Today, I walked past some builders (all male) in the street.
I didn’t worry, I didn’t flinch, I didn’t think about whether to make eye contact or not, I didn’t change anything.
I just walked.
This will sound daft to those who don’t experience street harassment, and probably pretty damned surprising to those who do.
I’ve never done that before. Not since I was a kid. Builders are usually the worst. At least, they’re percieved to be the worst.
After a ten months of living in Sheffield, where not one single builder has ever cat-called, whistled, stood in my way, leered or anything else, where I’ve only had three unwanted interactions with any men at all, I’ve started to not worry.
It feels fantastic.
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?
Ok, I have an answer.
Remember that fly in the ointment of society, Creepy Guy?
Well, I found a really, really entertaining way of dealing with him…..
Two days ago: Me in a bad mood, life is grumpy-making. Many things have made me irritable. I wander off towards the library, killing some time (it is too late in the day to go jobhunting and in any case it would probably not be a good plan with my current frame of mind) when….
Young Creepy Guy: [directed at me] He-e-e-ey, SEXY!
So, I stop walking. I don’t slow, I don’t speed up, I just stop dead about five feet away from him. And then I turn back. And I walk very deliberately.
YCG: [looking disconcerted] I was just saying you were sexy….
Me: [Coldly] You know most girls don’t like you doing that, don’t you?
YCG: [hopefully] Do…. you like it?
Me: [disbelieving] No. I hate it. Don’t do it again.
And I turn my back on him, and walk away. Nothing more is said whilst I am within earshot.
Ok, I have to say, there are good reasons why this worked.
- My body language implied aggression and power.
- He wasn’t expecting it.
- He looked about seventeen, and was probably therefore still somebody’s little boy, or pupil.
- I looked older than I was. I was dressed for job hunting, (to impress) and there is nothing that screams “authority” than your favourite ‘smart’ clothes!
- I used a tone of voice that also screamed “authority”. It was the voice that a teacher or parent would use to signify “you are in the wrong and I am now reprimanding you”.
- Taking into account 2, 3 and 4, his instinct would be to defer to me, woman or no.
So I’m not sure what an older man’s reaction would be if I did the same thing.
But I think it has to be tried, at least if the opportunity arises in a time and place that I’m comfortable with.
I shall of course post any results I come up with.
And lest anybody misinterpret me, I am not advocating this as a fail-safe solution. I merely want to test the theory. I would also say that it could do with refining. Presenting it as a question could have backfired on me, and I think saying something along the lines of “That makes me uncomfortable. Don’t do it” may work better. Any suggestions for the ultimate one line put-down to the usual address, please!
merits capital letters and lots of space, because I think it’s that important.
It’s about street harrassment. Not in a blog, in a paper. In with News and Features.
And it doesn’t brush it off like it doesn’t exist, like all women love it, like we go out looking for it!!
I feel vindicated.
The paper’s based in Washington, but it doesn’t make it any less true for me, here, in London.
Actually, I haven’t had anybody be creepy at me recently.
Well, I say recently. I’ve managed to go a whole 20 days without it.
Unless of course you count the group of five or six guys who woke me up when I was asleep on the train last week, very deliberately, by singing about various sexual practices that Yogi Bear might like to participate in. And staring at me, and the place where my jeans have worn through, on the seam on my inner thigh.
Hmmm. So maybe I’ll scrap that comment.
I have had people be creepy at me recently. And they were really, really fucking creepy. It’s just that I didn’t immediately think about that, because they didn’t ask me for my number.
For the record, creepy guys,
Staring at me and my inner thigh — that’s creepy
Hiding behind the train seat like you’re a little child that’s been caught out doing something a bit naughty — that’s creepy
Revelling in the fact that you’re a group of men and I’m a lone woman and that makes me horribly, horribly vulnerable — that’s creepy
Taking that for granted — that’s creepy
Pretending to be nice when I can see you’re bloody not — that’s creepy
Oh, and also……
If you put your head into a lion’s den, don’t cry when you get bitten.
So if you were shocked as I started to shout at you, all of you, creepy guys — well, just remember you provoked me.
Just remember, women can get angry too, and you woke me up with your crappy songs and your creepy staring, and fucking hell was I furious.
That’s why I wouldn’t provoke a strange man on the train. You never know what people will do when they’re angry.
Before I began this Second Thought business, I was happily and not so happily ranting away over on Metalsunflower. Which I still do, of course, but it tends to be less grumpy there these days.
Anyway, I once wrote this post about creepy guys.
And when I wrote it, I thought it would do me good to get it all out in the big wide virtual world, I kind of thought I might be able to ignore it more.
Actually, it annoys me a hell of a lot more now than it did then.
But then again, I’ve never been whistled to as though I were a cat before. Complete with ‘here, kitty’ style remarks.
Oh well, at least it was original.
It was also so very well calculated to dent my pride, I very, very nearly went back to beat the hell out of his bollocks. Hey, maybe if I did something cruel and hurtful to his ‘pride and joy’, he’d be less likely to try the same with mine.
Sadly, he was in the company of two girls, and while simple caution had a hand in forcing myself to walk on where he was concerned, it was actual fear that stopped me going back while the girls were there.
They knew what he was doing, and they said nothing. That was enough.