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 end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.