I’m 19, standing on the escalator on the step behind my boyfriend at Shepherd’s Bush Central Line station. It’s a hot summer day, so I’m wearing a denim skirt and sandals. Some youths behind me are giggling and pushing each other. I feel a tap on the inside of my knee. Nearing the top of the escalator, I don’t have time to turn round until I’m nearing the ticket machines. About five thick-set teenagers are crowded round a mobile phone laughing at pointing at something on the screen. Suddenly I realise what the tap was. They were taking an up-skirt photo. Thoughts go through my head – to complain would be useless, the Underground staff wouldn’t take it seriously and the boys would be gone before I could explain myself. The police? They’d have deleted the photos before anything could happen and I could see immediately the police wouldn’t do anything, probably get annoyed at me for wasting their time. The rational part of my brain, swiftly retreating, also saw that it clearly wasn’t a crime.
There were absolutely no socially acceptable resources for me to turn to. Frustration came flooding into my cheeks. These boys would get away thinking they could do that to any woman. So I went up to the one with the mobile phone and pushed him, really hard, shouting ‘I know what you did’. They erupted into shouts, not at me but at my boyfriend, ‘control your woman!’. Feeling tears rising and not wanting to cry in front of them, I stormed out of the station.
I’m older now and I know that physical contact was a mistake. If the police had come, it would have been me in the wrong. But are we really expected to turn the other cheek and accept? That’s what a pundit from Spiked.com on Woman’s Hour seemed to be suggesting during a discussion on ‘street harassment’, which can be anything from heckling women to following them. Opposite him on the table, a female pundit asked for two things: a street campaign and for police to take women’s complaints about street harassment seriously. Mr Spiked replied that this would be the ‘feminist policing of men’, thereby, in many people’s minds ending the conversation. ‘Feminist’ is quickly becoming one of those words, like ‘racist’, that completely ceases the ability for the discussion to continue along rational lines. I don’t like it, as many of my ideas about gender equality are synonymous to feminist ideas, but I shy away from calling myself a feminist to others. Not because I’m ashamed and not because I don’t consider myself a feminist; I do, but because once the word is out, often people close their ears to you.
The female pundit described an experience where she had been followed in Hackney by a car full of men jeering and shouting sexually charged insults and suggestions. In this case, as she got to the station, she lost her temper and slapped the car, shouting back at them. They got out of the car and pinned her to the wall. When the police came, they made it clear she should have ignored it and not provoked the attacked.
While condemning any physical attack, Mr Spiked also suggested that taking ‘sexual banter’, as he called it too seriously would be putting women back to Victorian era perceptions of fragility, where a woman would need a chaperone wherever she went. But he never really suggested how women were supposed to react beyond ignoring. I would argue that asking a woman to ignore would be equally putting women back decades, where women were perceived as docile and expected never to fight back. In fact, in many cases, I’ve found ignoring can make it worse. Often, when a man has called out ‘hello darling’ or usually something more charming like the Byronesque, ‘come and sit on my cock’ and I’ve ignored him, he’s become abusive, calling me a ‘snooty cow’ or ‘stuck up’ and in some cases actually following and confronting me with aggression. So considering that, the safest response would be a small, shy smile that acknowledges but doesn’t, hopefully, encourage him more. Really? Are we expected to reward these types of men for verbal abuse?
Of course (disclaimer, disclaimer) these situations might just as equally be experienced by men, shouted at by other men or even girls, but, in reality, it’s so much more often men harassing women and, as women are (usually) weaker and (generally) more vulnerable to attack, let’s just concentrate on that for now, shall we?
And yes, some women may well enjoy the attention that a ‘nice boobs’ comment might bring, but, on the whole, they don’t. Really, they don’t. It’s intimidating, it’s sometimes scary, it’s humiliating. I have a tougher skin now and remarks just bounce off me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated. Helplessness and the inability to fight back is a terrible feeling.
So what’s the answer? It’s tough, I’ll give you that. My initial reaction to an awareness campaign that educates people that it’s not alright to harass women in the street was one of scepticism. Do people really not realise that? Surely those who want to do it will just do it anyway. But, then again, I see campaigns from the NHS reminding people to use a tissue when they sneeze and campaigns from the Underground reminding people not to eat smelly food, which I had thought were basic things taught from an early age by all civilised families, so maybe it’s not such a bad idea. In cases like being followed or my camera-phone experience, more policemen on the street is an obvious but unfortunately unlikely situation. However, in cases where police are called or they’re nearby, I think it should be a duty to take a woman’s complaint seriously and have a word with the harassers. Don’t arrest them, don’t caution them, but take names, have a word, just be there.
Employers should also keep an eye on staff. There are spot inspections to make sure staff are wearing hard hats, so why not that they’re also behaving politely to all around them?
This is not ‘fun police’ stuff, it’s basic manners. Of course I’m not suggesting that men or women shouldn’t say ‘hello gorgeous’ or smile at someone they think is beautiful or handsome. Lord knows, I’ve been perked up on a bad day a couple of times before by such comments. But we’re hopefully all grown-ups here and it’s pretty obvious when a compliment is a compliment and when it’s a comment meant to intimidate or harass. Or maybe I have too much faith in grown-ups.
Very good response from Pierreism, couldn’t agree more:
“What I believe could be the best solution is for police to take the names and details of these abuses back to the schools that the kids go to, away from their safe environment out in public amongst friends and back to a controlled environment where the system (hopefully) works to make them listen. But most definitely “just be there”. I couldnt’ve put it better. Authorities and public alike need to be more considerate and lend a hand when it’s clear someone is in need of one. They shouldn’t have to ask. Once this starts happening on an individual basis, we’ll be alright.”
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