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

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

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Clean energy should be our mission to the moon

Martin Rees
Angela Merkel and David Cameron say goodbye in the Bundeskanzleramt after their meeting in Berlin, Germany, 29 May 2015  

The complacency of Europhiles could lose them the referendum

Steve Richards
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral