CW: sexual harassment/assault
A few weeks ago, just before Christmas, I was in a queue waiting to pay for some food I’d just ordered to eat on the train home after my evening class. I was listening to music playing as I often do. I have BIG OBVIOUS headphones, in part to discourage people making conversation with me. A man’s face appeared right next to my face, too sudden, too close. It made me jump a little. I leaned back, pushing one earphone back as I realised he was talking to me. “Sorry darling can I just push in? My train is in five minutes”. “So’s mine…” I started to say. The rest of the sentence would have been “…and I have already ordered, so you’d need to check with the person behind me” but went unsaid. As I started to speak, this man, this stranger who had already inserted himself into my personal space and called me “darling”, placed his hand on my hip. It was the hand I couldn’t see, placed around the other side of my body, effectively holding me in a light embrace, trapping me between his arm and the counter. It was a gentle touch, not particularly forceful, and it seemed entirely thoughtless, careless, casual; I was a woman, he was patting me on the hip. Just so.
My body floods with adrenaline. Fear. Revulsion. I tense. There’s a stranger touching me, in public. I freeze, a rabbit in front of a fox; a fox in front of a hunter. I hear a voice shouting. Some powerful and strong Amazonian warrior steps in and she is dealing with this man in a loud and brave way. I am terrified and shaking as all the memories of the other times I’ve been touched without consent or approached by strangers, always men, wanting my time or my body and reacting with fury and with all too coherent rage when denied one or both.
“DON’T TOUCH WOMEN YOU DON’T KNOW” this Amazonian is roaring. “Don’t touch women you don’t know. You don’t know what’s happened to them in the past. Just don’t.” She roars. I shake. She sounds like me. Who is this women using my voice to make such a scene? Everyone is staring at her.
The Toucher throws his hands up in the air, an expression of perplexed shock across his face. He starts to stammer out an apology, but his friend comes up behind him, his face red, shiny, furious. He roars back at this powerful warrior who has stolen my voice while I want to cry and shake and hide, and he, all Mr Reasonable, shouts “CALM DOWN HE’S JUST BEING FRIENDLY”.
The Toucher turns to his friend. “Shut up, mate” he says and turns back to face me, his hands still held up in the air, his puzzlement fading. “I am really sorry” he says. It sounds less genuine and more a way to just end this and it actually doesn’t matter to me that it’s not genuine. I grasp the opportunity to end it, to silence the warrior, for as brave as she is she scares me and I just want to stop everyone staring and to maybe have these men go away having learned something other than “wow, bitches be crazy”. “Thank you.” I force myself to say as calmly as possible. “I really appreciate your apology.”
My food is ready. I have to pay for it. This involves me standing in the very corner of the food stall, which means that as The Toucher and his friend stand and pay I am trapped. I can’t get out and away without brushing past them or asking them to move.
I turn to the Amazonian to help me, but she’s gone, evaporated into a cloud of anxiety and pressure. All that’s left is my fear and my impotent anger; the burning tearing mix of fury at the casual sense of entitlement and thoughtlessness that leads people to touch other people they don’t know in a gesture of “friendship”. I am both relieved that she’s gone (did she know how unsafe she made me, shouting at them like that?) and terrified (I am on my own, everyone is staring, I have to get home, oh god what if they’re on the same train as me?) The incandescent rage dissipates in an instant, leaving only tears and frustration, fear, embarrassment.
I am on my own, in a very public very crowded place. I am still at least half an hour and a train and either a bus or a walk in the dark between me and my home.
The appearance of this angry warrior and the subsequent anxiety, my tears, my fear; they aren’t all built of this one moment. They aren’t the result of this one altercation, these two men, the perplexed casual toucher and his angry friend. They have been built over the months, years, decades before of being threatened by men in public places. Of a life being a woman in a world where this is so much background noise to just being a woman. At that bus stop where I will need to wait? I have been verbally assaulted on four different occasions just in the last 12 months. On that walk home? I have been cat called, verbally assaulted and followed on more times than I can count. On that walk home almost exactly a year ago, I was sexually assaulted. Fifteen years ago on the bus route on which I will be travelling? After I got off, I was followed and attacked, victim of an attempted rape, resulting in serious injuries.
When I turn on the TV, read a paper, look at twitter, when I open my eyes I am reminded all too frequently that my status as a woman is one where I need to prevent these things happening to me, to not “put myself in a situation” where I will be harmed. To not trust strangers, to not walk home alone, to not wear certain clothes, behave in a certain way. To understand that it’s “just natural” for men (all of them?) to want to touch women, shout at women, have sex with women. If I don’t do all these things and something happens to me it’s my fault. But at the same time I have to give men (all of them) the benefit of the doubt. I have to accept their ‘just friendliness” and their overtures (where are you going beautiful? Smile for me love. I want to take both you and your bike for a ride) with a smile and with grace, or I am making a scene (crazy bitch, what’s your problem? It was a compliment. HE WAS JUST BEING FRIENDLY). I have to remember that not ALL men are going to brutalise me or dismiss me, and if I can’t tell which is which immediately then that’s also my fault.
My anxiety is built out of all of these things that have happened to me and all these things I have seen. By being made to feel unsafe in a world where men feel that I should give them my time or my attention or my body? Not all men, of course, but do I really need to say that? Does it matter? All the people that have made me feel this way have been men. Do I need to say that not every single man in the world has frightened me, or threatened me, or dismissed my feelings, just so that people will listen to me about all the ones that have?
A few nights later, I watched the Reggie Yate’s documentary “Extreme UK: Men at War”. It was a difficult watch, I am going to admit it. It was made bearable almost solely down to Yate’s marvellous WTF faces, of which there were many. One thing in particular struck me. One small moment, a tiny throwaway comment by Internet Person Milo Yiannopoulos when Reggie asked him about how women feel about receiving violent threats on the internet. Yiannopoulos laughs, throwing his head back. “They don’t really take them seriously?” he says, disbelief in his voice and derision in his curled lip.
“They’re just WORDS, is the implication. “Why are you so afraid of WORDS?” is the question. “You are some sort of sad person, to be so afraid of WORDS” is the message.
And in that moment it struck me. It struck me why that man’s friend couldn’t understand why “just being friendly” is totally meaningless” to so many women. Why Yiannopoulos can’t grasp that yes, women do really take online threats seriously. Why even well meaning thoughtful caring men of my acquaintance admonish their female friends with a “we’re not ALL like that” when we talk about this. It’s because so many of them simply cannot grasp this background threat level we hold – sometimes without even realising it’s even there.
We monitor and modify our behaviour constantly. We change our route home, we leave places early while it’s light or when others are going so we won’t walk alone. We have the safety “check in” when we go on online dates. We hold back our opinions and thoughts on social media for fear of a backlash which will first scare us and then will follow that up by de-legitimising our fears because “they’re just words”. We’ve seen it happen to all too many women online, and we don’t want it to happen to us.
Men get harassed online too, no one will deny that, but men don’t live their physical lives in fear the same way women do. An online threat to a man is just that – an online threat. An online threat to a woman is an echo of the sense of threat that so many of us have come to expect and live with in our daily lives. Men aren’t bombarded with safety messages like “don’t walk home alone” that implicitly place the responsibility to Not Be Raped on women and remind us that we’re not safe, ever. Of course it scares us. Of course we take it seriously.
We know this about privilege – that those that have it rarely know they have it, and will often get defensive, upset and angry when it’s put to them, and deny it. But I am going to put it out there.
Feeling safe is a privilege.