Yesterday evening, in the spirit of fun and games, I poured alcohol into my teetotal friend’s drink while he was in the bathroom. He’d ordered a Diet Coke but, let’s face it, everyone knows that a Diet Coke is immeasurably improved with rum in it. I took it upon my generous self to procure a full shot of rum at the bar – a double, in fact, which knocked me back about £17.50 – and pour it in, then waited gleefully for his return. As he sat down and took a sip of his drink then grimaced with realisation, I grinned. ‘I gave you a little something to make that Diet Coke more interesting,’ I said, slightly sleazily, with a wink and a gentle pat on his arm.
For some reason, he reacted with a complete lack of amusement or joy. ‘What did you do that for?’ he asked me, acting as though I was rude or insensitive or something equally ridiculous.
‘For God’s sake,’ I replied, justifiably on the defensive. ‘You’re in a pub! What do you expect? People drink alcohol here, you know. It’s a big part of British culture.’
I know what you’re thinking: oversensitive teetotallers are ruining things for everyone nowadays. If teetotal people have the gall to continue to wander into our alcohol-sodden British spaces – restaurants, pubs, cafes, the outside, my house – then they’re going to have to accept the odd drink spike once in a while. If they don’t like it, they can always buy a new drink or carry their own anti-spiking apparatus around with them. I’m not changing my own fun-loving self just because they’ve made silly life choices by being alcoholics or religious or, you know, allergic. Why should I?
Of course, I didn’t spike my friend’s drink. This should go without saying: spiking is disrespectful, it’s a violation and it certainly isn’t justifiable in any situation. But I do find that it makes an interesting – if not entirely perfect – analogy for catcalling.
Catcalling is the feminist issue that just never goes away. Why can’t you take it as a compliment? Why can’t you ignore it or brush it off, or reply to the catcallers if you don’t like it? Why can’t you chill out and stop being so uptight? Why can’t you change the way you look or dress? Why is it such a big deal anyway when people are dying of malaria and I have to pay £50 for an Ikea delivery?
In the latest of these eye-rollingly common occurrences, Ella Whelan in the Spectator argued this week that the Guardian’s Jessica Valenti, amongst others, should just relax about street harassment. The article was littered with enough straw men to fill a country farm, and culminated in the line, addressed to women at large, ‘If you don’t like what someone says to you on the street, say something back, put your headphones on or just laugh – it’s not that bad.’
Also, by the way, catcalls are part of public life, and if you’re not happy to endure them, then you’re cutting yourself off from public life. Meanie feminists are stopping people talking to each other in public, she says, and that’s basically destroying society. It’s the verbal equivalent of wearing a burkha, which is also something women do to spite other people, apparently.
If only life were that simple. The problem with street harassment is that it’s not about ‘human interaction’, and it’s not that much about sex either. What street harassment is about is control.
The man in his car speeding past you who yells, ‘Give me a blow job, love!’ isn’t realistically supposing that you’ll run after him at 30mph, shouting, ‘Yes please! Take me home! I’ve got so much love to give!’ The men who follow you down the street saying, ‘I just called you pretty, say thank-you! Say thank-you! Talk to me!’ aren’t actually just lonely blokes looking for a bit of conversation. They’re not wandering up to men and saying the same thing. This sort of intimidation – and it does feel genuinely intimidating – is more about letting a woman know where she stands in society, as a decoration, as a sex object, as an inferior.
Finally, Whelan took umbrage with Valenti’s claim that she became so used to catcalls in her youth that she kind-of-sort-of misses them now they’re gone. After being judged mainly on her looks throughout her life, Valenti had admitted – fairly bravely – that she felt conflictingly disappointed about men’s lessened interest. Ms Whelan’s take on that? Well, you just can’t keep those crazy feminists happy! One minute they hate the catcalls, the next they’re asking for them back.
As a feminist living in an often sexist world, sometimes you do find yourself feeling uncomfortable with your own socialised thoughts. ‘I am worth less because I’m less desirable to men’ is an insecure thought pattern born out of being raised in a society that expects you to be predominantly ornamental. Admitting that doesn’t destroy your feminist credentials; if anything, it confirms them.
So sorry Ms Whelan, but I won’t accept that anyone has the right to pour a double shot of rum into teetotallers’ Diet Cokes every time they venture into the world. It’s horrifically misguided, even if you do it with the most jovial of intentions. And you know what? If you do it too often, you can really, really wear some people down.