (partly because we tend not to have so many highly populated urban areas?).

    I’ve been wolf whistled or catcalled a few times, but it’s always felt friendly and has put a smile on my face. Looking good is important to me and it’s nice to be appreciated for my efforts. (Obviously I also like appreciation for all my other qualities, but they’re not visible to strangers).

    I’m in my 30s and have been in a relationship since I was 15 so I think I’m pretty good at exuding that ‘taken’ vibe. A little gentle eye contact or a mildly suggestive comment is about as far as flirting ever goes for me.

    1. I’m leaving this comment up, since I think it serves as an example of hostile catcalls. Compliments aren’t compliments if they are intrusive or transactional.

  42. I must confess, I enjoy catcalls, stares and comments most of the time, at 49, and have in the past for many, many years. Not all of them, or the way they are presented! I have worked as an aircraft mechanic and am an electric bassist so being around 100s and 100s of men was an everyday occurrence. And, yes, I still consider myself a feminist. If something really bothers me, withing safety parameters, I will tell said individual that what they did was not so cool and to please refrain in the future from doing it. Works 99% of the time for me. This advice is only my own for me.

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