I Love Wolf-Whistles and Catcalls – Am I a Bad Feminist?
I get the stuff about "power imbalance" but it just makes me feel sexy.
Image by Sam Taylor
Last summer I went to Ibiza, where I was catcalled, sexually objectified and treated like a piece of meat by men the entire week. And it was absolutely awesome. It got to the point where I couldn't even be bothered to follow any of it up. Every time some hot guy got fresh with me, I just thought, 'Okay, I could fuck you, but there might be some even hotter stud serving it up later.' I guess it’s like when I used to live by the sea and never got round to going swimming. It was just always there, you know? You forget to get wet.
So forgive me, looking around this misery we call London in March, for feeling a little sad that I’m not in Ibiza, Land of Sexual Objectification. 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. That eye-fuck, by the way, is an age-old mating signal. I live for it.
So yeah, I’m a bit of a slut. I also used to be a prostitute. And before that, well, a boy. Uh-huh. And I’m a total attention junkie. So I may – may – not represent all women. Who does, though? I’m a feminist because I don’t like men telling me how to think or behave or experience the world and I don’t like women doing it, either. Laura Bates recently wrote an article for the Guardian called “Women should not accept street harassment as ‘just a compliment’”. I truly admire the work Laura does with Everyday Sexism to highlight some horrendous abuse, and you should visit the site and check out some of the shit people have had to deal with. It’s awful. And she’s not wrong. No one should accept harassment; harassment, by its very nature, is unacceptable. But is catcalling always harassment?
The Independent's social media editor Felicity Morse loves catcalls and I’m guessing she gets loads because she’s freaking hot. Even though I’m probably not supposed to say that. She told me: “If I'm dressed up in a sexy little something, I’m sashaying down the street and I'm tossing a head of freshly washed hair like I think I'm Beyoncé, I find a catcall rather appreciative. But if I'm out jogging or running to the bus stop, huddling past a building site in the rain, I find it intrusive.” It also depends on the number of men and what they’re doing: “If they are working on a building site or something, well they can't really leave their work, it’s almost traditional to wolf-whistle and pretty meaningless so I don't feel threatened. But a big gang of young men in the dark? I wouldn't even acknowledge I'd heard them.” Would she give her number to a guy in the street? “Probably, but I wouldn't have high hopes for a relationship! That's not harassment, it's flattering. If he doesn't go away? That's harassment.” She’d still ban catcalls on the basis that they upset many women, though.
This is kind of my problem with the debate around street attention. It’s part of a culture that infantilises women and teaches them to be constantly afraid. I wasn’t brought up that way and I don’t feel frightened when some spunky dude comes and talks to me. I hate this idea that all men are rapists-in-waiting and that all women are victims-in-waiting. It’s patronising and doesn’t help anyone. Many women are sexual and like to look and feel and be seen as sexual. I’m one of those women. But if I smile next time a man wolf-whistles at me, does that make me a bad person? What if the next person he wolf-whistles at is a woman who’s been raped? What if he ruins her day?
Nichi Hodgson, author of Bound to You, Men's Health sex columnist and director of the Ethical Porn Partnership, says there’s a certain kind of middle-class woman that finds catcalls particularly galling: “There’s a sense of being sullied if an uncouth or lower-class kind of man – a white van man, for example – 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.” Laura says that growing up in working-class West Yorkshire learning to hit back with witty repartee was a kind of rite of passage. The same is true where I come from, although it’s the blokes who need the comebacks. Let’s just say Nottingham girls aren’t shy.
Speaking of which, I wanted to hear from some regular women, not professional feminists, so I called my sister. She’s super hot and cool and gets loads of attention from guys but apart from that she’s pretty "normal", whatever that means. She’s a Property Services Officer in Nottingham, she’s 28, college educated, mixed race and describes her sexuality as “straight but open minded”. Here’s what she had to say.
Me: Sista! I’m doing an article on catcalling, what do you think about it?
Natti: I don’t find it offensive, I find that it can be a compliment and I also think that the guys are brave because they’re just there in broad daylight, shouting down the street.
Me: Have you ever hooked up with a guy in the street?
Natti: No, no, no, no, no! I wouldn’t do that. If he’s that sure of himself… well, it’s arrogant, isn’t it?
Me: Do you ever find it sexy?
Natti: Yeah of course, sometimes.
Me: Would you ever wear something sexy to catch men’s attention in the street?
Natti: Wouldn’t every woman if they can?
I phone my mum after and she says catcalls are like periods – she hated them when she was younger but feels sad now they’re about to dry up. Wow, mother.
One woman who emailed me in response to an enquiry I put out on Facebook – one of many who preferred to remain anonymous because they don’t want you to, you know, judge them – takes catcalling as a compliment, too: “I have friends who say they feel powerless and objectified when being catcalled. I think they made a choice about how it makes them feel, and I choose to feel empowered.” She once hooked up with a guy from the street, but the sex was “Ehhhh”, so don’t get too excited. Still, how many of you reading this wouldn’t exist had one of your parents not made a pass at the other in the street?
The Guardian’s Ellie Mae O'Hagan says it doesn’t surprise her that some women like catcalls: “One of the ways patriarchy sustains itself is by convincing women that their worth is determined by the approval of men along a strict set of terms. Getting wolf-whistled at or whatever is a small confirmation that a woman is meeting the terms patriarchy demands of her.” Couldn’t you say that about pretty much anything, though? Like, if a woman tells another woman “Great dress!” is she letting her know that she’s meeting the expectations of capitalism and the fashion industry and beauty culture? Or is she just telling her she likes her dress? Or is it a bit of both?
I’ll be honest: Ideology bores the shit out of me, but Ellie does have a point about catcalls being an expression of power. There’s a power imbalance, for example, between those who feel entitled to express their sexuality in public (straight men) versus those who don’t (like gay men, older people and lesbian women). Ellie goes further and cites studies that suggest sexual violence is "to an extent rooted in ideologies of male sexual entitlement”, though I struggle to see any real connection between rape and the guy who wolf-whistled at me this morning. As Nichi puts it: “I think it's a misnomer to draw a continuum between street heckling and the paltry rape conviction rate. Street hecklers don't go on to become rapists any more than readers of lads mags do.”
I don’t want feminists to stop campaigning against the terrible abuse girls and women face every day in Britain and I’m grateful to anyone raising awareness about feminist issues. And men, for the record, I haven’t spoken to anyone yet who likes being told “I’d like to fuck you up the arse” as you drive past them in the street. So stop it with that, you assholes. I just wish we could make a distinction between harassment like this and harmless fun.
Because whether you like it or not there’s a big difference between “Hello gorgeous” and – as Laura Bates was, abhorrently, told – “I’d hold a knife to that”. I don’t want to make other women feel pathetic if they don’t enjoy street attention but I also don’t want to feel pathetic for enjoying it. I don’t speak for all women and neither do you. I’ll leave you with the words of 86-year-old Jinx Allen Craig, the woman in catcalling’s greatest portrait, An American Girl in Italy: “It’s not a symbol of harassment. It’s a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!” Jinx, call me. We need to book our flights to Ibiza.