How did you start your day?
Maybe you slept your full eight hours, maybe not. Did you have some breakfast? Did you wake up with someone next to you in your bed? Did you have to rush your cup of tea? Was your shower warm enough?
And did you get to work on time? Did you say hello to all your colleagues whilst you put on your matching fluorescent yellow vests? I can only presume that today was just like any other for you. Once the morning rush of office people has quietened, you can grab a pair of gloves and drill. In between drilling, you share a few jokes with two of your mates, and a packet of Hobnobs is probably passed around during your break. Do they laugh with (or at) you when you go back for a second one?
There was nothing out of routine for you this Wednesday. You even scheduled in a bit of casual street harassment before lunch. Two pairs of legs approached and, like clockwork, you whistled. In fact, you’re in a pretty generous mood – the sun is shining, you have your favourite sandwich waiting for you in the break room – so you throw in a ‘hey gorgeous’ for good measure.
Did it make you triumphant to see our pace quicken and our heads lower? Did you feel like a ringleader when the other men joined in the chorus? Were you suddenly the alpha because you had led the howling?
‘We’re talking to you!’
‘Don’t ignore us.’
If you saw us again tomorrow, would you recognise us? Legs are legs, and probably not discernible from one another, but what if you had seen our faces? In a line-up, we probably look like all the other girls you bellow at: thighs, arses, hips, boobs. What colour are my eyes?
You followed us home in the echoes of drilling and shouting and whistling, which rang around our heads long after we had walked by. What if, instead of turning away, we turned around?
My sister is twelve. Would you like the honour of explaining to her that her body’s changes are more than just physical? That she is no longer herself, but a sum of body parts.
‘Why are they whistling? I’m not a dog.’
Would you like to be the one to tell her that she’s no longer human? She is a thing to be stared at, and the male gaze is now just accepted as the norm?
Would you like to tell her that it’s a compliment? She should be flattered that she is valued highly enough to command your attention. Her fear shows that she has worth.
I’m aware you weren’t threatening us. It was nothing more than a shout, a bit of attention. Definitely not worth getting so worked up over, surely. I wouldn’t want to get my knickers in a twist, right? Yet you are teaching my little sister that it is normal to be sexualised and reduced to nothing but a pair of legs. When she looks for a job, her looks will be valued over her abilities; what kind of partner might she attract in ten years’ time if she believes that all she can offer is physical?
I worry every day that it will be more than just a whistle and name-calling. I worry that next time, it will be someone grabbing for a piece of her flesh, clawing at her clothes, following her until she runs away. Catcalling is more than just a nuisance when it suggests to her that you have entitlement to her body, whether that is to comment on it, touch it or violate it.
This is part of your routine. You do this unthinkingly. With each “compliment”, you are cementing into the heads of the next generation that women exist for men. You are allowing women to be ridiculed for their rights to their own bodies.
Maybe next time, just keep drilling. That noise is much more preferable to yours.
Siobhan is a 20 year old English Literature student at Newcastle University, but originally from the Isle of Man. Her biggest passions are reading, writing, feminism, dogs, mental wellbeing and prosecco (not necessarily in that order).