Being catcalled or receiving unwanted comments about your appearance can be uncomfortable, frustrating, or even scary. Many women experience this regularly, and figuring out how to respond can be challenging. While there’s no one right way to react, having a game plan for potential comebacks can help you stand up for yourself in a way that feels empowering.
Why do people say “hey pretty”?
There are a few possible reasons someone might say “hey pretty” or something similar to a stranger on the street:
- They think it’s a compliment.
- They want to get your attention.
- They want to make their friends laugh.
- They feel entitled to comment on your appearance.
Regardless of the intent, commenting on a stranger’s looks in public is inappropriate. It can be dehumanizing, as it reduces you to just your appearance. It’s also an unsolicited opinion that can make you feel objectified.
How does it make you feel?
Being called “pretty” or getting other uninvited remarks may provoke different emotions:
- Objectified – Your body and looks are not up for public commentary.
- Angry – Someone is acting entitled to your time and attention.
- Unsafe – Street harassment can escalate quickly.
- Demeaned – Catcalls imply you don’t deserve respect.
You have a right to feel however this type of attention makes you feel – and you certainly don’t have to smile or be flattered just because it’s intended as a compliment.
How to Respond
When you’re put on the spot with a “hey pretty” or other catcall, you have options. Here are some ways to stand up for yourself in the moment:
1. Ignore them.
You have no obligation to respond to strangers who comment on your looks. One strategy is to simply ignore the person and continue on your way. Avoid making eye contact, don’t smile, and don’t engage.
- Refuses to give the comment any validation
- Allows you to remove yourself from the situation
- May leave you feeling powerless or simmering
- Does nothing to deter their behavior in the future
2. Retort with a clever quip.
Having a snappy, sarcastic comeback locked and loaded can quickly shut down catcallers. Some examples:
- “Eyes up here, buddy.”
- “Wow, did that actually work for you?”
- “Sorry I’m late, I was too busy respecting women.”
- “Thanks for the reminder that I’m just an object to you!”
- Lets them know their behavior is unacceptable
- Satisfying to stand up for yourself
- May provoke an angry reaction
- Engaging could encourage future comments
3. Be direct and tell them to stop.
You can also respond very directly by telling the person their comment is inappropriate and to stop. For example:
- “Don’t talk to me like that.”
- “That makes me uncomfortable.”
- “I don’t want to hear that.”
- “Please leave me alone.”
- Sets a clear boundary
- Lets them know their behavior is unwanted
- May also provoke an angry reaction
- Engaging could encourage more comments
4. Use humor to deflect.
Humor can be disarming way to shut down inappropriate comments without confrontation. For example:
- “That’s me, just a face in the crowd!”
- “Thanks, my mom thinks so too.”
- “Well that wasn’t creepy at all.”
- Avoids escalating the situation
- Lets them know you’re not interested, without aggression
- They may not get the message
- You still have to engage
5. Threaten to call the cops.
If the harassment continues or you feel unsafe, make it clear you will get law enforcement involved if needed by saying something like:
- “I’m asking you to leave me alone or I’m calling the cops.”
- “Stop or I’m reporting you.”
- “Back off before I have you arrested for harassing me.”
- Puts pressure on them to leave you alone
- You have a right to seek police assistance
- Police do not always respond adequately to street harassment reports
- The threat may anger or escalate the harasser
6. Say nothing.
You always have the option to simply keep quiet and not engage. You could give them a look that communicates their behavior is unacceptable, but refusing to respond at all can also be powerful.
- Prevents escalation or encouragement
- You maintain control by not giving a reaction
- May leave you feeling powerless
- Allows the harassment to continue unchallenged
In addition to in-the-moment reactions, there are some other things you can do to handle street harassment:
If you don’t feel safe responding directly, simply walking into a store, crossing the street, getting on a bus, or entering another public building can get distance from the harasser. Don’t worry about seeming “rude” – do what you need to do to get somewhere public around others.
See if there are any bystanders who can intervene, or ask someone nearby to pretend they know you. Numbers often discourage harassers. Store employees or security guards can also help handle the situation in many cases.
Report persistent harassment
If you experience ongoing harassment in a particular area or by a repeat offender, report the incidents to police. Many areas now have anti-street harassment laws, so it’s worth filing reports to potentially stop systematic abuse.
Keep your phone out and be ready to dial emergency services if needed. Avoid dangerous isolated areas when walking alone. Make use of public transportation or ride shares when possible. And look out for groups of women you can join up with.
Talk about it
Discussing street harassment experiences helps build awareness and support networks. Publicly calling out inappropriate behaviors also helps change cultural attitudes about public spaces belonging only to men.
Having some snappy comebacks or redirects in your back pocket can help you react quickly in the moment. Role play scenarios with friends to build confidence shutting down catcallers of all kinds.
Some people feel safer carrying self-defense tools like pepper spray or personal alarms. Make sure you know local laws and only use them if physically attacked.
Dealing with Emotions Afterward
In addition to feeling scared or violated in the moment, street harassment can cause lingering feelings of:
Know these are normal reactions to being objectified and disrespected. Don’t bottle up emotions – talk them through with trusted friends and remind yourself you did nothing to attract or deserve the harassment.
Some healthy ways to process street harassment experiences include:
- Venting to supportive friends or family
- Writing out your feelings in a journal
- Positive self-talk to counter demeaning catcaller attitudes
- Talking to a counselor or support group
- Channeling your anger productively by reporting offenders or raising awareness
- Reclaiming your power by learning self-defense
With time, counseling, and self-care, you can heal from harassment trauma. Don’t blame yourself for someone else’s unacceptable behavior.
Creating Cultural Change
Street harassment persists in part because it has too long been accepted as “just part of city life.” But public spaces should be safe for everyone. Some ways we can work toward more respectful cultural norms include:
Teaching young people not to harass, objectify, or feel entitled to women’s bodies is key to stopping the cycle. Schools should address harassment, consent, and healthy masculinity.
Nonprofits like Hollaback! have PSAs to frame street harassment as unacceptable and empower victims to tell their stories. More social awareness can deter would-be harassers.
When witnesses stand up against street harassment, it discourages harassers. Posters like “I’ve Got Your Back” encourage people to speak up.
Anti-harassment laws make clear that catcalling and public sexual comments are illegal. Enforcing them consistently also helps.
Better lighting, more bus stops, and public awareness campaigns in high harassment areas makes public spaces safer. Business and city planning should consider women’s safety.
When men call out others’ unacceptable behavior, it resonates powerfully. More men recognizing catcalling is dehumanizing, not complimentary, could dramatically reduce incidents.
Confidence and skill during an attack provide victims agency. Many nonprofits and groups like Girls Fight Back offer empowering classes specifically around harassment confrontation.
Connecting with others who understand your experience helps build solidarity and healing. Seek out counseling or groups locally or online.
Street harassment like being called “pretty” is a disturbing reality most women face regularly. While ignoring sexist catcallers is often safest, you have every right to stand up for yourself however feels empowering. Prepare go-to responses, report offenders, and reach out for support when needed. Ultimately, stopping street harassment takes cultural change to teach respect – but you can reclaim your own power starting today.