I don’t remember the first time I properly started to think about (street) harassment and how it affects me. It might have been this excellent post by @pleasedonteatjo, or this totally fabulous example of solidarity from @laurenbravo. Either way, until recently, I’d always just ignored it. Accepted it. Let it slide. But since we’ve been talking about it more, I’ve started to get annoyed. I’ve started to get really bloody angry. Because it’s not okay to treat a woman like she’s nothing more than the sum of her orifices. And nine times out of ten, that’s what street harassment is. It’s not a friendly man complimenting you on your fine choice of lipstick – it’s a bloke saying something creepy under his breath just as you walk past him; it’s a group of lads yelling ‘suck my cock’ from a passing car; it’s the nutter in a corner shop, telling you to bend over.
It’s not okay, and it’s scary as shit. I’ve finally gotten the confidence to actually start shouting back (though only in crowded places and/or broad daylight – it would be stupid to put yourself in actual danger by provoking the wrong person). Having witnessed @alice_emily in a spectacular moment where she told off two harassers on Charing Cross Road, I’m now in full support of reacting angrily.
But what about the times when you can’t really shout back? I was at a bit of a mental house party a couple of weeks ago. I only knew a handful of people, and I was having a good time catching up and snaffling a lovely G&T. As the night went on, the party got busier and the pupils of the people around me got wider. I was standing by the bathroom at one point, when an absolute scrotum of a man walked past me and full on brushed my left breast with his hand. Not an actual lengthy grope, but a distinctive, single stroke down the length of it. I jerked, stunned and did a sort of ‘what the fuck’ gesture with my arms, but he was already gone. I stood there for a second, wondering if anyone else had seen. They hadn’t. I felt indignant but sort of helpless. There was no chance for me to chase after him and berate him – after all, it could have been an accident (it wasn’t).
Later, that same man pushed past me again and this time, did the exact same stroke-as-he-walked-past right up my bum cheek. Again, I felt immediately very uncomfortable and I think I actually said ‘what the fuck’, but he was already off and away. I mentioned it to my boyfriend, who wanted to know who it was. I didn’t tell him, because picking an argument with someone who’s high off their ass on coke and already bug-eyed is never going to end well. I told myself if he did it again, I would crush him (drunk me may be a bit of a drama queen). Thankfully, we left shortly after. I continued to seethe.
I’ve talked about harassment a lot with my boyfriend, who is always horrified. He never sees it. We joke that he’s my talisman, because it does (obviously?) happen less when he’s with me. But the following day, we were walking down the escalator at a tube station, me with my maxi dress hitched up so I don’t get sucked in and vaporised, and it happens. Just as I walk past an older man in a suit, he says ‘lovely legs, sexy lady’ with a weird, hungry smile. I am instantly annoyed, throwing a ‘fuck off’ over my shoulder. As I get off, I turn to the boyfriend. “There! Did you see that?!” He didn’t. Because it was sneaky. It wasn’t a man in a hard hat yelling ‘tits’ while hanging off some scaffolding – it was a fairly ordinary looking businessman saying something quietly when I am less than a foot away from him. It’s not street harassment – it’s sneak harassment.
Last week, on the District line, I put my hand up to hold the rail above me. It wasn’t particularly crowded and there was lots of room. The man nearest me put his hand on the rail too, touching mine. I instinctively moved mine a few inches along. He moved his along so our hands touched again. I moved along again. He followed. Then put his foot against mine. Everytime I moved, he would follow. I became so uncomfortable, that I switched carriages. Should I have said something? What am I meant to accuse him of? Excuse me, strange man, but please stop harassing my phalanges with your sweaty palms? Please don’t put your hushpuppies near my pumps? Please don’t breathe on me when there is clearly several feet of empty space around both of us?
I have no problem at all with chatting to strangers, or a stranger complimenting someone on the way they look. I know a couple that met on a tube, another that met in a lift. It’s perfectly okay to speak to strike up a friendly chat with a perfect random. But it’s not cool when you’re subtly putting that person in an uncomfortable position. Deliberately pressing your crotch into someone on a crowded tube is not only unacceptable, it’s icky. Kind of like when your cat presents you with a dead mouse. But it’s hard to find the balance between telling someone you’re uncomfortable, and making things really bloody awkward. As Brits, awkwardness is just something we don’t do. I hate it. And when I can call out harassment, I do. But when it’s sneaky, you know the person’s getting off on the fact that you can’t say anything. They’re getting away with it in broad daylight, because you risk embarrassing everyone on the train if you actually say something, or wrongly accuse someone. It’s a social-political nightmare.
So what do you do? My boyfriend suggests staring them down, but honestly, if someone’s creeped me out, the last thing I want to do is look them in the eye for any length of time. I’ve thrown a few casual glares around, but is it enough? How can we fix a problem when it’s barely on the radar? Or do we just have to get on with it? I don’t want to have to accept that sneak harassment is something that just happens. I want a solution! So, any ideas?!
Ashley is the editor of teamawot.com and thus is not used to writing her own bylines. As well as working in communications, Ashley runs a little food blog, called Peach Trees and Bumblebees. You can also find her other, oft-neglected blog here, where she muses on issues ranging from Nectar cards to wanking. Usually not in the same post. She’s also on Twitter.