17 Jan 2014

What Were You Thinking?

When I was out jogging a couple of days ago, trundling happily along in my old leggings, my $20 trainers from Wal-Mart and my beloved Um Bongo T-shirt, two men in a white van took it upon themselves to repeatedly honk at me as they drove past. It was the middle of the day. It was on a main road leading into a nice, civilised village in Bedfordshire.
 
None of this matters.
 
But because our society has conditioned me, like it will have conditioned you, to believe that victims usually share at least some of the blame for street harassment, I feel that I have to mention these points. I wasn't wearing anything revealing. It was daylight. It was a 'nice' area. If I tell you those things, I don't get blamed for the juvenile behaviour of two grown men.
 
Right?
 
I told a male friend what happened. I was angry, annoyed. He tried to make a joke of it by saying "Clearly you don't know how sexy you are." The implication being that, I'm just so damned enticing even with no make-up on, hair scraped back, scruffy jogging clothes and my dorky high-visibility jacket tied around my waist. I should therefore take harassment as a compliment, right?
 
This cartoon sums up exactly why catcalls are not compliments.
 
 
(Cartoon by Barry Deutsch - available to buy at RedBubble)
 
But again, none of this actually matters. I'm tired of focusing on how the victim of street harassment feels, on the struggle she will inevitably and wrongly endure in order to make herself understood, believed and to not be perceived as complicit in her harassment. I'm tired of thinking about the stupid, if well-meaning, comments that she might receive from even those she trusts and respects when she tries to tell them how impotent, angry and totally-fucking-not-free-in-a-society-that-keeps-telling-us-how-good-we've-got-it the incident makes her feel. That's not because I don't care about the victim - I care deeply about her. But I want to talk to the perpetrator. Because I'm tired of them being erased from the conversation, when the conversation should focus on them. It should interrogate them. Humiliate them. Back them into a corner. Make them feel like they've done something wrong. Not the women they harass.
 
So. Men in van. Talk to me. Tell me. What were you thinking when you decided to honk your horn at me?
Bit of fun?
Let's have a laugh?
Woman on her own, easy target?
Great arse/great tits/young/pretty/ugly/I'd like to fuck her/how dare she be out on her own/sexier than my girlfriend/uglier than my girlfriend but I'd still give her one/fucking bitch/whore/slut/uppity cow/teach her a lesson/minding her own business ha/
 
Any of the above?
 
Or are you going to go with that old get-out "I wasn't thinking"? I never buy that excuse. We're all, always thinking, all of the time, whether consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously. You clearly think you're the superior sex, so please don't try to hide behind that "I'm just a dumb man" schtick. Tell me. What were you thinking?
 
Man who actually honked the horn - did your mate egg you on? Did he yell in your ear "Go on son, do it!". And if so, what part of you is so desperate for his approval, his blessing, his encouraging laughter, that you thought his was a good idea? Why does deliberately trying to intimidate a 5'2", 126lb woman out on her own strike you as something you must do to impress your friend, and aren't you even slightly concerned about the fact that such a person is influencing your behaviour?
 
How did you think I felt? Complimented? Annoyed? Frightened? I'm guessing, if you saw the raised middle finger I instantly aimed in your direction, you'd go for the middle option. And I'm also guessing that, like schoolboys in a playground, you would have found that hilarious. Job done. Got on her nerves. Pissed her off. Broke her composure. How dare she be out jogging, not smiling, not trying to look appealing or please us. We got a reaction, brought her down to our level. Brilliant. Point scored.
 
Have you ever thought that underlying that annoyance, which every woman does feel every time we're honked at, shouted at, whistled at, leered at, groped, is also fear? Fear that schedules every woman's life into safe and not-safe spaces and times, tiny pockets of the world that get smaller every time someone like you comes along and reminds us that we have to be constantly vigilant even in areas and times of day that we previously thought were safe? Have you ever considered the rapid mental calculations that every woman undergoes the moment she hears footsteps behind her on the street, or sees a stranger arrive next to her at the isolated bus stop, or sees a lairy group of men get on to the train in the same carriage as her? No? Well - they go something like this.

How quickly can I get away?
What can I use as a weapon?
Is there anyone around who can help?
Will anyone hear me if I scream?
 
And inevitably, they are also accompanied by thoughts like this
They'll say I asked for it
They'll want to know what I was wearing
They'll ask me why I was on my own
They'll ask me if I'd been drinking

I knew the likelihood of you doing a U-turn and coming back to haul me into your van and do something terrible to me was pretty small. But even just raising a middle finger felt like a risky activity. Have you ever thought what it would be like to be in that situation, men in van? Can you even imagine how it feels to be hamstrung by a situation where you know you can't win, where you're being clearly reminded you don't have the right to exist in a public space without being harassed, and yet should you dare to respond to this harassment with legitimate anger, it's likely as not to be used to further undermine you?

What did you do to provoke him?
You must've done something
He was only messing around
You shouldn't take things so seriously
 
You were both white. I could see that much as you sped past me, employing the most cowardly of harassment tactics, annoying me while driving at 30mph so there could be no comeback. I'm going to make some assumptions about you now, and perhaps that's wrong, but since you made plenty of assumptions about me when you chose your target, I'm afraid you've given up the freedom not to be stereotyped. I expect you think of yourselves as civilised men, living in a first-world country. You're not like those terrible brown men in the middle East, who you probably believe are swarming this country in some kind of conspiracy, those backwards cavemen who beat their wives and make them wear tents and won't let them drive or vote or wear swimming costumes. You're 'the good guys', right?
 
So chaps, please do then tell me the difference between pressuring a woman to wear a hijab, niqab or burka/demanding that women always remain in the private sphere and out of public space, and constantly reminding women who dare to be out and about wearing and doing what the fuck they please that they're not welcome to do so and they will be harassed and intimidated for it? I'd suggest you're not as different from "those other men" as you think. If there's anyone who needs to be 'sent back to where they came from', in my mind it's any man who cannot pass a lone woman out in public space without viewing her as a target. And you know where you all need to be sent back to? That's right - the rock you crawled out from underneath in the first place.
 
I'd finish by trying to appeal to your softer sides, but I'm tired of that tactic. I'm tired of having to try to get people to practise their skills of empathy when these should be well-honed already. Why should I have to ask you the following -
What if that was your mother?
What if that was your sister?
Your aunt?
Your daughter?
Your wife?
Your girlfriend?
Your friend?
Would you still think it was OK to treat her like that, if it was?
- just to get you to behave with a level of decency that the average 6 year-old can comprehend?
 
Why is it my job both to absorb your harassment and then teach you why it's stupid, wrong and a disservice to your whole gender?
 
And why do I have to phrase the lesson in terms of self-interest? You shouldn't have to view me as someone connected with you in order to realise the very fucking simple truth that I have the right to go for a fucking jog when and where I please, without idiots honking at me. I am indeed someone's daughter, someone's sister, someone's friend. But even if I wasn't, even if I was unconnected with anyone in the world, it shouldn't matter.
 
Because I am a person who deserves respect.
 
So men in van, tell me. Why is that so hard for you to understand?

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