Why do (some) guys turn into pervs the minute the sun comes out?

Published in The Debrief on July 2, 2015

It may be hotter than Hawaii in Britain this week, but life isn’t exactly a beach: most of us still have to navigate public transport, replete with strangers’ dripping armpits, before slaving away in an office that’s either stuffy as your nan’s airing cupboard or arctic with aircon.

Sleeping seems impossible when we’re sweating out of our knees. If the word ‘hangry’ didn’t already have a meaning, I’d be coining it for heat rage.

So you know what I’m really not in the mood for? Catcalls. Street harassment. Random guys’ shades bobbing up and down as they take in my legs. Admittedly, there’s never yet been a day when I’ve skipped down the street longing for a stranger to give me a verbal appraisal of my buttcheeks, but there’s something about the hot weather that really brings them crawling out of the woodwork. Unwanted attention, it seems, goes up with the thermometer’s reading.

Admittedly, we all go a little crazy when it hits 25 degrees in Britain – taking bikinis to work so we can sunbathe at lunch, spending a small fortune on novelty frappuccino flavours – but the rise in wolfwhistles or invitations to get your tits out is less forgiveable. When a heatwave arrives, the male population apparently can’t help but walk around with their tongues hanging out (and not as a cooling-down technique. That’s dogs.)

Holly Kearl, of the international non-profit organisation Stop Street Harassment, recognises the phenomenom. ‘When the warmer weather hits the northern hemisphere, there is always an increase in story submissions to my blog, stories shared on Twitter as well as news articles about street harassment.

‘And plenty of women have taken to Twitter to bemoan a spike in botherment this week – ‘Ah summer. Tis the season for increased catcalling’ is a typical example,’ she says.

One friend tells me she “braces herself” when the forecast is for warm weather. Another, Joanna, says she notices the increase harassment when it gets warm: ‘I got cat-called twice while walking home yesterday! Last summer I counted four times in one day. For me, it definitely gets worse with the weather and it makes me consciously dress less in dresses and skirts. It’s the “small” ones that are the worst I think: looks, quiet comments as they pass by, so it’s really hard to call them out on it.’

Let me say loudly here that I do recognise that men and women all enjoy clocking a pert bum/ripped torso/nicely turned ankle now and then. This is human mate-finding behaviour and we couldn’t entirely suppress it even if we wanted to.

I know my eye wanders on occasion – but I don’t gawp, grope or gurn obscentities at strangers who happen to have biceps. I would never want a private internal thought to spill over into an external action, something that would make a man (or woman) feel uncomfortable or objectified.

There’s a difference between a ‘hmm – tasty!’ thought popping up unbidden and the pervasive background noise that accompanies a woman walking through the streets in hotpants. And it seems that as soon as the sun peeks out, the volume gets turned up.

So what is it about summer that sees such a rise in lasciviousness? The heat can make us horny (though for many it has the opposite, ‘don’t-even-touch-me’ effect). But it seems likely that the simplest and most head-smackingly obvious reason is to blame: women are simply wearing less.

The opaque tights are finally consigned to your sock drawer instead of on permanent rotation; hems also go higher in line with the temperature. But my sundress is an a invitation for a breeze to come cool my thighs, not for wandering eyes. Is it really that hard for the average man on the street to avert their gaze from the (pale and wibbly) flesh on show?

And it seems even good, self-aware, feminist men are not immune to the sun’s rays. While expressing exasperation to my boyfriend about this last night he started looking pretty sheepish. ‘It’s hard not to look,’ he said of the summery, scantily-clad ladies surrounding him, while my eyebrows raised slowly ever higher into my forehead. ‘I’m not perving; I’m appreciating.’

I know he’d never, ever, get lairy out-loud, and he’s bewildered, then outraged, on the rare occasions when he witnesses any man harassing me – or any other woman for that matter. He calls them on it. Yet there’s something about a damn heatwave and the floaty dresses that sees him coming over all misty-eyed (if nothing more sinister).

Another male friend, Chris*, also recognises the phenomenon. ‘It’s not an exact science but the filter of most men reduces in proportion to the amount of clothing a woman is wearing. I’m not saying it’s right at all, and I don’t think like that myself, [but] it’s a mechanism of sorts. I’d say that ogling men have poor self-awareness… they can’t tell that the whole carriage is watching them stare at some unfortunate woman.’

But Kearl has a different take on the heatwave perve-wave: pointing out that street harassment happens whatever people are wearing, she suggests that longer, warmer days just mean more opportunities to be troubled.

‘The increased street harassment is because more people are outside, period. They may be outside in more lingering fashion (as opposed to when it’s cold and people are focused on getting from point A to point B) as well to do outdoor activities like sitting at a park or using an outdoor pool, having a picnic or exercising. This creates a lot more opportunities to encounter harassers,’ she says.

Which is a bit bleak. Because staying indoors with the curtains shut is really not what we want to do in 30 degree heat. But nor, for that matter, is having a single extra square inch of fabric clinging to our bodies. Going out and letting it all hang out shouldn’t be a weighted decision; it’s up to men to put their eyes-on-stalks firmly back in their sockets please, rather than for women to have to choose between being too hot or too visible.

The shortness and lightness of my skirt is for ventilation – not viewing purposes.

Where next?