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  • Writer's pictureLucy McDonald

Death by a Thousand Cat-Calls

In Reasons and Persons, philosopher Derek Parfit contrasts two unusual ways in which one person can be tortured. First, a single torturer uses a torture device on the victim a thousand times. Let’s assume that each individual act of torture is pretty much imperceptible (perhaps it feels equivalent to a single pinprick), but the total effect is the production of severe pain in the victim. Second, one thousand torturers each use the device just once on the victim. Once again, each individual act is imperceptible on its own, but together they cause severe pain.

In the first scenario, it is clear that the torturer has wronged the victim by severely harming her. Though each individual act performed caused imperceptible harm, the total effect of the torturer’s actions was the production of severe harm. But in the second scenario, each torturer has only caused the victim imperceptible harm. Does this mean they did nothing wrong? Surely not. The two experiences are indistinguishably painful for the victim, and as Parfit observes of the torturers, ‘even if none of them causes any pain, they together impose great suffering’.

The idea that we can wrong a person by acting in concert with others to cumulatively harm her, even if our individual behaviour does not seem to harm, might help explain why it is wrong to cat-call. This practice, which involves men (for the most part) making unsolicited comments to women in public, usually about their appearance, is subject to perennial debate, and there have been calls for its legal prohibition (though in some countries, like France, it is already illegal). Some women report finding it ‘annoying as hell’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘scary’, ‘tedious’, and ‘gross, degrading, and frightening’.

Others defend the practice, arguing that a cat-call is but a mere compliment; what harm could an appreciative ‘You’re hot!’ possibly do? In response, we might concede that an individual cat-call may indeed not harm its target, while pointing out that a thousand compliments from a thousand cat-callers could cause a woman considerable distress (as this woman might attest). By contributing to this distress, however imperceptibly, cat-callers are still on the hook.

[W]e should resist the idea that an individual cat-call, in insolation, causes no harm.

This argument may partly explain what’s wrong with cat-calling, but it can’t completely explain it. For starters, it allows for too much of what philosophers call ‘moral luck’. Imagine that a man shouts, ‘You’re hot!’, at a woman walking past. She is mildly irritated, but quickly forgets about it. By chance, that is the only cat-call she receives that week. The cat-caller therefore seems off the hook – the harm of his individual act seems minimal, and he hasn’t contributed to a cumulative harm, either. He used the torture device just once, and got lucky, because that week no one else used it. The argument we just considered yields an unsatisfactory outcome here, because many opponents of cat-calling want to say that a single cat-call in insolation can still be wrongful.

Moreover, we should resist the idea that an individual cat-call, in insolation, causes no harm. Many of the women who describe cat-calling as ‘uncomfortable’, ‘scary’, and ‘degrading’ are not describing the cumulative effect of cat-calls, i.e. how they feel at the end of a long day of being targeted. Rather, they are describing how a single cat-call feels in the moment. Some cat-calls are therefore less like pinpricks and more like cuts.

Perhaps some of the wrongfulness of cat-calling is attributable to what cat-callers actually say. Consider the following cat-calls, documented by Instagram account @CatCallsofNYC (reader discretion advised):

All of these cat-calls are clearly derogatory. The first is objectifying, reducing the target to a body part. The second uses a sexist pejorative, the third is homophobic, the fourth contains a racist slur and fetishizes Asian women, and the fifth contains a transphobic slur.

In all of these cases, the target is being wronged by what the cat-caller says. This might make some cat-calls akin to hate speech, in so far as they involve the communication of derogatory and oppressive messages. Indeed, in some cases, especially when slurs are used, cat-calling may even constitute hate speech.

Many cat-calls are indeed derogatory, but this explanation of how an individual cat-call might wrong someone can’t account for all kinds of cat-calls. Some cat-calls don’t contain obviously derogatory content and yet are still condemned, at least in some contexts; consider ‘How old are you?’ or ‘Will you marry me?’. Some cat-callers, meanwhile, don’t seem to ‘say’ anything at all – wolf-whistles are regularly described as cat-calls, and widely criticised, too, but they have no obvious content. If there is something wrong with these cat-calls, it cannot be their content.

So how could it be that a single cat-call, which occurs in isolation, contains seemingly innocuous content, and should therefore by all accounts be nothing more than a communicative pinprick, can nonetheless wrong its target? The answer lies in the power dynamics of cat-calling.

Cat-calling is [...] silencing and exploitative: it demands attention from a woman in a context where she will likely feel unable to protest and may feel she has no choice but to give the cat-caller what he wants.

We all have a right to be left alone in public, and for the most part, we respect this right. Sociologist Erving Goffman calls this the ‘norm of civil inattention’. In some contexts, it is fine to talk to a stranger, for example if we’re in an ‘open region’ like a party or a festival, or if we and the stranger are participating in the same activity – we might chat to a fellow passenger on a plane, or to someone standing next to us in a queue. Yet outside of these scenarios, especially on the street, we tend to ignore one another in public, and we are at pains to show others that we respect their privacy. We recognise that to approach a stranger we must have either authority over them (as a public official, for example) or a very good reason (though the latter likely still requires an ‘Excuse me’).

Cat-callers act as if they have the authority to violate the norm of civil inattention, which is presumptuous. They also violate women’s right to be left alone in public in quite a profound way, because their unsolicited commentary often functions as a demand for the woman’s attention. Below, a woman describes this feature of cat-calls:

It's scary...because you don't know how to react. If you say thank you some men will take it as an invitation to follow you & talk to you, & some of them aren't happy when you [are] refusing to give out your number, etc. If you don't say anything some men will resort to calling you a bitch & get angry & maybe even follow you while telling you off.

Many women would like to protest the cat-caller’s presumptuousness, but feel they cannot. They also do not feel they owe him the attention he demands, but nonetheless may feel forced to give it – a quick glance, a pained smile, a mumbled ‘thanks’ through gritted teeth. This is because cat-callers often take being ignored badly, and will not relent until their target acknowledges them. There are numerous cases of women being gravely, sometimes fatally, injured by cat-callers infuriated by their lack of response. Cat-calling also occurs in a context where sexual violence against women looms as an ever-present possibility. This was acknowledged in a landmark sexual harassment case in the US:

Because women are disproportionately victims of rape and sexual assault, women have a stronger incentive to be concerned with sexual behaviour. Women who are victims of mild forms of sexual harassment may understandably worry whether a harasser’s conduct is merely a prelude to a violent sexual assault. (Ellison v. Brady, 924 F.2d 872, 879 (9th Cir. 1990))

For these reasons, many a woman is forced into the debasing position of acting as if the cat-caller does indeed have the authority needed to command her attention whenever he so desires, without resistance. Cat-calling is therefore silencing and exploitative: it demands attention from a woman in a context where she will likely feel unable to protest and may feel she has no choice but to give the cat-caller what he wants. This is demeaning for her, and gives the cat-caller a false, and dangerous, feeling of authority over women.

Cat-callers can therefore wrong a woman in a multitude of ways. They can work together to wear her down, a thousand minor pinpricks amounting to a major sore. They can also cut her, with what hate speech scholars have called ‘words that wound’. And a thousand cuts together can cause considerable harm, as practitioners of the ancient execution method of lingchi chusi, translated variously as ‘death by a thousand cuts’, ‘death by slicing’, and ‘the lingering death’, knew all too well. Yet even if no cumulative harm occurs, and the cat-caller’s words seem like pinpricks, he likely still silences and exploits his target, profiteering from a context in which she must accept minor and major injury without resistance, sometimes even with gratitude.


I thank Romy Eskens and Cathy Mason for helpful comments on this piece.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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