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.

9 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.

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