The discussion about cat-calling and street harassment has reopened again this week after an article in Vice by Paris Lees. I say “reopened”, but of course for the women subjected to unwanted attention on the street every day, this is hardly an issue that gets shelved until a high profile magazine decides to make a thing about it. Lees’ piece has been criticized sharply by Sian Norris and other feminist writers like Marina S, who point out the aggressive and coercive aspects of unsolicited sexual comments in public, and the way in which many men turn nasty if their “compliment” is not met with what they consider a suitable response.
Street harassment is one of the areas where women sharing their experiences can provide a dramatic and necessary shock to men’s view of the world: I remember being astounded when a friend whom I’d known throughout university casually mentioned the summer trade-off between cycling to the library to get there more quickly, and running a gauntlet of yells and whistles on the way. It was one of those “Joanna Russ’ jeans” moments, when I realized that we had attended very different universities, whilst walking through the same libraries and dining halls. The bright sandstone street which I had only seen as a nice place to dawdle on my way to the bookstacks had forced my friend into a set of calculations and negotiations based on other people’s feelings about her right to be there.
Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project carries this out on a gigantic scale, offering thousands of testimonies from women about casual sexism and misogyny and making it more difficult (though not impossible) for the issue to be overlooked by men who don’t think that sort of thing really happens so often as people make out. I think a large part of the frustration with Lees’ article stemmed from the potential risk that men would decide that her piece represented what all women secretly felt, if only because it fitted better with the view of public space and gender interactions which sustain street harassment. Indeed, some men might well decide that the odds were reasonable: if they assumed that Lees represented a large enough cohort of women, it could be worth regularly offending and intimidating other women on the off-chance that one might respond well. None of this is to invalidate Lees’ recounting of how she feels, particularly in an area where women’s expression of their own experience is of such vital importance. But an awful lot of other women’s experience fits less well with the dominant narrative of how men should talk to women in public. It fits less well with what men would like to think all women are feeling.
So I’m not writing about how women feel when they’re cat-called in the street, or instructed to “smile, darling”, or informed “that top makes an old man very happy”, since it doesn’t happen to me. Instead, I think it’s worth looking at this from the other angle: talking about the stories guys tell each other and the way they live their lives. In the process I’d like to ask men to consider their motivations, their experience and whether they’re being honest about the justifications they give. As with the piece I wrote on feminism and the death of chivalry, I think a lot of men are either not being honest about their own experiences, or are failing to extend a modicum of empathy to other people.
Firstly, I’d ask men about their motivations for accosting women they don’t know. It’s often claimed that there is a romantic motive and that men and women must be allowed to show sexual interest in each other in public. Whenever a feminist questions the continual presence of street harassment, someone is bound to pop up denouncing feminism for being prudish and wanting to ban adults from making connections which could lead to an intimate relationship. Or indeed a quick shag. Extreme versions of this defence have been known to suggest that feminism’s anti-sex agenda will lead to the extinction of the human race unless men are allowed to holler sexual suggestions at passing women (seriously).
But I have never heard of any situation where this has happened. No-one of my acquaintance has ever mentioned that once they hooked up after calling out unsolicited comments on the physical attractions or personal demeanour of someone they’d never met before. If this is a way for heterosexual people to make connections across the intimidating chasm of gender difference, it’s staggeringly ineffective. I’m not talking about one night stands during a party, or meeting someone at a bar, or getting off after a clubbing session. I’ve heard stories from male friends about all those happening. But in my entire life I’ve never heard the story where a guy calls out something in the street, she responds favourably and they both end up with what they want.
What I have heard is stories about “crazy” women, “slaggy” women and “rough” women, who were too sexually “aggressive” in public. One in particular sticks in the mind: a college friend was at a ball, talking to a woman he’d just met, and they’d both had a few drinks. In response to a mildly suggestive comment from my friend, she laughed, reached forward, and grabbed his crotch. Now according to the justifications for street harassment, this should have been the perfect situation. It’s what every tedious sexist claims men would be delighted by if it happened to them. In reality, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that my friend – not a shy man – backed off quickly and did not end up sleeping with her that evening. She was “weird”, and probably a bit “crazy”. One anecdote doesn’t prove anything, but I wonder if these stories fill the gap where the accounts of “successful” cat-calling should theoretically be. If that’s the case – if women are most likely to be labelled “crazy” or “slutty” for displaying “too much” sexual availability in response to male come-ons – then there’s a pretty good argument for believing that most men don’t actually believe that street harassment is an attempt to initiate sex.
It looks much more like an attempt to control women, or at least to remind them that they are occupying public space which does not “belong” to them. This is not something that can be proved by discussing individual cases, or indeed asking men whether that is their intention in calling attention to women’s bodies as they drive by. But it’s certainly possible to ask men whether they’re being totally honest when they insist there’s nothing irritating or threatening about someone they don’t know addressing them out of nowhere. How would we feel if we were walking to a railway station after a local derby, realized that everyone around us was wearing one particular side’s colours and then someone started walking alongside us and demanding which team we supported? How many men enjoy strolling to a pub and being suddenly interrupted by a street preacher pushing leaflets into their hand and demanding that they justify their lifestyle? It’s a standing joke that in London you don’t make eye contact on public transport in the evenings in case someone tries to inflict their own personal obsessions or grievances upon you. Men are used to being offended and angry when people intrude on their right to be in public without being hassled or annoyed. It’s only when we’re asked to consider whether women might have the same rights that some of us suddenly can’t see the problem.
After all, public space is a political matter. We acknowledge this in a whole variety of ways. Peaceful protest is partly about activists assembling in common areas to mark their opposition to something. The declaration in the press that a particular area of a city has become a “no-go area” for specific groups is regularly the signal for a flood of outrage, based on the instinct that no-one should be restricted in their rights to inhabit public spaces free of intimidation or nuisance. Carnivals and religious festivals often make a point of spilling over into the streets to make their cultural and religious traditions felt in the common life of an area, and are sometimes met with objections from those who don’t feel that such groups have the right to do so. The effectiveness of a picket line depends upon the moral force exerted upon those who cross it, thus submitting themselves to the scrutiny and judgement of those on the line, as well as to their reasoned arguments.
Once again, men are capable of instinctively grasping the political – as well as the personal – aspects of walking through the streets in peace and quiet. We understand the outrage caused by attempts to interfere or restrict our rights to do so, even if that takes no more immediately threatening form than a general atmosphere of hostility, a dance party or a gauntlet of leaflets and slogans. It is only when women point out the daily pressures placed upon them that so many men claim that the streets are totally non-political, and anyone has the right to do or say anything to anyone else if they’ve chosen to go out in public. Women have spoken eloquently about the links between street harassment and sexual violence and the intimidating effect of dealing with it every day. And the way men themselves negotiate public space shows that we understand a lot more about the issues at stake than many of us will admit. It’s simply dishonest to pretend we don’t, and that therefore we shouldn’t urgently listen to women’s voices when they tell us what it’s like in the streets for them.
 This tradition of protest is what gives Reclaim the Night, Moonwalk and Reclaim the Streets marches their particular force, since the protest takes the form of doing what other people may do without fear or coercion. The act of protesting by walking through the streets in a particular area or at a particular time enacts the demands it makes, and thus calls attention to supposed rights to public space which can only be exercised completely safely by an organized group holding a scheduled event.