This week at school, we had a talk from Laura Bates, who runs everydaysexism.com. She was asked in to talk to our year 11 boys, and some other students and quite a few members of staff went along, too. She was fascinating, clear and generally brilliant, answering questions in detail and, crucially, not falling for the boys’ attempts to wrongfoot her. It led to some encouraging and interesting conversations with colleagues, and hopefully amongst the students, and I left work feeling empowered and positive that we could bring about change.
Fifteen minutes later, as I approached the train station, a man in the street reached for my arm, wanting to ask me about my hair. I skittered around him and carried on my way, like I have done a thousand times before. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t upset. He didn’t even actually touch me. It was nothing.
Except that it isn’t.
As I sat on the train home, I realised that I would have thought nothing of it at all if I hadn’t already been thinking about it because of the afternoon’s talk, about how men see us, about harassment and what it means and how we brush it off time and again. But the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. It was the first thing I told my parents when I got home. I shared my experience and my irritation online, and my friends were angry, concerned, defensive, reassuring – wonderful people that they are (sidenote: I’ve just searched ‘friend’ and ‘friendship’ on my own twitter feed and been overwhelmed with joy and love for the people I am lucky enough to count as my friends). One of them came by to check on me in person the next morning, and I found myself getting upset while I was telling her about it, even though I had brushed it off so easily at the time, because it reminded me of all the other times things like this have happened. In thinking he was entitled to my time, my attention, my personal space, this man ruined the positivity I felt when I left work, and added to the weight of sexism that I carry.
I’ve become so numb to men invading my personal space, to them taking up part of my seat on the tube or leaning their newspaper on my hands on a packed train (both of which have happened to me in the last week), to them making comments in the street ranging from “nice tits” to the sickeningly explicit, yelling at me out of vans and from the barbers near the station, that it has become normal. It has to be a big deal – like being followed away from the station, or from the tram stop; like being backed into a doorway in Piccadilly Circus by a man who had stopped me as if to ask for directions, while people all around saw it happening and looked away; like being subjected to a torrent of abuse when I had the audacity to ask a man to stop pushing me off my seat on the train, while every other passenger became much more interested in their newspapers; like being groped, repeatedly, on the metro in Paris – for it to bother me beyond momentary irritation. It is constant, it is wearing, and it is exhausting. And I’m fortunate – these are the worst things I’ve had to deal with. Millions of women, including people I know, have had much, much worse. Besides, I’m white, I don’t get harassed for my sexuality because people assume I’m straight, I’m cisgender, I’m able-bodied: it could be worse. It is worse for millions of people.
But it’s a compliment, isn’t it, to be catcalled? There’s a difference between “hey sexy” (a man who passed me in a dark street a couple of weeks ago) and “I like your blue shoes!” or “you look nice, have a nice day!” (the man who runs the coffee van outside my station). There’s a difference between asking for someone’s number, and yelling at her from a van or wolf-whistling from a building site. There’s a difference between talking to someone who is clearly interested, and taking up her time and space without her consent. But if we don’t like it, we apparently should challenge the men that do it to us, only that just means women getting murdered – it’s easier to smile a little and walk faster than to deal with the fallout of fighting back. It’s about entitlement to women’s bodies, about reminding us that our right to be in public is dependent on the men we encounter there, that we are no more than how we look and whether men are attracted to us.
It was crushing to be reminded so soon of how commonplace this is is, of how easily and quickly it has the potential to develop from irritating to dangerous, of how we have to brush off so much so that we aren’t crushed under the weight of it every single day. Because the more I think about it, the more I am amazed that women manage to do anything at all.
But then, that’s the point, isn’t it?