8 things it's never OK to ask a woman in public

If you’re one of those gents who’s unsure how to deal with the presence of pesky females ‘in the community’, worry not. We’ve put together this short guide on how not to act when you encounter a woman-type creature.

Women: they’re bloody everywhere these days, aren’t they? Seriously, it’s got to the point where you might even start believing that they amount to more than a minority. And it’s certainly got to the point where day-to-day interaction becomes inevitable. What’s a bigot to do?
If you’re one of those gents who’s unsure how to deal with the presence of pesky females ‘in the community’, worry not. We’ve put together this short guide on how not to act when you encounter a woman-type creature in some of those scenarios where contact becomes a real and terrifying possibility.

So, without further ado: here are eight things that it is never, ever OK to ask a woman in public.

1. “Shouldn’t you be at home with that baby?”

Sainsbury’s got in trouble for this recently, when one of their employees approached customer Sabina Latto, mother of six-week-old Myles, and told her that she “shouldn’t be out of the house with a baby this young” in “a place like this”. For those of us who believed that Sainsbury’s wasn’t the equivalent of a needle-strewn smack den populated mostly by rabid cannibalistic dogs, the concerned employees’ words may well have made us think again. Fortunately, however, it turns out that it wasn’t the particularly dangerous branch of Sainsbury’s that has the problem, but the particularly bigoted employee (a charming human being who then went on to question where the father was.) This incident is, of course, shockingly bad PR for the supermarket chain prized for bringing us the glory that is the Basics range. They issued a public apology, but we bet baby Myles’s mushed-up spag bol comes from Tesco now, and it’ll be a while before their cut-price cheese spread (tagline: ‘A little less cheesy, still spreads nice and easy’) loses its bitter taste in our mouths.

2. “Are you sure you want that glass of wine? You may have not noticed that you’re pregnant.”

When heavily pregnant Jane Hampson asked for a small red wine at a pub in Liverpool, the moralistic barman refused to serve her, saying that: he “couldn’t have it on [his] conscience”. The bar manager later apologised, saying that his young employee had believed it was illegal to serve alcohol to pregnant women (perhaps because they have an under-18 physically attached to them?) but nonetheless, the disgruntled recipient of his attempt at an intervention would have been perfectly within her rights to tell him where to get off.

Attitudes such as this have their logical roots in the assumption that, once a woman is pregnant, she becomes but a baby vessel incapable of independent thought. Rather than being able to make lucid, rational decisions about how to behave during her pregnancy and, y’know, life, the nation’s busybodies assume that her decision to go jogging/stay at work/eat sushi requires immediate intervention. Indeed, a pregnant jogger last year told how she was called a “selfish cow” while out running in the park. NOW CAN SHE SLEEP AT NIGHT? (Answer: she can’t, her bump is mahoosive.) Needless to say, there are also much darker incarnations of this logic out there – just consider the case of a pregnant woman in Wisconsin being jailed for admitting to having had a painkiller addiction in the past.

3. “Spit or swallow?”

FYI, Creepy Guy in Tiger Tiger When One of Us Was 18: this is never a polite question to whisper into a woman’s ear on the dancefloor, especially when it’s accompanied by the insertion of his tongue into said orifice a few seconds later. Likewise, it’s never OK to shout it out of a taxi at a girl in a short skirt, and then call her a slag when she refuses to answer. This also goes for:

4. “Wanna sit on my face, love?”

No, man in the white van on the Holloway road going at 80 mph, she really, really doesn’t. And zooming off like that before she gets a chance to respond is a coward’s way out. Look, we appreciate that it’s rare for a catcaller to put a woman’s pleasure first, but what kind of answer were you hoping for, really? “Why yes, kind sir, that sounds like a fabulous idea. Indeed, I was just on my way to my University Summer Ball, why don’t you accompany me afterwards so I can introduce you to all of my friends?” To you, it may seem like a generous offer of cunnilingus. To her, it’s creepy street harassment. We can’t believe we even need to explain this.

5. “Are you on your period or something?” and/or “Are you feeling hormonal?”

This question is particularly irritating when asked in the workplace, as though a woman’s frustration with a particular project has nothing to do with professional disagreement and everything to do with the fact that she’s about to shed her womb lining/is shedding her womb lining/just finished shedding her womb lining. Beware: if you accuse women of being wild uncontrollable harpies with wandering wombs, then they are perfectly within their rights to behave like them and answer your query through the medium of violence.

6. “Why don’t you put them away, love?”

This question is clearly rhetorical, so the answer, “Because they’re my tits, not yours” is unlikely to make much of an impact. The asking of this question is almost always accompanied by the kind of lecherous leer that makes Terry Richardson look like a member of the Beavers and implies that, actually, he doesn’t want you to put them away at all, but bury his drool-ridden chops in them.

7. “What’s your bra size?”

Unless this is a kindly Marks and Spencer sales assistant wielding a tape measure (in which case she knows whatever you respond is probably wrong anyway), this question is off-limits as far as strangers are concerned. Likewise, approaching a colleague and asking her if her tits have got bigger, or asking a woman what colour knickers she has on. Thankfully, since the decline of the landline, women have fewer heavy breathers to contend with (if you’re wondering what happened to all the finger-sniffing heavy breathers and flashers, the answer can be found in the dildo section of any Ann Summers in the country) but the knickers question remains a classic catcall for the kind of perverted loser whose only contact with ladies’ smalls has been delicately fingering the faux-satin thongs at Victoria’s Secret shortly before being ejected by security.

8. “What are you doing here?”

She may be a woman in a hardware store/at a scientists’ conference/in the MPs lift at the House of Commons, but just because she doesn’t look like your narrow idea of a plumber, politician or IT technician, doesn’t mean that she isn’t one. Similarly, asking if you can speak to her husband or partner because an explanation of the inner workings of the car’s engine is just going to be too much for her is not only completely unacceptable but makes you look like a complete caveman. If she’s there, then chances are she deserves to be, and she has the skills to prove it.

Sainsbury's is no place for women with babies, according to one unhelpful employee. Photo: Getty.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.