There’s nothing quite like failing to call out the guy who’s just groped you to make you feel like a bad feminist.
I, like every other living female over the age of 14, am no stranger to sexual harassment. This is not a statement about my own attractiveness, as it is clearly no measure of physical appearance; it’s a fact, and with reports that almost half of all women in London were sexually harassed in public at some point last year, it’s hardly surprising. I often pop to Sainsbury’s in the evening and living, as I do, close to bars and in a neighbourhood filled with students who drink every other night*, I have often been shouted at, leered at and given unsolicited information about the size of men’s penises (their own or a friend’s) on several occasions and in various states of attire. Here would be a good place to point out that there is no correlation between what I am wearing and the likelihood of receiving some inappropriate comment. Usually, like tonight, I am going to buy food and am wearing something along the lines of a hoody and jeans.
Rarely, though, have I received any kind of physical abuse in the street. In clubs, yes, but this I have always found easier to deal with. Accompanied by a group of friends when there are hundreds of people around and the comforting safeguard of bouncers at the door if things get ugly, I will tell someone in no uncertain terms to leave me alone. This situation, however, is quite different.
Usually if I need something in the evening I will go to the shop directly across the road, which would require me to walk no more than twenty yards or so, but since this had closed and I needed to buy bread for tomorrow’s lunch I went to the one on the next road. There is an ATM outside and I stopped to get a tenner out so that I could make change for the bus tomorrow. It’s not a dangerous area, and the cashpoint is right next to the door of the shop so I have never felt that there is any danger in withdrawing money from there, even late in the evening. Two guys were walking off as I headed towards it, and a man was talking to someone in a car. I’m cautious when getting out money, and saw from the corner of my eye that the man who had been talking to the person in the car had left and was walking towards me. I knew that he had paused for a beat when I didn’t see him walk past. I am sure many women are familiar with the feeling that something unpleasant is going to happen. In many situations nothing does and I berate myself quietly for judging a stranger harshly. But tonight I felt his hand on my ass, just for a second, before he walked away. And – this makes the encounter so much worse – he looked back as he walked away to meet my glowering stare. He didn’t say anything; just gave an insolent smirk, the kind of arrogant look people like him seem to favour so much, daring me to say anything.
Perhaps because it was late at night and there was no one around but his friend in the car, or perhaps because he was carrying a beer can and he was bigger than me, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything.
It’s no secret that many people who spend a lot of their time on the internet or writing things down are shy. I don’t entirely fit the stereotype; I am outgoing, but this for me is part of overcoming my natural shyness. I certainly don’t seek out confrontation, and while this doesn’t usually prevent me from standing up for myself, this is a situation which I find particularly difficult. While I do feel safe in my neighbourhood, I am never entirely comfortable when walking alone at night, and any kind of intrusive or intimidating interaction puts me on edge. I’m not alone in this; I imagine that most women would find it difficult to call people out on inappropriate behaviour if they were alone or felt threatened.
The second reason for my difficulty is that, as mentioned previously, this happened very close to my own house. While this might seem an odd thing to say, my immediate thought was that anything I said might provoke a reaction or prolong the encounter. If there’s any danger of me being followed, I’d rather take the option of being left alone. In reality the chances of this happening are very slim, but I have, on occasion, been followed by a man trying to engage me in what could loosely be called conversation or provoke a reaction. This has never ended in an uglier scenario than the man in question getting bored and giving up, but any chance, however remote, of me being followed home and having someone I have just pissed off by ruining his fun knowing where I live, is enough to prevent me from saying anything.
I wish I had had the guts to call him out on it, and I admire anyone who does. There is something incredibly unjust about not feeling able to confront something that is clearly and indisputably unacceptable.
There is not much of a point to this post, other than my desire to articulate my anger and bewilderment that some men feel that this kind of behaviour is acceptable, and my own frustration at feeling powerless when something like this happens. Every woman – every person – has the right to go about their daily business without feeling threatened or having their personal space invaded. Is that concept difficult to grasp? For me, the most upsetting thing about this kind of incident is the sheer arrogance behind such a gesture. The knowledge that someone isn’t going to like what you’re going to do, or worse, is likely to feel intimidated or even scared for their safety, and not giving a crap.
Sexual harassment happens, and it’s not OK. Spread the word.
Aside from allowing myself to vent, I am following the example of many other feminists who have decided to record incidents of sexual harassment in order to raise awareness of the issue and to prove that it does happen often and in a range of circumstances. I’d encourage others to do the same; hopefully by doing this we can encourage people to talk about it when they do encounter unpleasant behaviour rather than feeling ashamed, and to prove to sceptics that this is a real and ever-present problem. Hopefully, this kind of attitude can go some way to tackling the myth that sexual harassment only happens to certain people and in certain circumstances, or that it only happens to people who invite it in some way. I’m certainly not willing to take any share of the blame when some douchebag decides he’s going to touch me without my permission; because if I wanted you to touch me, believe me, you’d know about it.
*This is not to say that all sexual harassment is carried out at night or when inebriated. I’ve had strangers greet me with offhand obscenities as I walk past in the middle of the day before. Nor am I saying that all men become lecherous scumbags after drinking – but as this lowers inhibitions, if someone is prone to making inappropriate comments, this only exacerbates the problem.