The Radio 1 broadcaster Sara Cox recently complained about not getting whistled at and "leched" after by men in the steet. Rosa wonders what affect her example is having on young women and takes issue with Cox’s insistence that there is "no such thing as unwanted attention".
Ah, let us all pity poor Sara Cox, radio broadcaster who, in a column for the Guardian supplement G2 on the 14th of June [I’ve Still Got It], admitted that one of the things she was refusing to accept about motherhood was the fact that men no longer whistle as she walks past the building site or the vans at traffic lights, just because she’s hidden behind her newborn daughter.
I must admit that I know very little about Sara Cox, and I’ve never heard her radio show. So I began to read her article with an open mind, and even when I saw the heading, “Just because I’m 30 and pushing a pram doesn’t mean I don’t want men to whistle and lech after me” I was merely mildly intrigued as to what she had to say. And it was interesting, not because I especially care what she thinks, but because her view reflects the attitude many young women take, which, although it’s not necessarily ‘anti-feminist’, is an attitude that certainly holds feminism back.
It’s part of this ladette culture that you see in the nightclubs and bars late every night in town. They drink beer to excess, flirt and dance with men as if the world is about to end, and then quite simply throw up in the middle of the street, right next to the pissing blokes. Many consider it a backlash of lad culture, because these women, although not at all to be considered submissive, and most certainly more empowered than the women of decades ago, are still conforming to the degrading culture of the ‘lad’ that many contemporary feminists are fighting to withstand. Often throwing themselves at men and taking pride in the fact that strangers find them so sexually alluring that they have to draw attention to it in public, it is this aspect of ladette culture that is evident in the article by Sara Cox, and it is this that really irks me.
The model-turned-broadcaster admits right at the beginning that to enjoy being leered at by complete strangers is, “(I know it’s) pathetic, shallow as a teaspoon and just a touch vain” and yet continues to announce that she is proud of this. This is something I’m coming across more and more often these days, where women (and they always seem to be women) will happily admit that they act pathetically and are very shallow, and yet not only do they continue on in this way, but they also take pride, pride in this quality of their personality. Since when is being shallow and pathetic seen as a good thing?!
The answer is since women began adapting to the rise in lad culture over the past few decades, which in itself is considered a backlash of feminism. It’s been a gradual process, and has coincided with the rise in popularity of the lad magazines (such as Nuts and Zoo) that populate the shelves in shops, and ever since men took that it was perfectly acceptable to make it quite clear in public, often using obscene language and gestures, exactly what they want some women to do with them.
Admittedly, Sara Cox does not regard “raunchy requests” and “drooling” as at all desirable, but accepts that whistling is somehow ‘alright’, despite the fact that the same thoughts and motives are behind it. However, I could not judge her, and for a brief moment I felt something close to admiration for the woman who had quite shamelessly picked her nose to ward off the advances of “two men of definite dad-age in the car next to mine.” But that was until I read the next part, where the young mother began to notice a pattern.
It was to do with her daughter. When walking along childless, she noticed that she could still get the occasional whistle, even if her appearance was less than her normal well-groomed self. But when accompanied by baby Lola, even with “swaying buttocks snugly hugged by tight denim, hair swishing like a thoroughbred’s tail and just a hint of cleavage, steeling myself for the deafening catcalls as I pass the building site…” shock, horror!, not one man will whistle. Not only that, but she seems quite disappointed by it, even comparing it to “when a funeral cortege drives by, they lower their eyes as if mourning the passing of my whistlebility.”
But now it’s my turn to be stunned. Did she really just compare the worth of her own apparent attractiveness to that of a human life?! Does her ‘whistlebility’ really mean so much to her?! How is it that such a seemingly headstrong young woman can really value the way in which strangers make it clear how little they value her as a human being? Because that’s what it’s all about. We all know that men don’t whistle at you because they think you might be an interesting/kind/sensitive/funny person to get to know, they do it because they view you as a sexual object, and they want you to know that. And they do it not to make you feel good about yourself but to fit in with the lads, announcing to the whole world exactly what it is about you that makes them want to sleep with you.
Of course, everyone is different, and I’m in no position to tell anyone what to think or how to behave. But it does worry me to see exactly how integrated within our society this tendency is. Sara Cox hosts a radio show every Saturday and Sunday on Radio 1, broadcasting to a vast number of listeners, most of whom are of the younger generation. When what young women really need are decent role models, this is what is available? How are we expected to defy the sexist male attitude that sees women as objects to be admired, when all we get from those women in the media is a happy declaration that being whistled at in the street is a Good Thing? Surely we should be challenging this view, not accepting it!
And what about her daughter? Does she want her daughter to grow up believing that to be valued you must be attractive to men? After all, this is the purpose of the female sex isn’t it? This is what they want and we should all be glad for being able to please. To parade in front of men, teasing them and flirting with them, hoping against hope that they’ll notice us, because otherwise our worth will simply count for nothing. Because, according to her, “there’s no such thing as unwanted attention.” This is a simple call to all men that to act as sexist as they want in front of children.
As Naomi Wolf once said, “To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren’t is to learn inequality in little ways all along,” and isn’t this just another ‘little way’ in which the younger generation are learning inequality? Frankly, I think Sara should be glad that the men who work on the building site near her are being so considerate by refraining from whistling, because there are many women out there who are still intimidated by those who couldn’t care less that you’re walking with your children. It doesn’t take long to find stories on message boards on the internet of women all over the world who suffer the indignity and humiliation in front of their children, after men have shouted obscenities or treated them with less than respect, simply because of their gender.
And even for women without children, they should not be treated as if they are merely objects of desire. I’m fine with those who think these things about passing strangers, but when you voice those opinions or desires in such an intimidating way, you’re degrading the one you’re desiring, and taking away their dignity. For a broadcaster to declare that women should be proud of their ability to attract the attention of men (who, incidentally, should be concentrating on their building work), is not only reinforcing the stereotypes of male sand females that drives the wedge between the sexes in even deeper, but it’s also patronising and also dangerously damaging to the feminist movement.
Street harassment is a hot topic for feminists, and a cause of great annoyance. But for me, the fact that it was a young woman openly praising this trend in our culture, was what made the article surprising and worrying. I can’t help but wonder what effect this has on the woman’s audience, on the younger generation, who are more likely to be influenced by the media’s misconception and often degrading treatment of women. And surely this cannot help the situation.
And Sara can say all she wants about how fabulous it is to be noticed and to receive attention for such shallow reasons, and perhaps for some women she speaks the truth, but her last words, “there’s no such thing as unwanted attention”, are so final, so decisive, it hands the power back to the men. They still have the upper hand, and now they have permission to continue in their ways. But she’s wrong. Because believe it or not, there is such a thing as unwanted attention, even if women like her have no concept of it.