Wolf-whistles and double standards

As I’ve mentioned previously, much of my quiet-computer-time lately has been spent rereading archives of my favorite cozy blogs, including the very wonderful Yarn Harlot. Because it is a knitting blog, the demographic of her readership is highly skewed towards the female, although there is a small, proud contingent of male knitters and supporters as well. One thing I’ve noticed is that several times, in telling stories about her day, she’s posted pictures of attractive gentlemen (friends and relatives of hers), and she invariably gets comments of the “hubba, hubba… is he single?” variety.

The assumption that the writers and the commenters and I all carry around that is that it’s charming and complimentary to the man in question. I don’t perceive the person making the “hubba, hubba” comment as shallow or immature, and I don’t think anyone else does either. But if the genders were reversed, I would. A comment like “Tim is quite as delicious-looking as that cake” would be creepy and irritating if it were a man saying, “Tess is quite as delicious-looking as that cake.” Once again, it’s quite apparent that we see women’s sexual desire as harmless and complimentary, while we see men’s sexual desire as creepy and predatory.

There are a number of things behind this. First, our cultural paradigm is that men are always reacting sexually to people, whether they say it aloud or not, while women rarely are. A man is presumed to be constantly thinking “Ooh, what a hottie!” whenever there are attractive women around, but it would be obnoxious if he said it every time he thought it, so we expect him to keep his thoughts to himself. A woman, on the other hand, is presumed to feel sexual interest rarely enough that she can afford to say it every time she thinks it, without it becoming the only thing she ever says. So commenting publicly on someone’s hotness is viewed as a sign of poor self-restraint in men, in a way that just doesn’t apply for women.

Second, some males do engage in some pretty gross and creepy sexual evaluations of attractive women. Some males are predatory, cruel, and dishonest in sexual relationships (some females, too, but the cultural stereotype is that it’s mainly males). Some males have a hard time thinking of an attractive woman as anything but a sex object. Because of these things, any male comment on a woman’s sexuality is guilty, or at least suspect, by association. That sounds unfair, and it is, but I think part of the reason for the strong association is that even men who don’t, themselves, demean and belittle sexy women don’t do a lot to punish that kind of talk in other men. Because I’m a woman, I don’t have a lot of experience with this, but my impression is that dudes are pretty vigorous in defending their dudely privilege, and any man who dared to say, “Um, what you just said was disrespectful and misogynistic” would be socially punished. (Men? Am I right?)

So, for me, a man has to build up some serious feminist cred before I can hear him going “Hubba, hubba,” without harboring doubts about his maturity and level of respect for women. (There are a number of men of my acquaintance who have done this, by the way.) And at this point, I honestly don’t know whether that’s something I should apologize for or not. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be the case, but in an ideal world, the first factor I mentioned would be diminished and the second nonexistent. Since we live in the real world, I’m provisionally comfortable with my prejudice, though always open to new ideas that might change my perspective. Thoughts?

12 thoughts on “Wolf-whistles and double standards

  1. >> So, for me, a man has to build up some serious feminist cred before I can hear him going “Hubba, hubba,” without harboring doubts about his maturity and level of respect for women.

    I don’t find my reaction to women making these sorts of comments significantly different than my reaction to men making these sorts of comments. For me its more context: is the target someone who’s making a living on their outward appearance (a movie star, for example); or is this someone who didn’t ask to have his picture broadcast (someone’s brother); is the comment really tasteless, or is there something entertaining/clever about the way its phrased?

    >> The assumption that the writers and the commenters and I all carry around that is that it’s charming and complimentary to the man in question. I don’t perceive the person making the “hubba, hubba” comment as shallow or immature, and I don’t think anyone else does either.

    I think you’re making some assumptions about how other people are perceiving these comments. It’s entirely possible that that there are a number of people who think such comments are tasteless and perhaps a little rude, but maybe don’t feel particularly inclined to call attention to it.


  2. This is an issue I’ve been trying to suss out for myself recently, too. I work on a mostly-female, mostly-hetero staff at a non-profit, and many of our clients are attractive men. As we’ve been doing more advertising that includes pictures of our clients recently, there’s been a lot more talk about “yummy” pictures and hunks and even jokes about creating a “dating service” as a fundraiser. We’re all liberal feminist types, but if the genders were reversed, we’d be knee deep in a culture of Mad Men-style sexism.

    It’s hard to say where the line is. We aren’t just objectifying these men- they’re all men who are doing things we really respect and we’re proud to be highlighting them in our materials. Is it better to have a sex-positive culture where we can be honest about the fact that some people are attractive, and innocently express that to others, or is this behavior always harmful to our ability to build relationships based on mutual respect? I can’t say I have a good answer, unfortunately.


  3. As womens who rare use hubba hubba term (except when add “ding ding”) feel Svutlana some discomforts with use phrase and discomforts have nothing for do with gender double standard. Hubba hubba comment make me feel like have power for pass judgment on somebody else looks that deep down Svutlana know have me absolute no right for do.


  4. Speaking as a man, there aren’t many reasons I can think of that I’d dislike a comment about my attractiveness. Maybe I’m more vain than some people, but it’s nice to know that my attempts to make myself attractive are successful. If they were at an inappropriate time or location, where it’s impolite in general to be “hubba hubba”-ing, sure. I can even enjoy compliments from gay men, as long as it’s not in the men’s room.

    I think one reason that catcalls can be offensive is that they make an assumption that is not flattering. For a lot of women, these can boil down to “you’re attractive, therefore probably a slut” or “with looks that good, you must be stupid.” I don’t think women cross this line so much when they’re talking about men, though I don’t know what you all get up to in your yarn blogs.

    I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with a group of construction workers calling out compliments to a passerby, if it doesn’t include such an insult as well. But the problem is, if the female responds with anything other than disgust, it encourages more, and worse behavior from the men. Whereas if a woman or group of women starts catcalling at me, I can say “thanks,” and they’ll probably giggle, and that’ll be it.


    1. I think the key point is in that last paragraph. If a woman gets catcalled and appreciates it, she might end up inviting attention from someone who won’t respect her boundaries. Many men will just be polite and respectful, but some men won’t. I think thats a lot of where context comes in. Theres an episode of The West Wing where Sam sees Ainsley in a slinky dress and says, “you could make a good dog break its leash.” A female coworker who overhears is offended; Ainsley isn’t, because she knows Sam and knows he won’t overstep her boundaries.


  5. I think there are two main things that make this double standard easier to overlook and less likely to draw criticism.

    With men I go further than you do and say not only is it assumed to be skeevy when men do it, it’s a gendered expectation that men actually can’t control themselves. Thus any expression of interest is equated with aggression. (Whether the assumption is fair or unfair isn’t the point — the point is that it’s assumed.) With women, I’ll go further and say that women are socially assumed to be so non-autonomous when it comes to sexuality that their expressions of attraction aren’t taken seriously.

    The second thing is that men are coached to judge themselves and other men by the number of women they have sex with, and this “score” is held to be so important that as they say in football “an ugly win is still a win.” Which in turn implies an ugly acceptance of pressure/intoxication/perfidy that gives expressions of sexual interest a more ominous overtone. Women, meanwhile, even when understood to be entirely sincere, implies neither the social obligation to “score” nor the concern about “winning ugly.”

    Again it’s not about whether any of those assumptions about men’s or women’s interests or intentions are fair. They are what they are. What’s important instead is to alter the social expectations driving the assumptions.



  6. I’m interested in this, too. That, to me, it IS (in general) different when women comment than when men comment, and that the comments ARE (in general) received differently—and yet, I can’t put a finger on what the difference is. But if men complained about women remarking on them, I would see that as a legitimate complaint (as long as they weren’t just doing it as a “AH HA! GOTCHA!!” thing but actually meant it).


  7. I thought of something else: strip clubs. I was thinking how when women attend such places, it seems like it’s usually considered something very silly and daring and funny to do—and I don’t picture the women going by themselves, or responding physically to such things, or furtively touching, or whatever. Whereas men at female strip clubs, it seems like it’s a different story and they’d be building up mental pictures for “later.” And the whole TONE of such places seems different. I still don’t know WHY—but I think it IS. That it IS two different experiences in the two directions (whether it’s catcalls or strip clubs), in both how such things are GIVEN and how they’re RECEIVED—not that there’s an unfair/undeserved double standard.


  8. Which reminds me of one more thing: long ago I read that many people see Playgirl magazine as the women’s answer to Playboy—but that Playgirl is actually targeted to gay men. For women, in general, Playgirl is a gag gift for bridal showers, not something they, er, use.


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