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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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia