Today I was sexually harassed. Again. Twice.
That makes at least once per day, from men young or old. Predominantly white, occasionally of colour. Every single day for approximately nine years, seven months and twenty-one days.
And for around maybe seven, eight of those years I ignored it. It was just ‘guys being guys’. Whether it was classmates touching me inappropriately in P.E. classes or middle-aged builders wolf-whistling and demanding me to smile for them as I walked past, my underdeveloped body clad in my school uniform. Sometimes I’d just ignore them, other times I’d smile nervously and hurry on. Either way, I felt ashamed.
And it’s always the same, isn’t it? If you speak to other people – mainly older women and guys – they say the same. ‘Oh, it’s just because he likes you!’ ‘Oh, that’s what all men are like!’ ‘Oh, they’re just being men, they only want one thing!’ ‘Oh, I’d love to be wolf-whistled at in the street!’ ‘Oh, it just means they think you’re pretty!’ ‘Oh, just ignore them, don’t react, pretend you’re deaf, don’t make a scene – ‘ To quote a line from Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban: “SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” *proceeds to lose control of magical powers*.
There was one instance in Year Seven, the last school disco I ever went to. I wore a black skirt, stripy tights and a glittery, long-sleeved top. Three lads in my year followed me round for the ENTIRE NIGHT calling me a prostitute, saying I was a slut and I’d end up dead in a ditch ‘like the other prozzies’ (this was around the time of the Suffolk Stranglings being on the news a lot). When I began crying and told my drama teacher – brace yourselves – I shit you not, she told me ‘Oh they’re just trying to get your attention because they fancy you.’
WHAT?! What?! HOW? How, in God’s name, is that even a REMOTELY appropriate response to an eleven-year-old girl being called a prostitute and telling her she’ll end up dead because of it?
We say this to girls all the time. When a boy physically harms her or bullies her, we say that he has a crush on her. That boys only know how to express themselves through violence and malice.
And then we wonder why so many women stay in abusive relationships. Because they have internalised that violence, and they sunconsciously believe that this is how men show love and affection and blame themselves for provoking it. We teach girls that when boys touch them in an inappropriate manner, it’s just their natural instinct, they’re hormonal. They’re noticing girls and, again, it means he fancies you.
And then we wonder why so many women don’t report sexual violence. And when they do, we chastise them for it because by wearing certain things, drinking, or even just by existing, we are provoking men, because men are sexual creatures who’s natural instinct is to rape. When we know damn well that that is utter bullshit. Men are intelligent creatures, capable of rational thought. They know when to stop.
I am TIRED of being objectified and dehumanised simply because I am female. I am SICK AND TIRED of having to fear random strangers in the street in case they get off on humiliating me in public. And even worse, I am fed up to the back teeth of being CHASTISED EVERY TIME I REACT TO BEING REDUCED DOWN TO NOTHING MORE THAN A SEXUAL THING. I am NOT outside of my house just so I can be honked at, whistled at, yelled the most appalling obscene things at or gestured at. And you know what? I will respond in whatever way I damn well please.
Now, the reason I’m writing this is because I was out and about today with a family member. Crossing the road, a car full of young, white men went past, slowing down so one of them in the back could stick his head out the window, make some kind of zombie noise at me while making a sexual gesture at me, before speeding off down the road. Furious, I stuck up my middle finger at the car as it drove away, much to the chagrin of my relative. ‘Don’t do that!’ she exclaimed, ‘Oh God, what if they turn into our road, they could see us again. Don’t ever do that again, you’re just lowering yourself to their level, it’s so unclassy, it’s not ladylike. Just keep your head down and say nothing. Pretend you’re deaf, don’t make a scene.’
Excuse me? I’m sorry, are we suddenly slaves? We must bow our heads and avoid the gaze of our oppressors in case we’re punished? Hell no, I’ll look right at them all and make as much of a scene as I want. And damn whether it is ‘ladylike’ or ‘unclassy’ or not! Was it gentlemanly and classy of them to do that? Absolutely not, and why should I stand there and let them go off thinking that I will not fight back? You can harp on about ‘lowering yourself to that level’ as much as you like, but at the end of the day, women endure this kind of treatment day in and day out. For decades, we’ve been too conscious of not taking up space, of staying quiet and not causing a scene, allowing men to do as they please with us. This is why 97% of rape cases do not end with the perpetrator in jail, because of this blind attitude that let’s men off the hook because the world has apparently internalised the bizarre lie that men are programmed to intimidate and rape women.
Why I cry, why have we perpetuated this attitude? Why have we been so afraid of letting women defend themselves, and why must we brainwash our sons with this disgusting crap? It is NOT natural, it is NOT instinct. Why, oh why must we simply shrug our shoulders and carry on with the oppression? My relative chastised me because I ‘stepped out of line’, and me stepping out of line could apparently put us in danger. She feared they would come back round to find us, to find out which house we were stepping into. We internalise misogyny because we are afraid for our lives and our safety if we don’t. Because, in her words ‘things will never change anyway’. And that has GOT to stop.