“Oi, love!…”

30May08

When I was a teenager, I spent much of my free time rowing. I was part of a squad that trained six days a week, and at weekends and after school during the summer, the training was at a boathouse on the Thames. The boathouse was some distance from the main road, and so several days a week, after training, I pulled on a baggy tracksuit and often a jacket, hefted a full sports bag, and walked for fifteen minutes to the bus stop.

On one occasion, I heard a car horn beep from behind me. I prepared to ignore it, as I had so many times before, and perhaps permit myself a small eyeroll as it passed. But instead of speeding past, I heard the car slow down. It was going to stop beside me.

I can still remember the chill I felt, as I mentally sized up the situation. I was fifteen years old, and while I was tall for my age, not to mention unusually strong from the weight training I did, I wasn’t under the illusion that I could take on a strong man. In addition, I had just finished two hours of strenuous exercise – hardly ideal preparation for self-defence. I felt options flash quickly through my head – should I drop my bag and just sprint for it? Should I kick first, then run? Should I try my luck at talking my way out of the situation? The road wasn’t a residential area – it ran past various Water Board treatment plants, which were protected from passers-by by high, sharp, iron fencing. There were no side roads. It was just a channel to the main road, which was still some distance away. I was not a fast runner.

The fight-or-flight response I had learned about in biology kicked in, and my heart started to pound. I whirled around as the car pulled up just behind me, still trying to decide what to do.

Thankfully for me, it wasn’t a potential attacker, or even an insult-yelling creep. It was a man I knew well and trusted, who coached my squad. He was offering me a lift. As I climbed into the car he asked me, somewhat concernedly, if I was alright. He must have seen my face.

I don’t think a week went by in which, during one of these walks, I didn’t get honked at, or yelled at, by a driver or passenger in one of the cars or vans that drove past me. Usually the road wasn’t too busy, so I couldn’t fully hear what was being shouted as the vehicles zipped past me. But it didn’t make me feel good. Who were these people yelling at me? What had I done?

Looking back on it from the distance of a few years, it depresses me how I reacted to occurrences like that. Another relatively frequent event was unwanted attention on the bus. At the time, I usually acknowledged the comments or attempts to start a conversation, and then quickly looked away. Or just tried to ignore it altogether. But I always felt a pang of guilt. What if the old man was, really, just trying to be friendly? Maybe he truly didn’t realise how threatened I felt? I was shy anyway, perhaps I was just overreacting to what might be a normal situation?

I was lucky in that I was never the victim of physical harassment. These days, I know how I would want to react to something like that – loudly. Anyone who puts his hands anywhere I don’t want them should get a lecture on just how inappropriate their behaviour is. In a voice loud enough to attract attention. Even if something happened here in Japan, I think that is still what I would want to do – in English, even if they couldn’t understand. I hope I’d be able to stand up for anyone else put in that situation, too.

But it’s easy to remember the shock I feel just from comments yelled from a passing van. I’ve never responded to them, partly because I don’t want to provoke a potentially unpleasant scene, and partly because by the time I’ve recovered from the shock of what just happened, the perpetrators have sped off. Even though I know how common events like this are, I still – always – can’t immediately shake off the shock, embarassment, and guilty feeling. What did I do?

Which is why Cath Elliott’s recent article on sexual harassment in public on the Guardian’s Comment is Free is an interesting read. Not just for the piece itself, but for the long (and I do mean) long list of comments that follows it.

The article itself makes some sweeping generalisations – I don’t believe for one moment, and nor I suspect does Elliott, that all men are prone to harassing women in the street. There are an awful lot of perfectly nice, polite, gentlemanly (for want of a better word) men around. It’s a small minority who are so utterly offensive.

Elliott also veers off her point a little. Street harassment is a problem, but I don’t think it’s “the patriarchy fighting back against women’s bid for autonomy”. I think it is, in the main, done because it’s become ‘acceptable’ behaviour amongst certain groups of men, and it gets a reaction. Whether women are autonomous, or trying to be, doesn’t factor into it.

Women need to understand this if we’re to deal effectively with sexual harassment both in the workplace and in the street. Men aren’t making these comments because they respect and admire us, but because they resent our very presence and have found a method that cuts right to the core.

I have never experienced workplace sexual harassment, for which I am grateful. But in some such situations, I can imagine that in some sense, yes, the perpetrator feels threatened by women in “his” workplace, and consciously trying to make his female colleagues feel upset, small, and powerless may be his way of addressing this. For which, obviously, he is a bigot. But he is, I believe, in a minority.

In a different category are men who are true misogynists, who truly hate and fear women, and who do terrible things because of this. Thankfully, these men are in a minority, and incidences of rape and murder are comparatively rare.

One rapist is too many, or course – that goes without saying. But rapes and murders are rare in comparison with incidences of sexual harassment. Feminist blog the f word has an article (also commenting on Elliott’s article) in which readers are invited to leave their stories of harassment. From reading the comments, it’s clear that this is a depressingly common phenomenon, and that many people have experienced far worse instances than I have.

Which takes me back to Elliott’s article, and the comments it has attracted. Which fall into a few categories.

“I have a Y-chromosome, but I don’t wolf-whistle at women, ever. Why are you getting all worked up?”

As I said above, Elliott could have made it clearer in her article that not all men harass, that it’s a small minority who are offensive. That being said. “I own a kitchen knife, but I’ve never stabbed anyone with it, ever. Therefore stabbings can’t be that common. Why are people getting so worked up over knife crime?

“It’s natural for men to look at women! Women look at men, too! We’re all driven by sex impulses!”

Yes. And I don’t mind someone looking at me. To do so would be ridiculous. I do mind being stared at, especially when attention is focused on certain parts of my anatomy. And I really do mind being shouted at.

“It goes both ways! I once got shouted at by a group of teenage girls!”

Just what were the chances of that group of teenage girls taking offence at your refusal to chat with them, and continuing to hurl abuse at you? Following you home? Assaulting you? Were you, ever, truly frightened for your well-being? It isn’t just the possibility of physical harm that frightens women – being followed and verbally abused by men can be emotionally harmful too.

“What’s wrong with complimenting a pretty woman? I like women, and I also like to pull. Why can’t I say nice things? Why do women have to abuse anyone who tries to compliment them?”

There is a world of difference between a compliment and sexual harassment. There is a world of difference between a polite “I hope you don’t mind, but I just wanted to tell you that you look very pretty”, said in a normal tone of voice and with a non-threatening attitude, and “Oi love, you’re fit! Give us your number?” yelled out of a passing van. I like compliments as much as the average person, and someone saying nice things to me will get a thank you and a smile, and I might even strike up a conversation. Though, I might not. If I don’t, that doesn’t give you the right to make rude comments.

“If you don’t want to be shouted at, you shouldn’t wear low cut tops/short skirts/revealing t-shirts – you’re just asking for it then”

As I’ve noted above, I got comments and jeers wearing baggy tracksuits and padded jackets. It has happened to everyone, regardless of what clothes or shoes they were wearing, or the colour of their lipstick.

Not to mention that women should be able to walk down the road in whatever clothes they want. If they’re not breaking the law, it is absolutely not anyone’s else’s business. My choice of clothes does not give anyone the right to hurl abuse. My body is my own, and if I want your comments I’ll ask for them. Using words.

“Builders have always wolf-whistled! It’s meant to be friendly and complimentary! Some women like it!”

OK. Maybe sometimes it is. Yes, sometimes we all think it’s nice to be noticed. There are women who positively thrive on the attention.

Then there are women who really don’t. I get that there are men who genuinely feel like they’re showing their appreciation. But I have never once felt anything but embarrassment, even from the most innocent of whistles. Car horns make me cringe. And shouted comments make me feel embarrassed, threatened and angry. You may not intend for them to be like that, but that doesn’t negate my feelings.

“Sure, I whistle and catcall, but I’d never do anything actually harmful!”

See, here’s my point. All these actions happen in public. In many cases, as well as the perpetrator and the victim of these actions, there are other witnesses. And it is plausible that there is a slippery slope in action. I don’t mean that any given man will progress from catcalls to rape and murder. I don’t believe that is the case.

But a man who witnesses wolf-whistling with no repercussions will internalise that it is acceptable behaviour. So he might not feel so bad about calling out comments to women he sees.

Groups of men are often more aggressive than men on their own, because if they see their mates yelling comments at women and it provokes a response (even if it’s a embarrassed one), they’re more likely to join in. Because it’s seen as acceptable behaviour.

And the really nasty pieces of work, the men who grope up women in buses and trains, who follow women home and attack, rape and murder them, see things like this, and notice what seems to be acceptable behaviour. They begin to believe that a woman’s body is public property, that if it’s fine for strangers to comment and judge, then perhaps it’s fine to take it further. And every man they see who yells comments then abuse because his attention wasn’t returned, or who stands in groups ready to harass any passing woman, or feels the need to comment on a woman’s expression or outfit or mood “cheer up, love!” seems to agree with them.

It isn’t acceptable behaviour. None of it is. And the sooner that notion becomes widely accepted, the better. My body is not your property. Keep your opinions about it to yourself.

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