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....