The Vagenda

Dear Vagenda, Am I Sexist?

Dear Vagenda,
I’m on the tube back home from work. Amazingly for the Central line I have actually managed to get a well deserved seat. Today I have worked from 10-7 unloading a delivery of 500 pairs of shoes. I am relatively tired but by no means depressed or looking for sympathy.
An older woman gets on the tube, my system of whether or not to offer my seat to somebody is if they fulfill a certain number of criteria. I have a set of criteria for women and a different set for men. 
For women it is as follows:
1. Is she older than my mum?
2. Does she adopt a look of entitlement as if to say “come on get up you youngster?”
3. Does she have a nice happy face?
For men;
1. Is he older than my nan?
2. Does he adopt a look of entitlement as if to say “come on get up you whippersnapper?”
3. Does he look like Ray Winstone?
According to how many questions the answer is yes (or no in the case of question 2) I make a decision on whether or not to offer the person in question my seat. I don’t subscribe to the idea that you should automatically give up your seat to someone just because they are older. My nan is 82 and probably walks more than I do. Also I’ve been at work all day and old people have just been shuffling around Peacocks and Bon Marche for 3 hours. I understand that having separate lists for men and women may be a bit sexist but I’ll get to that later.
Back to the tube, the woman that got on looked older than my mum, had several shopping bags and didn’t look as if she expected anyone to offer her seat. So I thought “here we go, time for a bit of altruism, I’m about to make this woman’s day, restoring her faith in the youth of today whilst at the same time looking really lovely to that girl sat opposite me.” I clear my throat. “Excuse me love, do you want to sit down?”
Now what happened next was not the warm response I had expected, I thought at the very least she’s going to smile and say “No thank you young man, but thanks for being so polite” then she would turn to the girl and say “you should definitely perform fellatio on him.” But instead she looked at me with absolute disgust, turned away and said “I am NOT your love.” And I felt every woman on the train think “Yeah you chauvinist pig we’re definitely not going to fellate you now.”
In one respect I was quite happy because I got to keep my seat but on the other hand I was hurt. I didn’t mean to cause offense, I love women, most of my mates are women, I was raised around a majority of women and no one would ever mistake my dad for a cage fighter. I literally could not even try to count how many times I had to play “Sporty Spice” in a sold out living room performance simply because it allowed me to wear my trackies and do a cartwheel. This combination of amateur musical theatre and a father who Kenneth Williams would refer to as “a bit camp” means that I have never really bought into the traditional male and female archetypes. Or so I thought up until this tube debacle.
What if I am a filthy sexist? I’ve been told off before for calling women birds, but in my brain calling a woman a bird is simply the female counterpart of calling a man a bloke. Maybe I need to have a complete clear out of my “Strangers Nicknames” compartment in my brain and just refer to everyone as person or dude depending on their footwear. Actually no. Why should I alter my vernacular just because some stuffy old woman thinks I’m sexist, what did she want me to call her?
Madam? Surely if she’s annoyed at bird there’s an argument that to distinguish between women and men at all is sexist so Sir and Madam are both out the window.
Mate? Could just completely flip the script on her and use the word I’d use for a bloke/man, but then she might think I think she’s a transvestite.
Miss? That just brings back bad memories from school and implies I think she’s single (probably because she’s such a stuffy old woman.)
I think that everyone differentiates between men and women on some level, even the most staunch feminists I know don’t think men should go on sunbeds, and even the most modern of modern husbands who cooks, cleans and looks after the kids whilst his trouser wearing wife is out winning the bread will probably still offer to carry the heavier of the suitcases when they go on holiday.
Sexism is defined as prejudice or discrimination based on sex, so it all depends on what your personal idea of what prejudice and discrimination are. Personally I think distinguishing is different to discriminating and any footy-loving bird or multi-tasking bloke that disagrees can fuck off to the unisex toilets.
My friend suggested sending this to you, so I did. Love the blog.
Dear Dave,
My, my, you do seem to have got yourself in a pickle over this tube seat business. As no doubt you are well aware, offering your seat to a lady-person is a social minefield (not least because of the timeless ‘is she pregnant or just tubby?’ conundrum which has caught   many a person out before) further complicated by the fact that etiquette seems to vary from person to person. I was unfortunate enough to be on the tube this morning, as it happens, and perhaps even more unfortunately I was reading the Times. Said newspaper informed me that the London Underground are now giving out ‘Baby on board’ stickers to pregnant women as a way of trying to ‘incentivise’ people into giving up their seats, and that the Duchess of Cambridge herself had even been in receipt of one. Dave, it is the kind of fact that I wish that I could unknow but alas, I cannot. 
I digress. It is clear from your impeccably bullet-pointed list that you are willing to give up your precious seat to both men and women, so I’d begin by saying that this isn’t really an issue of gender, but of politeness. As the great Cat-Mo once wrote but whose words I can’t remember exactly so will paraphrase: what is feminism if not politeness? 
However, when I examine your criteria more carefully, I have come to realise that there is some discrepency there, in that perhaps you are being a tad more ‘polite’ to the ladies than to the gentlemen. You have quite rightly pointed this out in your letter, so I think in your bowels you know that giving one gender preferential treatment over one another is, yes, a little bit sexist. Positive discrimination is all very well when you’re talking FTSE 500, but is it needed when it comes to sitting down? Why does the gentleman need to be older than your nan when the lady only needs to be older than your mum? Are you seriously saying that men are better at standing up than women, in general? While ‘period brain’ can make one a little woozy, it’s nothing half a codeine and a toke on a joint can’t fix. 
And furthermore, though unaware which part of London you live in, I find it difficult to believe that you have never encountered a lady with the steely death stare of one such as Ray Winstone. There are some fucking hard broads out there, Dave. Some of them even have nunchucks. You need to watch your back in this crazy city.  
So maybe it’s just a question of readdressing your criteria as far as seat giving uppage is concerned, to make sure that you’re operating an equal opportunities policy. Or maybe life is too fucking short and you need to just make a call on the basis of who looks knackered, stressed and is walking with a stick while holding a baby. As someone who once lived in Italy, where gentlemen will literally sprint down a Metro carriage to beat you to the only available seat, I have to conclude that, in the seventh, rat-ridden circle that is the London Underground, any vital sign of humanity is welcome regardless of gender.
But then this issue isn’t really about the seat, is it Dave? Though I have heard rumours of ‘feminists’ getting uppity over doors being held open for them, etc, I tentatively suggest that these are fabricated by right wing nobjockeys at the Telegraph who struggle to understand the basic tenets of gender equality. From the vivid description of your somewhat eccentric upbringing I doubt very highly that you are one of those (plus: NO ONE likes the sensation of a door being slammed in their face, fact.) No, what this is really about is your use of the word ‘love’, which I will address forthwith.
I have a feeling, Dave, that you be Northern. Hailing as I do also from outside That London, I find it my frequent duty to inform Southerners that, up North, everyone is ‘love’. Many SouthernHERS have on occasion taken offence at the various terms of endearments used so commonly in the North but not au fait down here. As someone who grew up in Wales, where people genuinely use the term ‘cont’ (the Welsh for cunt) affectionately, I personally think they should get the hell over it. You Southern sissies have it easy. Try watching two old ladies greet one another across the road on a spring Caernarfon afternoon and then come back to me. 
No, Dave, I think the problem here is that you did one of two things. Either:
a.) You happened to stumble upon what I like to call a ‘gutter feminist.’ These, much like the ‘gutter punks’ you see in Camden, are vestiges of a different time. They are veterans of things like the ‘Feminist Sex Wars’ and therefore, like someone who was in ‘Nam, need to be treated with a certain amount of respect and understanding. 
b.) You made a fatal error as far as the Official Term of Endearment Etiquette Code
Personally, I’m swinging towards b.)
Allow me to give you a little GCSE Bitesize revision session over the appropriate use of the terms ‘pet’, ‘love’, ‘chuck’, etc.
1. Unless uttered by close friends and family, these terms are only acceptable IN A SERVICE INDUSTRY CONTEXT, and only then
- when there is sufficient badinage/friendliness to not render said pet term weird
- when it is not a come on
- when it is being said by the person behind the bar, desk or till
- when the person saying the word is older than the person it is being said to, EXCEPT
subcategory a)
- when it is being used sarcastically, like when a certain customer is being a complete cock to you
Allow me to think back to my days as a barmaid. My calling Kev the painter-decorator who came in every day ‘love’ would be as bizarre as my calling him ‘sugartits’. Him calling me either of those things would be an abomination. If, however, I were hiring Ken to paint my house, and he were performing the service, he would be perfectly entitled to call me ‘love’, provided
- we weren’t in a room alone together
- he wasn’t the sleazy greaseball I know him to be. This man once uttered the actual sentence ‘The secret of my success with the ladies is my supply of gak. It makes them come all night’. Yeah.
So there you have it, Dave, them’s the rules. Perhaps you’re not Northern after all. Your fatal error was to remove the bar, desk or till from the equation and use the word ‘love’ on the tube, and to a WOMAN OLDER THAN YOUR MOTHER. Granted, she reacted to this breach of protocol gracelessly so in order to cause you maximum embarrassment, but you probably knocked her for six. It reminds me of the time I accidentally called my Dad ‘darling’ on the phone. 
In other words, no, Dave, you are not really all that sexist, but your social barometer really blows. 

All the best
The Vagenda xxx
P.S. As far as your use of the word ‘bird’ is concerned. I personally hate it. I wouldn’t liken it to ‘bloke’ as it is fairly impossible to use ‘bloke’ disparagingly. ‘Bird’, despite having a certain David Bailey-esque retro appeal, is so often employed condescendingly that I cannot get on board with it. My Main Lay used to use it all the time, but that was before I started calling him ‘chimpy’. 
P.P.S. If I were you, I’d stop imagining that ladies on the tube are in any way likely to fellate you. It tends to result in a certain facial expression that, quite frankly, makes its owner look like a chronic masturbator. 
P.P.P.S It’s never OK for anyone, male or female, to use a sunbed. 
P.P.P.P.S Tell me more about those shoes. 

20 thoughts on “Dear Vagenda, Am I Sexist?

  1. I was once given a quiet word for referring to a room full of women as ‘you guys’… maybe its a generational thing, but I think its become fairly gender neutral to say that and i still don’t quite understand how its offensive anyway… but oh well

  2. A friend of mine hails from the North and is known to use ‘darling’ frequently, when speaking to a she, be it his girlfriend or any female friend of his. I’ve known him a little over 18 months and still find it a tad difficult to get on board with being ‘darling’ed by him despite the fact that this is simply his way of being and the fact that he is an affectionate person by nature.

    So, Dave, well done on being so polite and thoughtful but how about you just offer someone a seat by asking “Excuse me, would you like to sit down?”. Nothing that gives offense there.

  3. Or, as he clearly wasn’t asking to see her pants while calling her ‘love’, he could just go on being the kind of person he is (I have family from Lancashire and Yorkshire – when we’re not battering each other over rose colours (or something), we’re calling everyone we see ‘love’) and not worry about someone who would rather suffer standing with a load of shopping than accept a seat from a much younger person calling them ‘love’. For fuck’s sake, there are more important things to get offended about.

  4. I really disagree with the rules behind pet-names. Having worked in retail for a few years, I’ve been on the receiving end of many a ‘honey’ ‘angel’ ‘pet’ ‘duck’ ‘hen’ ‘chick’ ‘darlin’ ‘love’ all from complete strangers, and always at a time when I was behind the till. Being a speaker of a boring dialect, I find it appropriate only to use these pet names with small children- certainly no one my own age, and probably not when they’re a customer. But when I go next door to get my lunch, Mr Greggs still feels comfortable calling me ‘love’ until the pastry-wrapped cows come home. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with ‘whoever is behind the bar, desk or till’. ‘love’ seems to be just a less-stuffy alternative for ‘madam’, but one which has its roots in a term of affection from a far more intimate type of relationship, and one which I never wish to have with Mr Greggs.

  5. Love was exclusively used by the women of my Lancastrian family for all people, all ages and all genders. I have never used it, because I am not my Mum or my grandmothers. However, living in the North I see it is used by all genders to all genders for all occasions. More by older people for younger people but that’s all.

    I guess environment plays a huge part in all this.

    P.S. I don’t like being called ‘love’ either, but I’d never call someone out on it unless we were friends and it, you know, would make a difference.

  6. I hate being called love. Someone said it to me at work once, and without thinking, I snapped “Don’t call me love, I hate that.” Then I felt guilty for being a bitch.

  7. Personally, I don’t mind pet names (love, pet, darling, dear etc). I’m under no illusion that the person saying it harbours any real affection for me. It’s just something that slips out when talking to people. That being said, I am Irish, so we’re always calling each other something or other. I’m always calling people pet, even lads twice my size.
    Now, if they said something like ‘babes’ or ‘sweetie’ I’d be a bit weirded out. I think it’s just a case of personal standards.

  8. As a seventeen year old northerner and feminist (who has written for this excellent publication before now) I can see both sides of the argument. If I was to spend a day shopping in Manchester, say, I would probably return having been called “love” at least 8 times – everyone from the train conductor to cashiers to people serving food in cafes. I’m also called it affectionately by grandparents and older aunties and uncles but it isn’t a term my parents or friends would use. For me at least it is very much a generational thing. It is a dialectal term, though I will still get annoyed if it is used condescendingly. A prime example was when I was 14 and catching a bus. I politely asked for a child’s ticket to my destination (which you are entitled to until you’re 16). I was gruffly told to “pull the other one love” and then made to purchase an adult ticket seeing as I wasn’t carrying around MY PASSPORT to prove I was in fact still entitled to a cheaper fare. The use of “love” in that sense by the bus driver was unprofessional and a little bit sexist as I highly doubt he would have said the same to a boy my age. Then again, he would probably have used “mate” or “lad” instead. I think the problem with “love” as a term of address is that it is used by women to both men and women but men will only use it towards women. Quite similar to “darling” really. Context is everything really.

  9. What?? Why are we even having this conversation? It’s patronising! That’s why she doesn’t like it! End of discussion.

    The site manager at my school (a primary school, so we’re mostly women) calls most members of staff love/darlin’/gorgeous and I really want to tell him I’m not his darling and it’s a bloody workplace, act a bit more professional. But then I’ll be one of those miserable grumpy feminists, innit. Can’t win.

  10. Agree. Think there may be a class issue here too. Being Welsh, I call everyone love too (but not cont, that’s a North Walian trait). As a postgrad, I remember the first time I slipped and called one of the lecturers ‘love’ and was mortified but then remembered that how I called all the admin staff, porters, canteen staff ‘love’ too. If it’s good enough for the lower paid staff in lower status jobs, then it’s good for teaching staff too, regardless of gender. So Dave, I think she was being a bit snotty rather than outraged as a feminist. And I’ve had a ‘cheers, love’ from a student & it didn’t offend me just made me glad that our university was offering places to boys from the valleys as well as our usual boarding-school entrants.

  11. I live in Yorkshire and everyone calls everyone else love, it’s pretty much just part of the accent. When my brother first moved here he was surprised the first time he was called love by another man, but you soon get used to it. I haven’t noticed any discrimination in age or sex from the use of the word love, it really is everyone (except perhaps young children). It’s a nice word as well, I mean who doesn’t like love? It’s not sexual as you can love children/friends/grandparents etc.

    I have been called all sorts, including son (I am a woman, but wear boy’s/men’s clothes and have short hair), it never bothers me from a stranger. If it were someone I’d see often and they called me something I don’t like such as darling or sweetheart then I’d politely ask them not to and would expect them to at least make an effort to stop and apologise if they let it slip, it’s hard when it’s a part of your speech though.

    I’m guessing it is considered patronising down south and that it possibly only happens to women from men. I have had blokes (from the south) apologise to me for calling me love so I’m guessing they’ve been called out on it before.

  12. I’m a southerner with Midlands relations and call everyone ‘darling’ (maybe I’m just a bit luvvie) but I remember my ex’s dad, a proper Devon chap, calling me ‘my lover’ for the first time. I remember being very, very freaked out. But you just get used to it down there. I suppose, as with many things, it does depend on context (angry bus driver being an example). I can’t take offence to terms of endearment but I can take offence to ‘oi oi darlin’ alright love!’ because that’s just not polite.

  13. My Welsh boyfriend calls me “love”, and doesn’t seem to understand why I find it patronizing… Since coming to this country 11 years ago, the only people who’ve called me “love” have been in the service industry, either while they were behind the till, or while I was. In that context, I don’t mind it at all, I actually like it (much better than the French cashiers who don’t even tell you how much you owe because they’re too busy chatting with one another). But from him, especially as I never hear him call anyone else “love”, it’s bloody patronizing.
    So, I’m glad I’m not the only one!

  14. Although I’m not an elderly woman myself I would have overlooked the use of the word ‘love’ and would have been grateful that somebody was willing to give up their seat for me. Why did she choose to take offence where it wasn’t intended? She sounds rather stuck up and judgmental and I don’t believe that it’s anything to do with sexism. On the other hand, using ‘cont’ as an affectionate term in North Wales is debatable. It’s a great laugh on the ‘Cardiau Cofi’ merchandise, but my friends would give me funny looks if I started greeting them with – “Iawn, cont?” Must be a Gwynedd thing.

  15. Maybe he should avoid these social minefields by stop being a complete slimeball and not think of everything in terms of whether a woman is going to give him oral sex.
    Honestly most people get a good feel for a slimeball when them meet one.