::begin feminist rant::
Think about the term cat-call. According to the OED, the term has been around since the 18th century, although its early uses referred to calling people in to a meeting or to hooting and hollering at the theater. Nothing in the OED definition references the hissing, whistling, honking and "hey baby" hollering that women experience on a regular basis while walking down the street.
I spent a week in Puerto Rico recently. It was beautiful, and absolutely nothing could have spoiled the good mood that I was in -- least of all the hollering and honking of some impolite, undersexed boys. But it did get me to thinking about the different forms that cat-calling takes and the ways in which it is an attempt to exert power.
Greek men, for the most part, cat-call in a very different way then American (and apparently, Puerto Rican) men. They hiss. There's a particular noise they make that's difficult to put into writing, but it's something like "ps ps ps ps ps". It's quite literally the noise you'd make to call a cat. It was probably the single most difficult thing I dealt with during my first month in Athens. It's a very private form of harassment -- the only people who know it's happening are the harasser and the person being harassed.
In contrast, the kind of harassment that I've experienced in the US and in PR is very public. The person doing the cat-calling has no qualms about making sure everyone knows he is looking at you. Embarassment seems to be one of the main objectives of the game. But to what end?
As a way of exerting power over women, public embarassment seems pretty standard. Calling derisive attention to anyone in public space is likely to make them want to disappear into the pavement, and if you percieve women in public space as a threat (albeit subconsciously), making them disappear is the ultimate goal. Come out of hiding (out of "feminine space" that is), and prepare to be embarassed into oblivion.
The more subtle form of harassment I experienced in Athens is no better. Instead of public embarassment, the hissing is a personal attack. It feels much more as though you've been singled out individually, even though any non-Greek woman walking down the street is likely to encounter the same harassment. There's a subtle difference between feeling embarassed and feeling ashamed, and shame is more closely associated with this more personal cat-calling. If someone insults you loudly and in front of a group of people, it's a lot easier to write it off as their own low self-esteem or insecurity than if someone insults you quietly to your face.
Men who cat-call aren't actually interested in the women they're harassing. At least, I hope they're not, because if they are then they're using the wrong angle. "Hello" works a lot better than "hey baby."
::end feminist rant::
I'd like to appologize to all of the well-intentioned young men whom I've ignored or given dirty looks when they said hello. Sometimes it's difficult to determine who's being genuine and who's being a pig.