I love London. It's my home. I hope to spend much of my life here. But there's one thing I hate, that I've never had to deal with so much of before, and that's the repeated street harrassment. Nearly every time I leave the house to go to the shops, or get on the bus or train, you can guarantee that some man is going to yell something across the street at me, or come right up close to me and behave as if I owe it to him to be intimate. It's a matter of celebration when I can leave the house and come back without this happening.
It's not just London, of course. Trains in Wales are particularly irksome. On my way back here, a couple of guys sitting near me started asking me perfectly friendly questions - about how long it was to various stations, what book I was reading, what I thought about the Big Bang etc. - all of which was fine; great, in fact. Then one of them sprang up, sat next to me, snatched my book, and started reading it out in a twelve-year-old school bully sort of voice. It promptly descended to the pair of them chanting at me and generally behaving like schoolchildren who know they're going to get away with poking and hitting me all the way through Assembly, because I can't move and nobody's going to stop them. I ended up carrying all my stuff to a different seat and telling the conductor, who just said "they're getting off at the next stop" and went away. I felt so mortified and self-conscious - there was another big chatty group of people nearby, who I think knew what was going on and certainly stared at me when I moved and spoke to the conductor - but hadn't a word to say. I wanted so desperately to hide. It was me who got stared at, me who had to take the action, me on whom all the responsibility fell.
That wasn't the worst incident, though. On another journey a few years ago to see my then boyfriend, a huge crowd of drunken rugby fans got on, and one man sat next to me. He kept asking me where I was going, did I have a boyfriend etc. I told him yes I did and kept my answers monosyllabic, because his manner made me uncomfortable. My looking out of the window, reading a book, etc., did nothing to deter his questions and reinforced his demanding, hurt tone. Finally I pretended to go to sleep. When I opened my eyes a few minutes later I jumped out of my skin to find he had angled his body so his mouth was right in front of mine ready to kiss me. (My face was pointed downwards before you ask.) There was nothing I could do. My voice had gone. No conductor could get through the crowds. If I yelled, his rugby mates would be the first witnesses. I just sprang to my feet (and had to climb over him) and got off the train as soon as I could.
In London, what usually happens is that two guys walking in the street, or standing on a doorstep, will call "hello darling" or "come here, girlie" or "Oi! Blondie!" at me. This is annoying, but I can ignore them and hope they don't follow me. Sometimes it'll be someone alone. One frightening incident was where another large man ran up to me while I was walking up the street, fell into step with me, told me off for walking too fast for him, boasted to me for a while about how he earned £50,000 a year, and then asked me out for a drink with him. When I said thank you very much, but no thanks, he followed me into the train station (which I hadn't been planning to go to) and asked me why not in the most expectant manner. Panicking, I lied that I had a boyfriend, and dashed through the ticket barriers and went a couple of stops away. It wasn't his words that bothered me, but his taking for granted that I simply had to say yes. I thought he'd drag me along and do what he liked to me. The other day, I was walking home, carrying a couple of shopping bags, looking at the ground and having a bit of a happy giggle to myself about an earlier conversation that day (do you ever notice people doing that? I love it when someone in the street spontaneously smiles or giggles, and I know they're thinking about something nice). Suddenly someone's face appeared about three inches in front of mine and he hissed "HELLO SWEETHEART!". As with all the other incidents, I was just startled into complete silence. I had no answer ready. The happiness was knocked out of me. I went home angry and frightened, feeling like I was at school again where I had no right to be safe from the bullies, keeping my head low but wondering if anyone knew where I lived or was following me home.
Fair enough, none of these incidences led to me actually being assaulted. They're nothing compared to what some of my friends have gone through. I used to get worse in horrible school discos where being groped and boys getting angry not to be kissed was part of the package. But they're a crap way to live your life. They make me wary and angry. They make me feel that because I'm female, I'm collective property and automatically available. The way a lot of them look at me - as if I do them wrong - suggests that they hold me personally responsible for their feelings, and that I owe them something. I just never know what they might do. They seem to think they have the automatic right to say what they like to me - what else do they think they have the right to do?
It gave me a sudden memory of when my sister and I were very small, too young to understand about these things, and our mum explaining such an incident to us. All we saw was that she suddenly stopped to talk to someone in the street, as boring grown-ups do. When we walked on, she calmly told us: "He tried to cuddle up to me, so I made him tell me where [something, I forget what] was, and then I made him leave me alone." Her voice, echoing in my brain, sounded sad and resigned. She had had to talk to him, she had had to be touched by him with two toddlers in tow, and she was putting a brave face on it.
The worst part is that I can't think of anything to do to improve the situation. I could yell at them, but that takes more guts than I've got and would just draw more attention to me and doubtless get me blamed - I doubt any members of the public would leap to my rescue. I can keep my head down and run away, which is what I generally do, but that indicates to them that they can get away with it and will keep doing it. There's no teacher on playground duty in the adult world.
But that's the thing. I am female and as such I am, by many, held responsible. (Check this if you don't believe this happens.)It's supposedly up to me to find some way to deal with this stuff. Never mind that it's nothing to do with being in the wrong place at the wrong time - that all these incidents occurred in public in broad daylight, not down some dark alley where respectable girls don't go. Never mind that they all occurred when I was thoroughly covered in jeans and coat and scruffy flat shoes - one time in the pouring rain with my hood up covering my hair and most of my face. Never mind that I don't wear make-up, or that the one time I did walk through London in a short dress, I was terrified the whole time and wished I hadn't worn it, but apart from a random tourist striking up an annoyingly long chat, I was left alone. Never mind that it also happens to a lady I know who is over fifty and exceedingly modest - even while she's riding her bicycle. There are many perceptions that it's down to how a woman looks or dresses, that it must be her fault.
I've written about blaming the victim before. It's a problem. It's a similar problem in cases of domestic violence, where it's very common to find bizarre ways to blame the woman or to somehow absolve the man (usually, though certainly not always, the perpetrator) of responsibility - "he just needs to feel better about himself", for example, when in fact his problem is that he does not see his partner as having the same rights as he does. (I strongly recommend my friend Natalie's posts about this issue. She's on Twitter as @God_Loves_Women. I'm not remotely religious but I really admire her and recommend you follow her!) It's all part of thinking that because someone's female, you can treat her how you like - and this gets woven into law, and her rights seen as incompatible with other people's, where such attitudes prevail.
All this is so sad for men as well as women. Most men I know are angry and upset to hear of me and other women being catcalled or otherwise harrassed. They worry about this happening to their female relatives and friends. They know it's not civilised and they would never do such a thing. (In fact, one man said he finds men who do such things intimidating, too.) Nobody's said so directly, but I suspect some men may worry about asking out a woman they like, for fear of being thought of one of the catcallers. They feel guilty on behalf of their own sex, which is awful. (Incidentally, both Rhys and Lee are currently fundraising for charities that work to improve things for women!) It's similar to the men who came along to the She is an Astronomer conference and are only too keen for more women to rise high in science. I hope nobody reading this thinks this blog is to criticise men!
I have a bad habit, by the way. I quite often explode on Twitter. Actually, Twitter's an excellent place to explode, because it moves so fast, the subject can move on when you've calmed down. And far more often than not people will check in and see if you're OK rather than put you down about it, and it's relatively anonymous. When I exploded recently about the man who hissed straight into my face, I got I think it must have been dozens of supportive messages. But when I came back home yesterday and tweeted "Something LOVELY happened today. I went into town and was not catcalled once!!! :-)" the point was, shall we say, not well understood.
One guy asked me: "What? Are you a supermodel?" and a couple more replied to the effect that this must mean I'm beautiful. I thanked them, I hope graciously and modestly, but assured them that I am not and that this was nothing to do with it. Being catcalled is nothing to do with appearance, and it is not a compliment. Unfortunately, I was not believed by all . . .
These are the nicer exchanges that took place. (Update: I had some screenshots here, with name, avatar and Twitter handle blanked out, but on reflection decided that was cruel. This person doesn't seem angry with me despite earning some furious replies from my followers. Please don't look for him. It took a long time to convince him that what was going on was not flattering or harmless, but it turned out to be genuine ignorance on his part. He deleted a lot of his tweets which were to the effect that it doesn't happen to ugly girls, so it should be seen as a "morale booster". These made me so angry - I am not Samantha Brick, I do not feel better if some random man thinks of me as better quality prey than another woman - that I unkindly retweeted him, and he got a LOT of stick. If you're reading this, Anon, I felt I should apologise for you getting all that stick, but I was stubborn and didn't want to go back on my point. And by the way, I'm sure you're not ugly.)
When asked if it was a good thing that I wasn't catcalled, and I said that it usually happens is bad and that it didn't happen today is good, his reaction was that "as an ugly bloke" he'd love to have such an obvious indicator that he was attractive, and that it was surely a good thing to happen to you. He felt that he couldn't relate to it since no women have pounced on him this way, and that not being a roadworker or builder, he wasn't a catcaller, and couldn't speak for them. (This was only a small part of the exchange.) The perception was that catcalling is something that a burly, practical, rather stupid class of males do, and that it constitutes shouting "you're beautiful" to beautiful girls, who prink and preen gleefully, and probably just continue on their way, feeling superior to other women and thus happy.
To give him his due, he admitted he had had no idea what it's really like and had learnt something new! And it definitely isn't like that. We get called intimate things by strangers, and are spoken to as if we are their property and should follow their orders. They violate our privacy and our space and our feeling of being able to leave the house safely. We look hysterical if we get upset, and everything we do makes it worse, and then it's our own fault for how we look or dress or just for being there among the world of men. We feel angry, helpless, humiliated, and alone.
Stellar, who was honked at six times within one minute when venturing into town last week (and has also had to put up with such things as men following her, and a bus driver saying "nice tits" when she was just a young teenager), joined the conversation, pointing out at the right time that it's not what a woman wears that causes the harrassment . . .
Then this person came along, who a) has had their account suspended, and b) whose anonymity I will make absolutely no effort to preserve:
I lost it.
I had actually tweeted this guy a few examples of very modestly dressed women who'd been harrassed, so as you can see, his attitude was "My mind's made up, don't confuse me with facts".
He may have just been a troll, but sadly what he says is hideously representative of what needs explaining. Again and again and again. Happily, it was cause for much celebration from several people when his account was suspended (it turned out it wasn't just me he was arguing with!).
I had the good fortune to be sent some excellent links by fellow Twitterers. "ihollaback", a site all about street harrassment in London, was tweeted to me by Becky (whose work I hope to write about in a later blogpost). Mike sent me this post he wrote about what "consent" means and is often taken to mean, which attracted some bizarre comments. Speaking of consent, this "Driver's Ed" on sexual consent, at Scarleteen, is excellent! Sent by Lee.) And Esther reminded me of @mencanstoprape, found at "Men Can Stop Rape", which is not the same thing I know (part of the same attitude, though, just a lot worse), which contains this delightful picture with which I shall leave you . . .
To fellow women this happens to, I support you. To fellow women free of it, it should always be this way. To men who disapprove and support us, and equally to men who did not know it was a problem but are open to finding out it is, thank you - you are not the problem but the solution, you shouldn't feel bad, and we need you all.