From ‘oy sexy’ to ‘frigid bitch’ in 30 seconds

Picture the scene: a man walks to the shops. Not such an unusual scenario. Nor is there anything particularly remarkable about this man: he could be old, he could be young, he could be fat, thin, tall, short, attractive, ugly, indifferent. He could have King Kong body hair or he could have had it waxed off just that day. Let’s assume, though, for the purposes of this argument, that he is somewhere in-between. His only salient features are that he is a man and he is walking to the shops.

Hardly has he stepped out his front door, when he’s practically knocked off his feet by a teenage girl on a bike. She screeches past, pinches his bum, yells out something unintelligible and immediately rides away, leaving him wondering what type of livestock she was trying to impersonate. He walks down the street. He thinks about football. He carries on thinking about football even when a woman winds down the window of her car and hollers at him: “Nice arse!” And he carries on thinking about football even when he walks past the girl-only construction site, accompanied by whistles and catcalls and loosely anatomical jeers. It doesn’t faze him. He’s used to it. I mean, it used to disturb him, as a boy, when middle-aged women would grope him on the way to school and then stalk him halfway home, but these days he’s past being bothered and he keeps on thinking about the football. And yes, you do hear worrying stories about big women in dark alleyways at night and the things that they can do to you with eight-inch rods of iron, but you don’t know how much of that is just scaremongering, an exaggerated threat which these other instances feed off, designed to keep men feeling unnerved. Our man won’t let it worry him. Eventually he gets to the shop and he buys a pint of milk. And then he thinks some more about the football.

I probably don’t need to press the point.

What is perhaps odd about this issue is that it doesn’t even seem like an issue until you give sexual harassment a sex change. I was going to throw in a few personal anecdotes – maybe mention my big-busted sister who hears “show us your tits” on a daily basis, or my friend who cannot step out the house without hearing some bright spark comment on her bottom – but these anecdotes all seemed too quotidian, too ordinary. A bit like finishing a diary entry with the words “and then I went to bed”. Every woman has her own version of these anecdotes. When Bidisha wrote an article for the Guardian on the theme, she attracted 324 comments and the female respondents were practically unanimous in saying: yes, it had happened to them. The issue is ludicrously prevalent. Perhaps because of, rather than despite, its prevalence, it’s rare for us to see it as a big deal – like road-works or screaming toddlers, it is just so much background noise. But should we see it as a big deal? Is the drip-drip-drip of everyday low-level harassment having a negative cumulative effect?

This month’s Cosmopolitan makes an effort to stir up some debate. Indeed, it goes some way towards presenting catcalling as the Marmite of gender politics – either you love it or you hate it, and there isn’t much middle ground. “Sexist or sexy?” asks the article in question, page 123 of the November issue, “does it make you mad, or make your day?” Two writers, with conveniently polarised views, are brought in to illustrate the divide. “It makes me cringe,” says Tim Bradley, “and I’m a man!” “Bring it on!” counters Lauren Henderson, who claims that, her feminism having become “less kneejerk”, she often “returns the compliment” by wolf-whistling herself. Catcallers, she claims, generously, are basically just trying to be nice.

When one woman’s sexual harassment is another woman’s personal affirmation, it takes a pretty well developed sexual sophistication to be able to navigate your way through the mire and a well-developed sexual anything is rarely possessed by men who yell ‘nice baps’ at random girls

The point she disregards, however, is that catcalls are not all made alike. Catcalling has a wide range of varieties, some more unsavoury than others – if we’re talking food brands here, it’s probably less like Marmite and more like Heinz. To begin with, there are compliments from strangers, which are generally a wonderful thing and are probably what Lauren Henderson has in mind. Slightly less life-affirming, but fairly unobjectionable, are wolf-whistles from high up in the scaffolding, and horn-honks from men zooming past in white vans – these come under the category of mildly flattering noise pollution and shouldn’t be enough to cause any serious post-traumatic stress. Other varieties, however, are less palatable, and now I’m talking about the sort of things I mentioned in the role-reversed scenario: there are the farmyard noises from boys on bikes, and the sleazy gropes on public transport. There are the lager louts who stalk you down the street, and the blokes who sit there with a score-card giving you “marks out of 10”. There are the hollers and the bum-pinches and the hisses and the jibes. There are the macabre footsteps behind you at night-time which tap into a pervasive fear of rape. As you move further down this spectrum, ‘flirty’ darkens into ‘menacing’ and the catcallers are responding less to a woman’s perceived attractiveness, more to her perceived vulnerability. Of course, whether you experience an incident as flattering, exasperating or threatening will depend on where you personally draw the lines – you may find that the ‘threatening’ category disappears altogether if you own one of those eight-inch rods of iron.

In all seriousness, though, these are difficult issues, partially because sex itself is a difficult issue. Is it possible to differentiate completely between sex as a power game and sex as expressive of desire? It might suit our purposes to think that potential rapists (threatening) are only interested in power, whereas everyday wolf-whistlers (flattering) are powered by red-blooded lust, but more probably there is a bit of both in both. The difference between the two is quantitative rather than qualitative. When Norah Vincent, author of Self-Made Man: My Year Disguised as a Man, first walked down the street in drag, she was amazed to find that for the first time, men “didn’t stare. On the contrary,” she writes “when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly, and never looked back… Seeing those guys looking away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares.” As a woman, by contrast, “you were an object of desire or at least semi-prurient interest” to the men who lurked in the streets of that neighbourhood, or failing that, “just another pussy to be put in its place”. You were probably a mixture of the two.

Wolf-whistles can become dog-barks. ‘You’re fucking gorgeous, you,’ can become ‘fucking ugly cow’

On similar, but different lines, can we truly distinguish between harassment and flirtation? Between unsolicited sexual advances and ‘making the first move’? Can we do so definitively? When one woman’s sexual harassment is another woman’s personal affirmation, it takes a pretty well developed sexual sophistication to be able to navigate your way through the mire and a well-developed sexual anything is rarely possessed by men who yell “nice baps” at random girls.

There is one reason, however, above all others, why catcalling ought to make us feel uneasy, and that is simply objectification. Any form of sexual comment thrown at a stranger in the street, be it positive or negative, objectifies that stranger, treats her as an aggregate of body parts. It has been said that women tend to see themselves through misogynists’ eyes. I would add they see themselves through catcallers’ eyes. The things we hear from catcallers comprise a radically unstable set of messages. What starts out “oi sexy” can modulate within seconds to “frigid bitch”, simply because you didn’t leap in a state of sexual paroxysms into the back of his white van. Wolf-whistles can become dog-barks. “You’re fucking gorgeous, you,” can become “fucking ugly cow”. There are similar oscillations in a woman’s mind when she’s learnt to see her worth as skin-deep.

Catcalling culture may be complimentary in a perverse sort of way, some of the time, but it encourages women to gauge their self-worth from the outside in. I knew one girl who used to count the car beeps she received on the way home and if it was lower than a certain quota she would (no kidding) get changed. Now, she was the exception rather than the rule – she was so insecure that she could have made a career for herself as a human wobbly bridge – indeed, she would have enjoyed it, people walked all over her as a matter of course – but, in a sense, she’s a scrupulously logical product of a very pervasive social trend. Catcalling is related to the beauty industry, the magazine industry, the thousand and one different marketing scams which capitalise on treating women like a bunch of deficient bits and pieces. That so many blokes are prepared to treat us like this, yelling out demeaning remarks in the street, that so many of us are prepared simply to take it, shows precisely how insidious this social trend has become. It is not all blokes, by any means, but it does affect all women.

What is do be done? In an ideal world, any man who had ever dog-barked at a woman, or stalked her home, would be forced to wander the streets wearing a specially customised pair of comedy breasts, just to see how they liked it. As it stands, the best thing to do is probably to play them at their own game, and to stock up on witty comebacks. An appropriate way to practise might be to go and banter with a cattle herd: although that way, I should warn you, you’ll probably have a more constructive dialogue.