My Mum once told me her biggest regret was that she’d brought her daughters up to be so polite. It happened after one of my little sisters came home in tears. A “friendly” man at the train station had started making comments about her legs and asking if she had a boyfriend. “I really wanted to ignore him, but I didn’t want to be rude! I didn’t know what to do!” she wept. She was 14 at the time.
There’s obviously something about a quiet coach and a station buffet that encourages pervy passengers. British Transport Police have just announced that the number of sexual offences on trains and at stations has gone up by 25% in the past year, and is now at record levels. Any travelling woman who has ever sunk down in her seat and opened her book, only to be tapped on the shoulder and asked “What are you reading, then?” will be surprised that the numbers aren’t higher.
We’ve all been bothered by persistent guys who pester us relentlessly, believing themselves to be entitled to our company and more. We’re under pressure to be polite and manage their expectations. Ignored men are angry men, and it’s horrible to sit silently while a man shouts at a packed carriage: “She thinks she’s too good to talk to me!”
When it comes to responding to harassers, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t – and sometimes it gets to the point when dealing with entitled idiots is so exhausting that you feel safer staying at home.
When I was a student, I lived on a safe, central road in York right between the city centre and the university campus. For a while I was happy to walk up and down the road on my own, earphones in, handbag stuffed full of unread translations of Beowulf. Then one day, in the early afternoon, a large man grabbed my elbow and removed an ear bud. “What’s your name?” he asked. I was so stunned that it took me a full five seconds to realise that his hand was down his trousers. I stammered and stuttered, and he repeated the question. The two men who worked in the greengrocer across the street were laughing. “Oh, don’t worry! It’s Bill! He doesn’t mean any harm,” chuckled one, as Bill released me and set off in search of fresh female elbows.
Within a minute, I’d gone from bewildered to frightened to embarrassed to ashamed. Bill was not a man in the fullness of his mental health, and I thought the greengrocers were mocking me for being intolerant and closed-minded. “What’s your name?” is an innocuous enough question, regardless of where the asker’s hands are. I’d been made to feel bad for not answering.
So I started to plan a different path to class, setting off 20 minutes early to add enough loops to my route to avoid the trio that caused me trauma. I thought of the incident again on my way to yoga today. “I keep seeing you around – what’s your name?” asked a man outside the studio. I didn’t want to tell him, but I didn’t want to seem unfriendly or uptight. I was delighted when he misheard it, and didn’t correct him.
I know I’m not a special case. I suspect I experience as much harassment as the next young(ish) woman living in the centre of a city. Some women say they can ignore it entirely; others say they like elements of it. But it makes me feel fearful, anxious, and wildly self-conscious. I’m also regularly reading about the harassment of other women, which is widely reported on in social media, especially in Laura Bates’s excellent @EverydaySexism feed.
Every incident of harassment I witness, whether it’s at first- or second-hand, is making my world a little bit smaller and scarier. I don’t go out dancing any more, even though I adore it – because I know from experience that something bad might happen if I have to get home after midnight and the streets are full of potentially terrifying men who might not take it well if I don’t want to stop and say hello.
So I’ve imposed my own curfew, and try to be in bed by 11pm. During a chat about exercise a friend mentioned that she’s stopped running because of the number of men who will shout “compliments” and block her path to get her to slow down and talk to them. She misses running outside in the fresh air desperately, but the anxiety the harassment causes her is too great for her to risk it.
I can’t believe we live like this in 2015. Women should be enjoying more freedoms than ever before, but many of us are frightened, and we’re running out of options. We can submit to our sense of obligation and be polite to the harassers who might kick off if we ignore them, or we can cage ourselves in. We’re frustrated and exhausted.
We need the support of British Transport Police, and all law enforcement bodies, to spread the message that it isn’t flirting if it feels frightening. To create spaces where all women feel they are safe to look their harasser in the eye and say: “Leave me alone. I do not want to talk to you.” Because I’m tired of being kind to the creeps in order to stay safe. And I don’t want to stay in.
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