Friday, 22 April 2011

Street Fair

Sally OutenPosted by Sally Outen

5.15. Time for that early-morning wolf-whistle – as regular as clockwork, and more of a certainly than breakfast. Every day, walking through the city centre, I'd pass the same bus stop, and get the same reaction from the same guy – at least, I assume it was the same guy – I never looked directly at him. I never even changed my pace. And I never found a convenient alternative route into work, and I never complained to the police. I didn't feel threatened. I felt embarrassed, and sad, and puzzled – because it was just such a weird situation. Every day, the same thing. Every day for months, the whole time I was working an early shift.

Once, when I arrived at the office, I mentioned it to a friend. Yeah, it was a bit odd, she agreed, but it must be kind of gratifying. A wolf-whistle is a compliment, right? And this guy had chosen me out of all the people... OK, milk-floats, mostly... that passed him as he waited for his bus. Maybe I should feel flattered, on the whole.

I didn't feel flattered.

Still, I'd take that mournful serenade over the kind of thing I'd learned to cope with a few years earlier. That was when I'd first discovered how it felt to be followed down the street by five or six men in varying degrees of drunkenness, mockingly catcalling and critiquing my body; or to be physically detained by someone demanding answers about my gender and sexual activities. No, compared to these things, I didn't mind it so much, my role as the recipient of a once-daily, strangely awkward wolf-whistle.

Because it was a compliment, right? Instead of abuse.

Um, no. Because it wasn't all that frightening – and that was the only meaningful distinction, for me. Even if we're counting a wolf-whistle as a compliment, street compliments and street abuse can just feel like two sides of the same coin.

OK, I'll try to explain. I don't enjoy having misogyny screamed at me from car windows; I don't enjoy having strangers approach me to remark that my appearance isn't up to scratch in some apparently all-important respect. But I don't enjoy strangers coming over to explain how aesthetically pleasing they find my backside, either. No, really.

Sure, the context can make a big difference. A piercing wolf-whistle and a “Hello, sexy!” from someone leering at me from across a deserted road is unlikely to go down as well as a genial, “Excuse me, but I just wanted to say... you're really pretty!” from a nearby seat in a full train carriage. With street compliments, as with street abuse, there's often a moment to be spent wondering, “Am I in danger from this person?”. If I feel reasonably confident that, given the situation and the other person's demeanour, I'm not about to be attacked, I'll tend to feel a lot less on-edge.

But even when I'm feeling relatively safe, there are a couple of problems here. And these are problems that frequently seem to go unappreciated by those who are most vehement in their defence of “positive” street remarks.

I'm not a fan of feeling objectified. That's how street commentaries on my appearance make me feel, regardless of the verdict. If a friend tells me I have nice legs, I'm likely to feel flattered. If a stranger tells me I have nice legs, I'm likely to feel like a pair of legs – or at least to feel like that's all people see when they pass me in the street. I don't like being appraised like that, as a piece of flesh– I'd rather be appraised as a whole person.

I also object to the apparent sense of entitlement, of ownership. Not necessarily specific ownership of my body (no, my body belongs in the public domain, apparently), but ownership of my time. Whatever I'm thinking or feeling when I'm targeted – that isn't important; I should always be on hand to pay regard to other people's judgements of me, of my appearance. And this stuff does occupy my thoughts – however complimentary, such unsolicited remarks often leave me feeling confused and distracted for some time afterwards.

In discussions on this subject, I've been accused of being “up-tight”, or just envious of women who receive more positive attention than I do. I ought to enjoy receiving compliments – after all, I'll only feel sorry when I'm a little bit older and stop getting them.

Well, actually, I do appreciate compliments – from friends or, you know, people with whom I share more than a passing acquaintance. Sometimes, it's nice to receive compliments from strangers, too. Sometimes, it isn't. I know that some women like it to be known that they appreciate any such remarks, catcalls included. Well, that's fine. What I object to is being told that I really ought to feel gratified by all such attention too. I'm sorry, but I don't.

I'd be interested to hear how people feel about this issue, and how others deal with street harassment. Please feel free to share your feelings in the comments section below....


  1. "If a friend tells me I have nice legs, I'm likely to feel flattered. If a stranger tells me I have nice legs, I'm likely to feel like a pair of legs"

    That's a really good point that I hadn't quite put my finger on before. When someone praises your appearance in the context of knowing and liking other things about you and appreciating you as a complex and multifaceted person, that's completely different from someone who *only* has your appearance to go on commenting on it. Also, a compliment from a friend usually happens within a conversation that you've chosen to have with that person, rather than a random interjection when you're in the middle of doing something else.

  2. I'm a cis-male, and aware I'm looking at this very much from a position of privilidge.

    I draw a distinction between complimenting someone on their body and on what they've achieved with their body. To me, it's the difference between "Nice tits", and "That's a lovely jacket" or "Your eyeliner looks amazing". The former feels to me like objectification, while the latter is appreciation for something someone has done.

    I've both received and paid this kind of compliment to and from strangers. I've always been grateful, and I've assumed such a compliment will generally be received well.

    I guess one of the reasons I want to share my experience here is that I want to know if I'm Doing It Wrong. Certainly my aim isn't to express my ownership or objectification of someone else's time/appearance, but it hadn't occurred that even these comments could be experienced in that way.

  3. @me-and: I'm not sure I have a straightforward answer to your question, but I highly recommend you read this post about approaching women you don't know, which is one of the best I've seen on the subject.

  4. @lilka: Thank you for the link. It's reassuring at least that all the advice in there seems pretty obvious to me.

    It's saddening, if not surprising, that the vast majority of comments there look like they're from women. Getting this sort of message to the people to whom it will make a difference, i.e. men who aren't conscious of the effects of their actions, or that "no" means "no", feels far more difficult than it ought.

  5. OTOH, the fact that men aren't commenting doesn't necessarily mean they aren't reading. I like to think that feminist blogs are read by at least some lurking men who are at that stage of learning about privilege where they know they're quite likely to put their foot in their mouth if they say anything, but haven't yet learnt what kind of comments would be acceptable, so they keep quiet, and read, and learn. I'm at this stage with relation to some of my own privileges, and I know men who are cautious about commenting on feminist blogs for that reason.

  6. @ me-and

    “I draw a distinction between complimenting someone on their body and on what they've achieved with their body.”

    *nodnod* - yes, in my experience, comments of that sort usually sit differently with me to comments about my body itself. Having said that, I'll still probably be doing a quick Why-Is-This-Person-Talking-To-Me analysis, and my reaction is likely to depend on how introverted or exposed I'm feeling, how I'm feeling about my body, where I am and how many people are around, and the apparent signals the other person is giving out. If I'm sure that they're not trying to use the comment as an opener for something else, and that it really does constitute appreciation of my choices and isn't just veiled objectification (“That's a great skirt you're wearing, nice and short and tight...” might have me panicking!), then I'm unlikely to invest much time worrying about it. I don't generally get any prolonged sense of confusion and distraction from comments along the lines of "That's a lovely jacket" - I usually just think "yay!" and carry on as normal.

    [Of course, this stuff is complicated by all sotrs of factors, and the article linked to by lilka frames it all rather better than I've done here. Personally, I'm also likely to have a problem with comments that have the potential indirectly to lead to policing of the person's choices, or those of others. Things like: “How nice that you have done X.” where this is followed (implicitly or explicitly) by “You (and others in your societal group) should always do X in the same way.”. That's getting into the whole beauty ideal thing – very problematic when reinforced by society as a whole, and especially so where doing X requires significant effort and investment, and may not even be possible for some people in the group in question. But that's another story....]