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

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The Independent Online

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.