While women’s lives are made daily hell by street harassment, Elly Badcock explores why privileged female writers defend flagrant sexism.



The Sunday Times, in among some bigoted bile and manipulated news, carried a headline seemingly designed to cause targeted brain implosion in readers with the audacity to believe women are human beings deserving of basic respect and dignity. “Toot away, boys,” India Knight proclaims – between articles from the boys talking about serious politics – “wolf-whistling’s not sexist!”.

My normal response to women who use their privilege to promote sexism is a desire to throw them under a bus, raging about the women who died for the ballot boxes, Commons seats and column inches that they’re using to oppress the rest of us. But when Knight proclaims that she enjoys getting catcalled or whistled at in the street (also known as being sexually harassed) because the alternative – being ‘so old that no-one finds me attractive’ – is too dreadful to consider, I actually feel sorry for her.

There is something seriously wrong when the only validation that a rich, successful woman in a male-dominated environment can find is a complete stranger throwing her comments about her appearance like scraps from the table.

Not that I’m in the game of feeling sorry for women like Knight – well-off women spewing justifications for rampant sexism into Sunday broadsheets don’t tend to arouse feelings of empathy. What sickens me is that Knight, as one of the few women columnists in the paper, will be taken as the authentic voice of women – held up by the overpaid, overgrown children who fill up the rest of the paper as justification for demeaning us on a daily basis.

In producing this drivel, Knight silences, depoliticises and delegitimises the experiences of women who face degrading harassment. Indeed, in her article, she openly dismisses a sexual harassment case brought against a firm of builders from a woman subjected to endless abuse and harassment in her street. The poor, deranged woman, Knight seems to lament – she just doesn’t understand the pure unadulterated joy of being complemented on her posterior or having her breasts vocally appreciated by strangers.

Yeah, India, I totally get you – there’s nothing more I love when I’m on my way in to my underpaid call centre job than having some random creep mentally undress me or tell me I’ve ‘got nice tits, love!’. I sure do appreciate wishing I’d worn tights under my dress to stop a middle-aged man looking up my skirt! And on Friday nights, it’s not my week’s wages that are giving me that warm glow of satisfaction, it’s definitely the fact that a man has just leaned out of a van and asked if he can ‘lick my pussy’.

Perhaps women such as Knight can bask in the warm glow of the occasional leery comment because they can return to their gated community in a black cab. I’m pretty sure Knight has never stood crammed into the N29 bus at 3am with one man behind her feeling her arse and another in front staring down her cleavage. I’m sure she’s never been called a hot babe then a fat bitch in the space of five seconds by men she’s never met.

In short, I’m sure she’s not spent hours being harassed, groped, leered at and body-shamed by men who think their dick gives them the god-given right to claim women’s bodies for themselves –yet she seems to think it’s perfectly acceptable to use her privileged column inches to degrade and demean the women who have.

Herein lies the fundamental problem with the constant rhetoric around the ‘glass ceiling’ – the idea that a necessarily small number of women smashing their way into high-paid powerful jobs can change the modern-day order of sexism and oppression. Media commentators from Melanie Phillips (“instead of giving anonymity to men charged with rape we should name their accusers”) to Deborah Orr (who advised women not to wear miniskirts if they don’t want to be mistaken for sex workers) are prime examples of the futility of this argument. They use their privileged position, gazing down through the glass ceiling, to help ensure that the majority of women cannot dislodge themselves from the sticky floor.