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.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war