It’s 11pm, and my best friend and I are walking towards Wetherspoons in Bournemouth to celebrate my birthday. Under normal circumstances, this would not be an alarming situation. What makes it alarming is that a) there is a large group of men behind us yelling “alright ladieeeeeeeeeees!” at our backs b) it is the World Cup, meaning that the bar is rammed with similar “lads” and c) there is a drunk guy heading towards the doors who announces to the bouncers “I’m with them.” He looks at our stony faces. Back to the bouncers. Decides otherwise: “yeah, maybe not…” and stumbles inside.
Sound familiar? I’m sure that pretty much all girls have experienced this at some point. As my birthday is in June, making me the baby of my friends, I was pretty much the last person to be able to go out, and therefore the last person to experience the joys of “lads” in town on a Friday night. I had always told myself that as I favoured big hoodies in the winter and t-shirts in summer, I wouldn’t ever be “that girl,” the one that gets honked at, the one that men yell at. Add to that a bad case of acne and a late start in puberty, and I was pretty much convinced I would be immune to men – I would simply pass under their radar in stealth mode, invisible to testosterone-laden teenage boys.
June 2013. The acne cleared up. I discovered I have legs, and learnt how to blow dry my hair and combat the frizz. I invested in Mac lipsticks, and entered the world of being a girl. I was still pretty invisible to guys. If guys honked at me, I was usually fairly sure they were being ironic: “HA, I’m wearing baggy old jeans and a hoodie, mate. More fool you if you think that that, rain-hair and no makeup is a dream woman.” I didn’t realise that to most men, they aren’t really concerned about your face, or your hair, or even if you have particularly great boobs. If they’re gonna make comments, they’re gonna make comments. In fact having short hair or acne or no boobs doesn’t really offer any protection – it just changes the nature of the comments yelled at you.[quote align=”right” name=”” role=””]I didn’t realise that to most men, they aren’t really concerned about your face, or your hair, or even if you have particularly great boobs. If they’re gonna make comments, they’re gonna make comments.[/quote]
I listened to my friends tell stories of creepy guys in far flung places, read the Everyday Sexism Twitter account with horror, but still felt pretty detached from it all. “No.” I thought naively. “That’ll never happen to me!” That all changed in my first September in Southampton. I was stood at a bus stop, mentally appraising the two thirteen year old girls sat on the wall opposite me and wondering if we had dressed like that when we were thirteen, when a man in his sixties wandered over. His coat was slung over his shoulder like a cape, although that didn’t provoke any suspicion in me. It was warm, he had on a shirt, there was little breeze, it was a convenient way to carry a coat. He didn’t speak to me, so I ignored him and went back to my phone. A little while later, I looked up and realised his right hand was concealed by his coat. It took me a minute or two for the cogs in my brain to click – and then I felt disgusted. I got on the bus feeling sick to my stomach, and I realised that this was what street harassment was – it didn’t matter to men who you are, what you look like: you are a woman, and they think that therefore you’re there for their sexual gratification. Well, newsflash: we aren’t. Surprisingly, women do have better things to do than sit around looking “sexy” for men. Alright so this isn’t always necessarily going to be smashing the Glass Ceiling, but really, when we get dressed up, it is usually for us, and not to give you something to drool over. (I say usually. There are of course exceptions, and if you want to look sexy for men, that’s fine by me! Feminism is about choice.)
Of course, getting masturbated over in public is probably towards the more extreme end of the sexual harassment scale. There’s also honking out of cars, shouting “alright sexy?!” making inappropriate comments, groping… the list is endless. When recently out in town, I walked past a group of men, one of whom lifted a lock of my hair and said “mm, nice.” I had never met this man before. I don’t know who he was. But society told him that it’s an acceptable – if not desirable – way to compliment a woman he doesn’t know by touching her in a public place, surrounded by strangers. And that’s where the issue lies.
Instead of men realising how their actions come across, they think they’re being complimentary. That whistling at a girl or yelling “great tits” will make her day. It doesn’t – it’s scary, humiliating, it makes us feel singled out in public, and it is genuinely very intimidating, especially if it’s a big group of men. Yeah, alright, so a girl might have great tits – she might also be studying for her PhD, but because you can’t tell that by looking at her, you don’t shout “way to go, PhD!” at her. I can say with 100% certainty that no woman has ever looked at the back of a white van, from which a builder hangs out the window leering after yelling “hey sexy!” and sighed “but he seemed so nice. I wish I could meet him again, I think we’d make a lovely couple.” Really. This has never happened.[quote align=”left” name=”” role=””]I can say with 100% certainty that no woman has ever looked at the back of a white van, from which a builder hangs out the window leering after yelling “hey sexy!” and sighed “but he seemed so nice. I wish I could meet him again, I think we’d make a lovely couple.” Really. This has never happened.[/quote]
Some men will say that women are to blame for street harassment – that we shouldn’t dress so provocatively, or wear so much makeup. And it has to be said that this statement is laughable. So by wearing lipstick, your brain was completely unable to filter your thoughts and a lovely lewd comment about blowjobs just burst out your mouth unbidden? You know who else speak their thoughts without filtering them? Toddlers. Yeah; they generally stop by about age six. So by saying that a woman in a skirt meant you just had to say what you were thinking, you’re basically saying your mental capacity is less than a six year old’s. Frankly, that’s just pretty embarrassing.
Of course, I should here stress: not all men decide to shout their compliments. During Freshers Week, I was stopped on the street by a guy of about fifteen, and my heart sank. Oh no… I thought. Here goes… He looked from his friends to me and asked, quite unexpectedly: “sorry, do you have the time?” I replied, and he thanked me politely before then saying: “and can I just say, you look lovely this evening” and leaving with his friends. Not only was this extremely courteous, it also made my day. Men of the world take note: this is how you compliment a woman. Really, “sexy” or “fit” is not a compliment. Similarly, using adjectives as nouns is never a good start either: “alright gorgeous” is not particularly complimentary. Keep adjectives as adjectives.
So next time you’re a bit drunk, and you see a good looking girl, just remember: six year olds. And maybe go over and start by asking her name first. That’s probably the best start.
To see some subversion of street harassment, this video shows how men react to being yelled at in public. And it’s brilliant. http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/apr/04/everyday-sexism-turn-tables-women-men-video