Hollering back to Paris Lees

One day, I was beeped by a driver.

Actually, this happens moderately often, generally when I’m running. The car horn is the universal language of street harassment. We all know what it means from the day it starts, and it starts when we’re girls, not even teenagers: “I am looking at you. You are something to be looked at, and I am doing the looking.” Beep-beep. Know your place. Not every woman experiences this as intimidation, of course. Writing in Vice, Paris Lees gleefully declares:

I love catcalls. I love car toots. I love random men smiling “Hello beautiful!” like my mere presence just made their day. I like being called “princess” and ignoring them as I giggle inside. I like being eye-fucked on the escalator and wondering if I’ve just made him spring a boner.

For her, catcalls are a confirmation of her gender and her sexual power. But a power that’s contingent on someone else wanting to do something to you doesn’t feel very much like power at all to me.

One day I was wolf-whistled.

The vocal, public expression of sexual interest is almost exclusively something that’s done by men to women, and in this it’s like other things that are done by men to women: rape, sexual assault, physical violence and murder. Lees writes: “I struggle to see any real connection between rape and the guy who wolf-whistled at me this morning.” I don’t. The conventions of street harassment make it an expression of male autonomy and female passivity, founded on the illusion that women incite it by being attractive. Just like rape. 

One day a man barked at me and my friends.

But catcalls are far from universally complimentary. Lees wants to “make a distinction between harassment […] and harmless fun”, but to my mind, there’s always harm: the harm of women being told that they are being observed, rated, “eye-fucked” in Lees’ words. This stuff gets into you. It tells you that your female body is always under judgement, in a way that a male body isn’t.

One day I was walking through a crowd of football fans to catch a tram and one of them commented on my tits.

The more male-dominated an environment is, the more likely you are to be harassed. Norah Vincent writes about the way that men bond by driving out the feminine within them, and for a group of men, a woman is the perfect foil against which to define their masculinity. It’s not lust, it’s hate. I suppose Lees might say this makes me part of “a certain kind of middle-class woman that finds catcalls particularly galling”. She quotes Nichi Hodgson, who claims: “There’s a sense of being sullied if an uncouth or lower-class kind of man – a white van man, for example – heckles.” To which I would say, my dad is a white van man, so fuck you. Whether it comes from city boys or sports casuals, harassment means the same malicious thing.

One day I was walking to the pub on my own wearing red lipstick. A man, part of a group of men, looked right at me and said, “Whoremouth.” It sounded too Jacobean to be true, but then again it sounded too Jacobean for me to have made it up. I put my head forward and my hand to my mouth and walked right on, burning humiliatedly.

This stuff puts you on guard. How you look, how you act: will it make you vulnerable? Will the thing that you enjoy – gaudy make-up, shiny tights, a pretty dress – be turned against you and used as the occasion to make you feel smaller and less human? And of course, when any individual man hollers a comment at you, he’s doing it as part of a culture where women are harmed because they are women. He may not intend anything greater than causing you discomfort, but that discomfort  draws on the fact that other men do much worse.

One day, in a nightclub, a man in white jeans grabbed my friend’s crotch. She didn’t mention it till later because she didn’t want to spoil the evening.

Every woman I know has an experience that gives her reason to be wary of men asserting their sexuality around her. When a man woops or shouts or whistles at a woman, he doesn’t know if she’s been raped or assaulted and so may find this behaviour particularly threatening – and he doesn’t care. So often what is understood as “flirting” is in reality men demanding a certain reaction from women: sex is understood to be taken by men from women, not something mutually wanted and performed. Catcalling asserts that belief noisily and in public. Lees can enjoy it; others do too. But any pleasure you get from it comes at the expense of those women who know all too well what street harassment is really saying about them.

20 thoughts on “Hollering back to Paris Lees

  1. As an older woman I can truthfully say that for me there’s only one thing worse than getting catcalls, and that’s not getting catcalls… I’m not sure if my very personal age-related female invisibility is better or worse than getting catcalls (sigh).

  2. “Catcall” is a horrible word, but I don’t think the “there’s nothing worse than not getting whistled at” thing that lots of older women say can be ignored totally. What I think is going on is that … I’d say that I compliment women, unsolicited, on their looks, maybe five or six times in the course of a year. I don’t think I’ve ever caused offence by doing so, and the reason is that my criterion for deciding whether to involves (among a number of other flowchart boxes with “don’t bother” written on them) the important step “is their body language really, really, obviously, like at the level of wearing a sandwich board with PLEASE COMPLIMENT ME written on it, asking to be noticed?”. This is not really very common (for obvious reasons) but it does happen, usually at the start of summer when women of about my own age are wearing newly purchased hats around town and wanting someone to say “what a nice hat” when they walk by or stand in a sandwich queue or something.

    To be honest, I regard that as an element of politesse, and I don’t think it’s got anything to do with the kind of behaviour in your post or in the linked “catcall, translated one”. Except in as much as the convention of blokes like me saying “nice hat” provides cover for harassers by allowing them to pretend that they were genuinely confused by the “signals”. Which I don’t regard as legitimate because unless someone’s got autism severe enough to really badly affect their life, they can tell the difference between someone who wants attention and someone who doesn’t; it’s one of the most basic forms of non-verbal communication. So since the harassers’ excuses are in such transparent bad faith, I don’t think they’d stop at all if I did. I am willing to be convinced otherwise on this point.

    Which brings me to the case of Paris Lees, who unless her public persona is totally misleading, seems to pretty much present herself to the world as if wearing one of those “LOOK AT ME” sandwich boards twenty four seven. And therefore has a pretty totally skewed perception both of the kind of attention that people get when they’re minding their own business, and very different tastes in being-bothered from the norm.

  3. I am really tired of the way women are forced to gaslight ourselves by pretending that the openly anti-feminist, anti-female bullshit that male-born and male-socialised trans activists like Paris Lees regularly come out with is in any way representative of the female perspective under patriarchy.

    Lees is a male-born person who enjoys living in the feminine gender role, that is clear. The problem for feminists and in fact most women is that we DON’T enjoy the subordinate sex-object gender role we have been assigned by a male-supremicist system. And for women to be truly liberated we need to destroy that gender role, not preserve it.

  4. A compliment is “you like nice in that dress” and isn’t shouted, learned, or catcalled. That behaviour is aggressive and hardly respectful.
    So, it occurs to me that very few women feel validated in their attractiveness, or womanhood, by such aggression.
    And how appropriate that someone who grew up male, with all the inculcation of masculinity, and privilege that endows, should feel so validated. After all, if it’s something you project as a compliment it would be very strange if you didn’t receive it as one, wouldn’t it?
    However, it doesn’t qualify you to tell people how they should feel about such aggression, especially if, since birth, they’ve grown to recognise and fear it for what it is, something Lees displays with gusto, plain old misogyny.
    Lees need to take a seat, and read DeBeauvoir.
    Or shut up.

  5. As an ‘older woman’, I can truthfully say that I’ve never liked being looked at, shouted at, told to cheer up, complimented, touched or heckled by strangers. The fact it doesn’t happen much now is one of the freedoms being older brings.

  6. Just to quickly canter through some of these points:

    Sarah, besides Pam’s answer, I can only add that I know a bit of how you feel – I once got VERY thin while I was training for a marathon, and the catcalling dried up almost completely. For some reason, my body wasn’t read as being an imposition on public space or a thing that needed controlling. It was disconcerting when I noticed… and then what I noticed was that this was something I’d always been conscious of, anxious about, and defining myself in relation to. I didn’t want to feel that way anymore, regardless of whether I had prominent breasts or not.

    Dsquared: I can see how civil compliments appear to shade into this kind of behaviour, but I don’t think they’re related (except inasmuch as harassers would perpetuate the idea that what they do is intended as a compliment). I do agree that how someone presents themselves is relevant to the reactions they get, which is why Lees presenting herself as the passive recipient of these comments is probably a bit misleading – and also sad replication of the patterns that street harassment establish.

    Lil Z and Realthunderchild: I don’t think Lees’ gender and socialisation are irrelevant to her experience of being gendered (obviously) – I saw Roz Kaveney on Twitter say that she had found validation in catcalls when she first started presenting as a woman – but I also don’t think that being trans is the cause of taking pleasure in catcalls. There are women who do enjoy this attention: why they might enjoy it, and why that enjoyment needs to be critiqued from a feminist position, is dealt with rather brilliantly by Marina S. Also, many trans women find public attention particularly uncomfortable, because it brings the possibility of being identified as trans and shamed on that account. This post by Juliet Jacques describes that anxiety beautifully.

  7. Pam, what I’m really on about here is not really catcalling; no-one likes to be treated like that, but the fact that now I’m older, I’m totally invisible both in society and in work. I might as well be a ghost and I’m surprised people don’t actually try to walk through me. At least when I was younger, people noticed that I existed! You can’t win can you?

  8. Liz L: I’m interested in your analysis. Could you expand on the practical steps you would propose we can take to dismantle gender, particularly perhaps in relation to transwomen like Paris Lees whose unadvised comments seem to have sparked your argument.

  9. I’m with Pam. I do not miss it one little bit. And, actually, I’ve found that people are, in general, much nicer to me now that I look older. But maybe that has to do with the fact that I spent much of my life looking like a teenager.

  10. At work, I’m ignored, people miraculously come up with my ideas after I’ve voiced them and then get the credit. I’m denied any career progression despite an excellent record and my point of view is never acknowledged unless I really SHOUT. There is a younger woman; conventionally attractive, Italian, and guess what? My colleagues are all over her; everything she says is acknowledged, all her (often lame) ideas are taken on board and she is on a meteoric career path. It’s my experience that younger feminists never take the concerns of older women on board and prefer instead to bleat about lesser issues like being called after in the street.There are far bigger fish to fry, and the marginalisation of older women in the workplace is one of them.They need to check their youth privilege and stop implicitly supporting the partriarchy’s age-based misogyny

  11. Sarah: I think you’re wrong to see these as separate issues, or to see street harassment as a manifestation of “youth privilege”. It’s part of the way women are shunted out of public life by male hostility. It’s related to the same experience of being overlooked and ignored that you relate. On ageism, I thought this piece by Meghan Murphy about the rejection of the second wave as a manifestation of ageism was just great, and aligned with a lot of my own thoughts on the issues. Gaby Hinsliff wrote an excellent piece last year about how much work feminism needs to do to recognise the needs of older women (and middle-aged women who become carers to their elderly relations). But none of this counts as “bigger fish to fry” exactly. A culture where women can’t feel safe in public is one where they can’t be heard, can’t be listened to in the political sphere, can’t be acknowledged as professional equals. Street harassment matters to women’s lives. It matters a lot.

  12. Thanks for those links Sarah; I’ll check them out. As you can tell this is very personal to me. I’m a second waver, was at Greenham and fought for many issues which were critical at the time. Some of those battles have been won, but what we achieved never seems to be acknowledged by current feminism. To me, contemporary feminism now seems so, well, small somehow.

  13. I can sympathise with that, and there’s a lot of minor, media-friendly stuff that grabs attention is a way that equal pay and violence against women never seem to be able to. But, but, but – laws against sexual harassment were one of the second wave’s greatest achievements. Driving sexual harassment out of society is a job that we need to finish off.

  14. I agree Sarah. As I don’t get harassed any more it seems less of an issue to me now. Perhaps I need to spend more time walking around with young women to reacquaint myself with the way things are now. We should all try to walk in one another’s shoes from time to time.

  15. I was linked this article by my husband (who incidentally is probably the most strident feminist I know!) and it so perfectly and far more articulately lays out what I was saying (through tears) after returning from a friends hen weekend last Sunday. I went from irritated, to annoyed, to incensed before finally settling on depressed by the CONSTANT ‘good natured’ and some not so good natured harassment that a party of fourteen ladies of various ages endured through the restaurant window, with some groups even believing it would be appropriate to come into the restaurant to express in person their feelings about our levels of attractiveness etc. I tend to go out in mixed groups more often than not so had little experience as to what an easy and seemingly irresistible target a party of only ladies presents to these ‘men’. What upset me most was that I seemed to be the only woman who though that this was not okay. Not ok at all. I was made to feel humorless and over sensitive when I asked ‘why do men think they can do this?!’
    Thank you and sorry to ramble!

  16. Cheers for this, totally agree. I didn’t read the Vice piece as Vice is known publishing pieces which are essentially just clickbait. Didn’t seem very representative of many women’s experiences, my own included.

  17. A couple of things. Not being catcalled does not make me feel any safer on the street. I’m still just as wary as I always was. (Maybe even more so because I can’t run as fast as I used to.) In my life experience, I was ignored when I was young and pretty. Now that I’m old and “wise,” younger people are very receptive and seek me out for advice, so my experience has been the opposite of Sarah Lambert’s. Personally, I don’t see street harassment as a “lesser issue.” I think it’s a very important issue, like ageism, that shouldn’t be trivialized.

  18. Sarah Lambert: The first and most crucial practical step we need to take to dismantle gender is to recognise it as system of domination and subordination, rather than a matter of personal identity. This is where radical feminism (and any feminism that isn’t ultra-liberal third-wave, really) clashes with trans and queer theory.

    The radical view of gender sees masculinity as the behaviour required of dominants, and femininity as the behaviours required of subordinates in a sex-caste system. The liberal or queer/trans theory view of gender sees it as an innate part of one’s self, and says the only problem with it is that sometimes people are put into the ‘wrong’ gender box.

    Simone De Beauvoir was the first person to articulate a radical critique of gender, which is summed up in her famous quote, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ She was speaking of femininity as an artificial condition that is imposed on girls from birth through a series of brutal and coercive processes, in order to create a subordinate sex class.

    Trans activists and liberal feminists LOVE to quote that line in support of the authenticity of trans identities, and in so doing they completely invert De Beauvoir’s insight to mean that a woman is something someone chooses to become, and that femininity is something that women choose. I suppose it makes sense in our neoliberal age of self-help and self-improvement that people like to believe we can all be and do anything we want, and that we are entirely beings of our own making.

    The problem with replacing a feminist analysis of gender with one based on identity libertarianism is that it renders sex-based oppression invisible. I mean, if femininity is what defines a woman, and it is something that women choose to do, then all women are choosing to be members of the subordinate sex class, no?

  19. I should add that I don’t think having a radical critique of gender is necessarily incompatible with trans identities. But it is definitely incompatible with the kind of gender politics that trans activists are currently mainstreaming. There are a number of gender-critical trans women bloggers who have explored in very interesting ways how the feminist view of gender as part of the structure of women’s oppression fits with their own experience of gender. Reading them convinced me (in a way that peremptory demands that I accept without question any man’s declaration that he is a woman, did not) that trans women have a reality that should be respected, as male persons who have experienced sex dysphoria and now live as women. The difference between these trans women and Paris Lees is that they respect MY reality, and acknowledge that female human beings are a class of people who are oppressed because of our female biology, and that we do not experience ‘privilege’ along the axis of gender because of this. If modern trans politics is going to be based on insisting that we ignore that, then yes, feminists will need to resist it.

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