Last week I was walking home, across the railway bridge and down the little one-way street that leads me back to chez Abby. It’s a very quiet street, but during the daytime it is safe. On this day three men were walking towards me. One short, stocky with what looked like a skin complaint, swigging from a can of larger, the other two were tall, slender, dark-haired and pretty non-descript, and were likewise gulping from cans. The reason I refer to their appearance will become apparent later. They were walking in the middle of the road and I was on the pavement, but for some reason I felt uneasy. I put my head down and hoped that by some act of God they wouldn’t notice me, or that I would slip comfortably between the cracks in the pavement, as I walked past. Unfortunately, they did. “Alright, love,” shouted the short one over his shoulder. He could see I was looking at the ground, and something indignant in his tone of voice told me he had sensed my intention of nervously ignoring them. I raised my head slightly, half-smiled and kept walking. I was anxious, blushed red and willed myself to be teleported home as soon as possible. He then turned to his friend and said in a loud, brass and self-assured manner, “so, fuck that or what?” Not her. That. Not a person with independent thoughts and feelings, but a product, a hole in the wall, that could be filled and refilled at will by whoever would condescend to “fuck that.” And that I was privy to this meeting of great minds as the question of my desirability was bandied around the streets so loudly that a young mother, walking towards me with a pram, bowed her head as she glided swiftly past for fear of having any association with me and thus becoming the target of these crude comments, did not seem to matter.
I hurried home chased by muffled laughs and not-so-witty retorts that I struggled to decipher owing to the fact that I wanted to get away from them as quick as possible. It was embarrassing. I was embarrassed, even though I had done nothing to warrant this negative attention nor directed crass and inappropriate language at a complete stranger for just walking down the street. And while it would not have mattered if these had been three of the most aesthetically pleasing, generically attractive men ever to stalk the earth, what bothered me was the fact they felt they could slight my appearance in such a coarse, base manner, as if should they have all decided they were “desperate” enough to “fuck that,” that I would have stripped off there and then, lay back and spread my legs as if grateful for the favour. But later that evening, and in the days proceeding, I didn’t think about this once. It’s not that I thought it was acceptable, nor because it didn’t bother me (I felt extremely uncomfortable, intimidated and vulnerable), but because I have subconsciously come to accept this as part of the normal daily routine. I no longer see this as behaviour directed at me personally, but rather a part of a much greater malign directed at women in general, and something that we have no choice but to suffer. But I don’t want to feel like this, and having considered all the instances I have been subject to this treatment, am I angry.
I’ve been the recipient of more offensive comments, worsened by the fact those men felt they had a right to be tactile with me and touch parts of my body I’d rather leave untouched, thanks. I’m not the only one to be the subject of this sort of behaviour, with the response to my blog post last year and more recently the phenomenal reaction to the lovely Laura’s piece, showing that street harassment is still a part of most women’s reality. On more than one occasion I’ve been walking home, with cars filled with what I assume to be teenage boys speeding past as they shout “slag” at me. This happens. Yet, when anything is written on the subject it’s not unusual for men to wade in wearing prickly shoes and claiming that this does not happen, just because they are not guilty of the behaviour themselves. It is this attitude and the failure of society as a whole to recognise that this is a problem that prevents anything being done about it, and I set up a specific blog to discuss this last year. I can only put up posts when people e-mail me their experiences, and if this is something you would like to contribute to, please do not hesitate to let me know as I think talking about it is a way to help breakdown the belief that the person subject to taunts is in any way responsible for their treatment.
But all in all, I think the sheer denial by many of the difficulties faced by a lot of women everyday when doing nothing more than walking to work, is what precipitated my ambivalent feelings towards this story. Female students at a college in Kent were sent an email from the higher echelons threatening disciplinary action should they continue to indulge in “totally unacceptable” behaviour by wolf-whistling at builders who had started work on the campus. The students were informed that this behaviour “constitutes harassment,” with a spokesperson for the contractors claiming “we do not condone inappropriate behaviour from any parties on our sites.” While I accept that this could distract the men from their work, I am almost 100 per cent sure that getting wolf-whistled at by a girl in school uniform, thought uncomfortable, would not have physically threatened or intimidated them in any way. They would not have felt their physical safety compromised, unlike a young girl walking past a group of rowdy workmen who feel it’s necessary to comment on the size of her chest. No-one, man or woman, should be made to feel awkward or embarrassed because of their sex, but considering most women are frequently subject to considerably lewder comments it’s farcical that this story should make it into a national newspaper. A man being wolf-whistled at by a woman is in no way comparable to a woman being asked for a blowjob by a random man, primarily because biologically men are stronger, and men can always violate a woman’s body. The only reason I can fathom to justify the existence of this report is because it is such a rarity for men to complain in this way that it was considered newsworthy. That women, getting touched up and confronted with a barrage of filth on the tube, in a club or even when walking home on the street, is not featured is probably testament to the fact that it happens so often that people have a complete disinterest in reading about it – it’s just part of being a woman.
The most interesting aspect of this article are the end statements claiming that a new Sexual Offences Bill in Scotland could see individuals punished for up to ten years for “communicating indecently,” with the new law intended to punish sexual harassment via text, e-mail and letters, and also “sexually explicit comments to strangers.” While the law would only punish persistent offenders, is it not absolutely ridiculous that in order to encourage individuals to treat people they don’t know with a modicum of decency and respect that a law has to be implemented threatening a custodial sentence? But is this the answer? Should similar laws be introduced in England and Wales to “punish” men who lack the social etiquette to realise that asking a woman to sit on their face as she walks home is not the correct way to behave? Or would such a law be subject to abuse? While street harassment is getting completely and utterly out of control, how would such a system be regulated? And in all honesty, considering how difficult it is for a woman who has been raped to get any sort of justice in a court of law, how likely is it that we would get the desired result since we have not, in fact, been severely physically violated? Plus, as is always the case, it’s likely the minutest detail of our sexual lives and dress sense would be dissected beforehand to find the reasons why we had been spoken to in such a manner – because, of course, it is always the fault of the victim. So what’s the answer?