Friday, 28 September 2012

Even Street Harassment Is Bigger Here: Or an apology to US feminist bloggers

Dear American feminist bloggers,

I'm sorry.  I really am.  I feel like I've let the side down.  You see I thought you were over-reacting.  I thought you were making a big deal out of something I believed I had experienced but been unaffected by.  I thought there were more important battles to fight.

I was wrong.  Really, totally mistaken.  What I thought you were talking about when you wrote of street harrassment was a beep from a car horn when I'm out running, a whistle from a building site, being obviously checked out by a grinning man leaning out the open window of his passing van, a request to 'smile' from an old man at the bar.

An irregular annoyance or occasional flattery, nothing more.  It left no mark in my head, nor affected my actions.  I didn't always object to the validation.  It was nice to think my ass looked good in lycra.

I did not realise that what you meant by street harrassment is a lone old man at a bus stop muttering about the disgusting things he'd like to do to me if he could get me alone, it's a "Hey! Hey! Hey, baby!" yelled across the street that becomes a "Well fuck you, whore" at my non-response, it's a jeering, menacing indistinguishable jumble of calls from a car full of guys at a stop light and the whooping and hollering self-congratulations as they drive away.  It's having your time and mental space and energy taken over and over and over every time you leave your house.  It is not harmless.

I racked my brains before writing this for times I've felt this way in London and came up with one, just one instance where my journey was interrupted multiple times by passing men.  But the thing is, I can accept that, at 8am on a sunny morning, in tight, short red dresses and leather jackets (accidental outfit synergy), clutching our heels in our hands and wearing last night's make up, my friend and I were stared at.  I I saw us I'd've stared and chuckled that we'd clearly had a great night last night.

We laughed ourselves when a car full of boys smiled as they drove past and one called out, "Lucky guy!" and we shook our heads at their overactive imaginations. It was a jokey compliment, not a veiled threat.  

It's been only six weeks since I arrived in the U.S. and already I've thought, 'Maybe I won't wear that halter dress today; don't think I can handle it.'  This is not a disproportionate reaction to one instance, but a reasonable one to an accumulation of experiences.  Not one 'hello' or 'excuse me' has been anything other than a phoney segueway to lecherousness, so why would I even bother now to respond?

It hasn't taken long for me to dread walking past a a group of men or feel the sinking anxiety in my stomach watching a car with even just one guy pull up at the crossing where I'm waiting.  And no, not every single time results in harrassment, but enough do that I feel nervous either way in anticipation, as I walk towards them thinking, 'Don't, please just don't'.

I dislike how I feel.  I dislike mentally screaming, 'Fuck off!' at every leer, while I walk, headphones in, sunglasses on, not reacting.  I don't like that any other action will only make it worse, that letting someone talk to me like that is the best available response.  Especially when I know that will only make me feel worse in the end.

I want to be generous and smile, to have the time for a fellow human being.  I imagine that if a man who genuinely needed my help approached me I would be one of those cold people who did not stop walking.

In 42 nights there has been just one where the men I met held their gentlemanliness together for the duration.  My friend and I almost didn't go out, because we just couldn't handle being endlessly accosted again.  Thankfully it was great. We got all the way through to dawn being actual human beings with each other. It was this night that got me thinking about the wider issue here, as I felt something inside I hadn't realised I was tense, relax in the presence of these men.  

It was a depressing lightbulb moment - those other men, who have made me feel so uncomfortable, do not think I'm their equal, consciously or unconsciously I am 'less than' to them.  It's a feeling I have occassionally gotten from older Englishmen, but not from my peers.  It's evident not only in the street harassment, but in virtually every social interaction I have had with a man since I arrived.  It's evident in the political 'war on women' (god I hate that phrase) that's being played out right now.

I'm pretty thick skinned (unobservant my friends might say).  I can laugh most things off, but now I'm thinking of all the unasked for touches my body has received lately: the guys who started stroking my shoulder after ten minutes of conversation, the guy who grabbed my face and 'kissed' me mid stride in the street, the man who put his hand on my thigh as he tried to convince me to let him come home with my friend and me.

Worst, the man who pulled me hard against him and smashed his lips over mine.  I won't call it a kiss; it wasn't.  Who did this, or tried to, over and over for the duration of the journey to my hostel.  I went limp each time, hands at my sides, mouth closed, said I wasn't 'that kind of girl' whatever that means, that I was in a relationship, had only just met him.  But I mumbled. I was not assertive.  He either sucked at reading body language, or didn't care I wasn't reciprocating, that the loud, animated girl of a second ago was shuffling her feet and looking at the floor.

Why didn't I tell him to go away? Because I was in an unknown city after dark without money for a cab and he was at least a known quantity.  Not much bigger than me, I thought I had a better shot at surviving a physical altercation against him than any of the other guys loitering around the bus stop.  I thought I had it under control.

When we finally reached my hostel's door he tried one last mauling and I pulled back, awkwardly knocking my head on the glass.  The force of my movement startled him a bit. 

"I said I wasn't going to sleep with you," I reiterated.
"Yeah, you did, didn't you...?" he acknowledged, but a shade of something crossed his face.  Annoyance. Anger, even. I bought her dinner.  

Benefit of the doubt erased, I stepped inside, realised I felt shaken and messaged my boyfriend to apologise.  I let a guy kiss me after all, right?  Only because he's not a dick and because great men who can love women wholeheartedly as equals do exist, he told me not to worry, that he had no reason to be mad at me, though he would like to hurt this man for touching me, asked if I was okay, begged me to stay safer.

I realise that I started with an acknowledgment that street harassment in the U.S. is as bad as you were all saying and I've meandered into borderline sexual assault, just as I realise the plural of anecdote isn't data, but since I started getting that uneasy feeling in the back of my mind I've been trying to figure out what's different here versus my experiences in the U.K. and I don't think it's a huge stretch to draw the two together.

It's not that street harassment doesn't happen in London, it's pretty ubiquitous everywhere it seems, or that all the men there are heroes from a Jane Austen novel (oh that I wish they were), but something is different here, in my experience at least.  

The key for me was that look.  The 'how dare I not have sex with him' look.  It was the same scornful look on the face of the guy who demanded an explanation for why my friend and me weren't going to have a threesome with him, since 'no' apparently wasn't good enough.  Or the one who angrily informed me, 'No guy wants to hear how great your boyfriend is' after telling me he'd never 'let' his girlfriend travel the world on her own. And the one who patted my head and told me I was "so sweet" in a way that felt like an insult, being, as it was, code for frigid.

It's about proprietorship.  These men do not think I am their equal.  They believe they have a right to my space, my body, my time.  These catcalls are not compliments, because they bear no relation to how I look and are not designed to make me feel good.  One glance at the looks on their faces would disavow anyone of that notion, for they are sneering and self-satisfied.  Dominant in the crudest sense of that word.  This is not an interaction, because my response is irrelevant.  I am not a person to them, I am a woman-shape.

The biggest difference though, is that I've never felt geniunely scared, uncomfortable maybe, but not threatened.  I've never run home before dark like I live in Cordelia's bizarro wish world.  Most importantly it was not an every day, multiple times a day, occurrence.  I never felt like an unperson.  I now realise it's not an overexaggeration to feel that street harassment is the first step in the process of objectification that leads to ignoring a critical 'No'. 

I had only one real incidence of this feeling as a teacher in East London.  I forget what I said by way of prompt, but just on the edge of my hearing was a lewd sniggered comment from one of the boys in the class.  He was a new student, one I didn't have much of a relationship with yet.  As I was steeling myself to go and inform him that his comment was inappropriate, one of the other boys piped up, "Don't talk about Miss like that, man She's safe."  And that was it.  Misogyny shut down.

So to end this on a note not entirely devoid of hope, that story makes me think we have the keys to some progress.  It says that this behaviour is societal and can be changed.  I'm not saying we need the menfolk to rescue us from their lesser brothers, but I am saying that if every man who ever thought, 'I just wanted to talk to her and she was rude to me' directs his indignation at the men who forced that woman to consider that her best response, then we're walking in the right direction. 

After all, women aren't inciting this behaviour, men are perpetrating it.  This isn't really a 'woman's issue' at all, but I could find only one research article on why men behave this way (answer: don't know *shrug*).  Part of me wants to say, 'Who gives a fuck?', but it might be the key to a solution. I'm mad as hell, but I don't want to be forced to feel like it's men versus women.  It should be decent human beings versus jerks.

I am sure there are a great many good men in America, who love and respect womankind.  I hope some of them read this without getting defensive and call out any friends who don't act so great in future.

I know there are many wonderful men in my life who can flatter sincerely, won't tolerate disrespect towards girls and will find the behaviour I've described abhorrent.  I have my amazing, handsome, funny, wonderful (suck it, creep, I'll talk about him if I want to) love of my life to help me keep the faith, who I can't wait to kiss like kisses are meant to be - mutual and full of love.

I do hope that this goes some way toward making up for my ignorance, women of America.  I hope that this changes the mind of anyone as skeptical as I previously was.  Most of all I hope that you don't have to fight all over again for the right to control your bodies and sexualities.  But if you do, know that I'm all in, because I finally understand and I don't know how you've managed for so long dealing with this.  You're stronger, clearly, than I've had to be so far.  

Now that I've been forced to toughen up and see where this behaviour comes from and where it leads, I might just be a little less polite to the next London gent that tells me to 'Smile, love,'   


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