While being served by waiters at restaurants, or simply buying my groceries, I have been called darling, sweetie, sugar, love, dear, honey, pumpkin and once, even ‘possum’. Contrast that to the average pet names a man gets called, and I fall short. Tales of men being referred to by the local barrister as ‘sugar plum’, or a waiter placing a hand on the small of their back as they walk past are, to my knowledge at least, non-existent. I get ‘honey’ while John gets John – no assumed familiarity, no flashback to 1900s vocabulary, no pretence of this as anything more than a commercial exchange of goods. To me, the simple acknowledgement of a name seems to denote more respect, as if he was an equal, not a sweetie to be patronised.
I once brought this up in a casual conversation among friends and the response I got was, ‘You get used to it.’ But why should I?
It took me a long time to discern exactly why I felt so uncomfortable about being likened to edible treats and small bushy animals – it was the fact that men felt entitled to refer to me however they pleased even if it was demeaning and reductive. Not a person, not a name, I was whatever object that took their fancy; all women were one featureless, interchangeable mass existing for the pleasure of men. Equivalent to sugar.
The longer these names are passively accepted the more ingrained they become in our society. Today, if a woman dares to fight back and call someone out for this, they are labelled unreasonable because most other women are supposedly ‘fine with it’. But maybe these women are not fine with the status quo either; maybe they simply have no choice but to reconcile themselves with it. Maybe the previous 100 women couldn’t speak up because the man who demeaned them was in a position of power. Maybe they didn’t feel comfortable creating conflict when they were stuck in a locked uber. Or maybe they thought it simply wasn’t worth the effort and potential of backlash since all they wanted was to take their groceries and leave the store. Whatever the reason may be, most women will not call out the reductive terms that are thrust upon them, but that does not in any way mean they consent to be called whatever flirtatious pet name you think up.
My rule of thumb is simple: when in doubt, if the name you are calling someone is due to their gender, it’s probably best not to say it. It is these casual occasions of sexism that normalise demeaning language. Before some man interrupts me to tell me it’s harmless, I want to explain how far the ripples spread from a simple choice of words. Words do not exist in a vacuum – they are the first step in cementing behavioural patterns. These pet names are foundational to the language of domination. They reduce people to objects instead of respecting them as equals. When the language you use divides, and places women on a lower platform, actions that reflect this are the natural consequence. It is rare that calling a woman ‘babe’ is the only sexist behaviour a man will engage in. Once you view yourself as superior or you manufacture this supposed intimacy in your mind, it influences the way you interact and treat women in daily life, from the use of sexist gestures to the performance of sexist actions. It is a power play even if it is unintentional.
So this is me calling it out. Maybe before now you could hide behind ignorance or good intentions, but no longer is it implicit – every pet name is sexist. When you peel back the layers you realise that every ‘sweetheart’ is a form of misogyny. Watch your language: I am a human. I am not your pet. Do not refer to me as such.