Amy Jenkins: Why is it only women who can still be freely insulted in public?

Share
Related Topics

Is the word "dyke" empowering because it's used within the lesbian community? If it is – does that mean we can all start using the N-word? No, of course it doesn't.

In any case, the Sunday Times' defence of A.A. Gill, who called Clare Balding a "dyke on a bike" in the course of one of his television reviews, was laughable. It's hardly believable that Gill used the term "dyke" to empower Balding, as they claimed. More likely he used it to label her (to use his words) "a big lesbian". Balding complained to the PCC and yesterday her complaint was upheld on the grounds that it was a breach of the Editors' Code of Practice.

Name-calling is always a kind of objectification. It's been done, over the course of history, to minority groups and people who live outside the social norms; it's been done to ill people, foreign people, black people, gay people and, of course, women. Of all of these groups, it's only women, these days, who can still be freely insulted in print or in the street. A homophobic or racist insult is now considered pretty much beyond the pale, but a builder shouting "Show us yer legs!" from halfway up a scaffold is almost a national tradition. That's because it's a compliment, you might say – but objectification is never a compliment, it's always a form of aggression, letting the victim know they can be reduced to the sum of their parts.

Some women claim that when they get older, they miss the attention they used to get in the street. I don't. Inter-railing in Europe was a nightmare of harassment, as was riding a bike in a skirt and driving an open-top car. As for eating a banana in public, don't ever try it. Being jeered at and intimidated in the street was simply par for the course during my teenage years in London. They say words can never hurt you – "it's all a bit of fun" – but a culture that allows this kind of behaviour generates far, far worse things underneath.

As a schoolgirl in uniform I was frotted on a crowded Tube. It sounds funny, but it was a frightening and humiliating experience as the man rammed his stained and bulging crotch against the side of my leg. I couldn't get away until the next Tube stop; we were packed into the carriage like sardines. On another occasion, I was treated to the classic dirty mac flasher experience, this time on the Tube platform and, as I moved away, he kept re-appearing in different side tunnels.

There were other incidents too, but it never occurred to me to tell anyone in authority (parents, teachers) – which is interesting, now I think about it. I suppose, like some rape victims, I felt implicated. I didn't feel like admitting to the adult world that I even knew about such awfulness.

People will argue that this sort of thing is different to leching and name-calling. Name-calling is just words, they will say, and we shouldn't legislate against it as that would infringe our right to freedom of speech – or even just our right to be tasteless. The thing is, it's perfectly possible to have freedom of speech without abusive name-calling. Nor is it impossible to define terms. The reason Jan Moir didn't get censured by the PCC for her opinions about Stephen Gateley's death was because she didn't make a direct "pejorative reference" to his sexuality. That's as good a boundary as any, and it's the boundary that A.A. Gill overstepped.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: We are winning the fight against extreme poverty and hunger. It's time to up the ante

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron addresses No campagn supporters in Aberdeen  

Scottish independence: Cameron faces a choice between destroying his country or his party

Matthew Norman
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week