On class and cat-calling

If you’re reading this, you may or may not have been brought via my exposition over on the F Word, about desire and feminist debate. If you haven’t seen it, you can read it here.

Regardless, given that I was criticised by New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis and others on my comments on class and street harassment which I made in Paris Lees’ piece on cat-calling and more importantly, told by several women that read the piece that they felt sold out by me, I really wanted to clarify my remarks. When I read them in print, they did seem pretty woman-blaming and ill-judged.

So – here’s what I meant:

Any man who cat-calls may be equally as guilty of miscalculated flirting or out and out misogynistic verbal abuse. But it’s much easier to instantly denounce the monosyllabic louts that holler at us on the street than it is the surreptitious sexists that posture as gentlemen – and might appear to be so for a moment because they have a more eloquent turn of come-on. What’s more, it seems we DO call them out more frequently.  Just look at the campaign against lads mags (which I do not agree with) and that against Page 3 (which I mainly do agree with, albeit for the press freedom issue). Page 3 clearly makes a lot of money and is in vast circulation. But lads mags don’t and aren’t.


Meanwhile, just last weekend the NUS held a Laddism conference to counter the sexism rampant on our university campuses. Laddism is certainly sexist, but it’s also a term hugely laden with class assumptions and stereotypes. When has the NUS ever hosted a Creeper Tutors event, something I and many other women experience while studying? And what about events on how to deal with sexist bosses? I ask as someone who was sexually harassed (physically and by emails/texts, and then bullied once he realised I wasn’t going to respond to his advances, and started to feel guilty and humiliated) by an upper middle-class, well-respected boss who prided himself in being chivalrous but was actually just a chauvinistic bully. The difference was, it took me longer to find out because he was more subtle about it.


So what does that have to do with street harassment? The men that momentarily accost us with an unwanted on the street ‘hi gorgeous’ may intimidate or infuriate us. But the men that destroy our intellectual confidence and halt our career progression can derail us. Of course, they can be working class too. Nobody – not Paris Lees, not any of her interviewees, not me – tried to say it was ok for men to hurl misogynistic abuse or to physically harass women in that Vice piece. But some harassers have more power than others – and some men – and some kinds of sexism – are more roundly jumped on than others. Some of that has to do with power, some of that has to do with class. And if we acknowledge that feminism has not always been good at dealing with issues of class and race towards women, as this piece on dissenting feminisms for the Guardian on International Women’s Day did, then surely class issues will preponderate in its responses to men and sexism too.

My mistake was making a comment that sounded as though I was suggesting some women are simply too snobbish to get down with street harassment.  But here’s the actual email I sent to Paris, in its entirety, word for word. I think you’ll find I wasn’t really condoning street harassment at all:

I find that a certain kind of middle class woman finds cat calls particularly galling; there is a sense of being sullied if an uncouth or lower class kind of man  – a white van man, for eg,heckles – but if it’s a Roger Sterling type who can just about pull it off with a certain retro-sexist panache, the offence isn’t experienced the same. Growing up in working-class West Yorkshire, learning to hit back with a witty repartee was a kind of rite of passage. Of course I’m sure feminists like Laura Bates would say sexism is sexism and it doesn’t matter who delivers it. But the problem is, all cat-calls are not created equal. In the few seconds you are the recipient of one, it’s almost impossible to really know the context it’s being delivered in. I don’t think cat calling is a particularly sophisticated seduction technique if that’s why it’s being used, and I do think there is a clear line where sexist utterance becomes full-blown sexual harassment. But I think it’s a misnomer to draw a continuum between street heckling and the paltry rape conviction rate, for eg. Street hecklers don’t go on to become rapists any more than readers or lads mags do. You might not like it, and it still might be sexist, but there is a distinction between sexism and misogyny and I think cat-calling probably best exemplifies it.
Interestingly, I’ve been living between here and San Francisco for the past 18 months, a city where I’ve experienced the most street sexual harassment of my life (and a place I never would have expected to, giving its gender/sexual human rights record). In America, I think it’s the First Amendment, as much as the constitutional sexism, that sanctifies the routineness of cat-calling.
Best thing you can do, in my experience, is hit back with a witty one-liner, emasculating if you like, although I find befuddling rejection is best – or of course give no rejection at all.
And think about it like this – the point of a cat-call is to get a reaction. A cat-caller doesn’t really have any hope in hell of interacting with you in a civil way (or at least that’s their presumption), let alone pulling the object of his (or her) cat-call, so they resort to provocation to procure engagement. That tells you a lot about how limited the power of those that cat-call is. It’s not a compliment, no – it’s a sense of their complete lack of agency when it comes to interacting with you, and speaks more to their lack of human being status than yours.






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