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.