A Somewhat Disconcerting Observation:Posted: March 21, 2009
Since moving to Sheffield, I have experienced an immediate, and vast, reduction in the number of unsavoury attention I recieve. By “unsavoury”, I mean the street harassment that plays a part in the lives of most urban women, along with its counterparts, harassment in social spaces like pubs, and harassment at work.
Some of the reasons for this are clear: I’ve gone from full-time work in London, necessitating two bus rides per day, into the city centre and out again, to full-time study in Sheffield, for which I rarely need to visit the city centre and for which I have no reason to use public transport other than abject laziness.
My work now is performed either alone, in the student library, in lecture theatres with one lecturer and around 200 students, or in tutorials, with one tutor, one PhD student and around 40 undergraduate students. Although it would be naive to assume that none of the young men I interact with ever harass women, I can say for certain that they have never harassed me. And, although of course it does not always follow, I would imagine that for the majority of my male lecturers and tutors the risks of reprisals are too severe for them to contemplate harassing a female undergraduate.
These observations are not what I found disconcerting, however. These observations merely are.
What is disconcerting, though, is what I have come to realise:
I cannot give up that way of thinking.
Or, rather, I would find it incredibly hard to do so.
What I mean is this: that I have lived for so long – a whole decade, which is just under half of my age – with the knowledge that, at intervals that remain largely unpredictable within certain parameters, I will be harassed by men, that I find it very difficult to relinquish the coping mechanisms that I developed in response to that knowledge.
Today, on my way to my afternoon’s work, I passed by two men, probably in their forties, wearing work clothes, who were sitting on a wall. I did all of the things I would normally do – I made eye contact, I made sure that I didn’t walk within a couple of feet of them, I didn’t change my pace… all of those things that I have trained myself to do, over a decade of having men leer at me, and shout at me, and make me aware of my own physical presence.
Those men didn’t do anything. They didn’t even look like they were going to do anything. They were sitting out in the sunshine during what was presumably their tea-break, having a chat. The only warning signal that they set off for me (and believe me, I have many different kinds of warning signal, ranging from the merely-annoying vibe to the get-the-fuck-away-from-this-man) was that they were men, and older than me.
That’s all it takes. To be a man, and to be older than me, in public, in a space where I am obliged to walk past you.
Never mind that I’ve only had one really nasty experience with a man in public, in Sheffield, and then only because he was bothering other young women and I intervened.
Never mind that I could see that they were likely to be employed, either directly or indirectly, by the university, and were therefore unlikely to do or say anything to me that could vaguely be construed as improper. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the university makes it very clear that it doesn’t want any negative publicity, because not once have I ever had any nasty shouts from any of the builders who work for them, though I have had the standard wolf-whistle from builders nearby who were not affiliated with the university.)
Those things don’t matter. The reactions I have now are the results of experience gained over a long period of time, and they continue to manifest themselves even when I believe that the actual chance of the men in question doing anything are slim. Since I find myself now working under the assumption that, however many men don’t harass me, the next one probably will, I suspect that these reactions will not be going anywhere, at least for the time being.
And this is the sad part. It’s all very well giving out leaflets, and campaigning on feminist issues, and blogging, and promoting events like Million Women Rise and Reclaim The Night and all those things I do just because, but when I still can’t walk past two men in broad daylight without immediately reverting to my how-to-minimise-street-harassment strategies, how much have I ever achieved?
How can I ever claim to accept men as equals, when I can’t walk past them without feeling afraid?
And how can I ever begin to make it better?