Let me tell you what happened to me: I’m walking down my street after leaving my flat, dry cleaning in hand, bag and laptop slung over my shoulder. It’s a Friday afternoon in a busy and bustling area of east London. My neighborhood is half working class and half artsy-hipster crowd. Not that where you live should have any bearing on what happened. I have had equally humiliating experiences in neighborhoods of every socioeconomic stripe.
My neighborhood is a good neighborhood where I feel safe 99 percent of the time. But not today. As I walk down the street I notice I am coming up on a group of men standing around near the end of my apartment block. I don’t know them, have never seen them or spoken to them before.
Yet as I approach, they murmur to me, ‘Hey sister…hey baby…hey beautiful.” I knew this was coming – I have a sixth sense for these situations now – and tense up immediately, my eyes forward as I continue down the sidewalk.
I turn the corner. A drunk, homeless man mumbles something. I am polite, so I stop and say: “Excuse me?” He repeats what he said and I am immediately sorry when he asks me to perform an activity that starts with F and ends with me feeling a gross mixture of surprise and disgust.
I continue, stopping at the dry cleaner. On my way out I run into a group of teenage boys, who start making noises I’m already determined not to hear. As I rush past them, one of them tries to grab my hand crooning, “Hey sexy…where you going?” I shake him off and keep walking, the color rising in my cheeks.
I stop at the post office to mail my postcards and as I leave a delivery man on a scooter waiting for a traffic light shouts, “Sweetheart!” and gives me what could only be described as a lascivious gesture. I throw up a hand to signal to him to leave me alone and continue walking, now head down, determined to get to the library.
My heart is racing, my blood is pumping, shame and anger is rising within me alongside rage and frustration on a fundamental level. I get to the library and exchange my books without incident. My shoulders start to relax a little as I leave. Finally I see my destination. As I walk towards it, almost running, I don’t even have the thought, “This is London, wtf?” Because it doesn’t matter. It never matters. This is the world women live in. I am shaking when I reach my final destination. There are tears in my eyes.
Do men know? Do they know what this does to women? How it makes us feel? Even when we know we shouldn’t, even when we know it’s them that’s the problem and not us, do they know the shame, the degradation, the embarrassment it produces? How threatened we can feel? Do they know and just not care?
Or do they honestly not know? Can they not put themselves in our place and think, “She’s someone’s mother/wife/sister/daughter” and then not do that stuff? Do they realize how on edge we feel, never knowing how to respond? Whether we should or not? Whether it will lead to violence if we do? Or violence if we don’t?
Then there is always the fear, the apprehension that accompanies these interactions. What to do? If I purposely cross the street before I get to a large group of men who I am worried will harass me, will they come after me or catcall me anyway? Or should I just brave it out and walk through them hoping they’ll be kind? If they make a comment and I put my chin up and pretend I’m not fazed, will they do it again the next time they see me thinking I like that kind of thing?
Will it get worse in the moment as they try to get a reaction out of me? If I yell at a man who says rude or disgusting things to me, if I push a man who’s grabbed my hand as I walk past, will he call me a bitch? A cunt? A whore? Will he hit me? And if he did, would anyone step in and help me? Most men are bigger than I am. I take it for granted they are stronger.
If a man or a group of men whip out their camera phones and take pictures of me, what do I do? If a man or a group of men says horrible things to me or touches me, however slight, I can, technically, yell at him or fight back. Technically. But how likely is it that I would come out on top?
And what if it happens at night? Just me and him, or them, on a dark street? What might happen to me then? Might I get some ‘corrective’ treatment at the hands of men with hurt pride and damaged dignity? Would I be killed?
And even if I were rescued or I went to the police after, what are the odds of anything positive happening in my favor? There is a backlog of rape kits, verbal abuse against women is tolerated in broad daylight, and many cultures and places tolerate physical and emotional abuse of women, in private if not in public. There’s violence against women all over Facebook. Look it up sometime.
I can’t tell you how many ‘jokes’ I heard when I worked in the school system and how many parents, fathers and mothers, tried to excuse it with: “It’s just words….kids…you know…it was a joke…it’s nothing…”
Is it? Is it “nothing”? Would a “joke”, would “nothing”, provoke these kinds of reactions in women? How many women do these things happen to? Trust me, none of them are fucking laughing.