Sexual harassment has been front and centre in the media – apart from, of course, the Queen’s digestive system – in recent days. It’s happening on our doorsteps, in the workplace, on the public transport we all take every day to get between those two places. It’s not restricted to meek women, or bolshy women, or women who seem to flirt with the very way they put their coat on. The whistles, the gropes, the shouts have been highlighted. It’s not a matter that’s restricted to women at all – some male columnists have also stepped forward to say it’s time that their half of the species sorts it out.
By some horrible coincidence, the week all these women I admire were speaking out about the leers, the shouts, and the touches they’re forced to endure on a daily basis was the same week I learnt the true meaning of objectification, and with it felt a little bit of my innocence drop away.
Of course, it’s behaviour that I’d heard about before, online or in the news. I was familiar with how disgusted the subjects of catcalls from idle builders would be when they’re just trying to nip to the shops for a pint of milk. But it hadn’t happened to me, either in the small city I grew up in or the larger city I went to university in. And I didn’t think it would.
Although not a justification in any way, I could see some sort of sense in men who don’t exercise self-control verbally lusting over my friends, like an extension of the nightclub leers of well-liquored young men, but in daylight, and arguably more creepily.
I, on the other hand – and I say this not in self-deprecation but as a matter of fact – am decidedly plain, and a few stone overweight. I dress, most days – including the day concerned – in black tights with flat shoes and a work-appropriate skirt, topped with a high-neckline jumper or shirt, covered by a fairly long, woollen coat. I am not alluring, deliberately or otherwise. I believed – naively, ridiculously – that, as if some kind of silver lining to my appearance, it’d save me from having those experiences. I thought objectification was something that only happened to conventionally attractive people.
Until, in the jostling to squeeze onto an already-full tube carriage last week, I felt a hand on my buttock. Not a dulled touch through the layers provided by coat and skirt, but so close to my skin, through only tights and underwear. I swiftly swept my hand down behind me, knocking the hand of a short, tubby, old man away, and giving the skirt and coat he’d pulled up a firm yank downwards.
As the train pulled out of the station, he stood firm behind me, pressed hard against my back as if he was trying to make our body shapes fit together like jigsaw pieces. As I tried to wriggle away, using every half inch of space I could find around me, nothing changed. He was still there, unapologetically pressed against me.
I’d recognised the man at the platform, as someone who had previously been uncomfortably close to me, an incident I brushed off as one of the pitfalls of commuting. This time, again, I wondered if it was an accident. But no matter how awkward the morning commute can be, I can’t help but feel like if you’d somehow accidentally lifted someone’s skirt and coat and touched them inappropriately, you’d say sorry. Emphatically and many times. The man behind me said nothing, and for 3 stops continued push up against me, as nausea rose inside me and I scanned the carriage for an escape route every second of the journey.
Like so many people, I said nothing. My instinct wasn’t to speak out, it was merely to get away. It’s an act which is easier said than done, on a train where you can barely breathe, let alone move to the other end of a carriage.
Although in comparison to some others’ experiences, mine was very, very minor, I was surprised by how I thought about it afterwards. It wasn’t flirting. It wasn’t a compliment. It didn’t feel like a matter of lust, as I’d assumed. It didn’t feel like, I, my appearance, had anything to do with it. It was an objectification that didn’t feel related to the kind you see in magazines filled with women wearing skimpy bikinis, or less. The assumption that my appearance would “save” me was naïve and ridiculous because what had just occurred had nothing to do with my appearance. It didn’t even have anything to do with any part of me. I was reduced to less than my composite parts, barely even a woman, just a thing. I couldn’t shrug it off any more, and it made me sick to my stomach.
But what’s truly, horrifyingly shocking is the backlash from anonymous online commenters on every single article calling out people who commit sexual harassment, so many of which seem to be men who don’t see anything wrong this behaviour. Reading the comments on an article, written by a man, which appeared in the Telegraph and speaks out about the harassment women experience on a daily basis is the intellectual equivalent of rubbing your face across the business end of a rusty rake – you pick up all sorts of shit that just makes you feel ill.
And what it makes clear is that this isn’t really a matter of a few dodgy builders. Expecting dirty old men to refrain from putting their hands up my skirt doesn’t make me a “princess”, and doesn’t mean I’m a prude who can’t handle a bit of flirting. It’s not a matter of “well, it’s evolution, it’s human nature, we can’t help it”, because the vast majority of the men I stand close to on the tube manage to rein it in. Speaking to friends, it became clear that London is a hotspot for sexual harassment, but if it was an unavoidable part of being male, there wouldn’t be hotspots. It is not the natural order of things.
A part of my loss of innocence was when I realised what objectification meant in the real world.
But what’s just as tragic is this. As a nation, we’re so quick to criticise other cultures in which women aren’t deemed to be entitled to an education or allowed to drive. We’re better than that, we think. Liberated. But it’s 2013 and women are still scared to walk home alone at night. We can’t go to work without being treated as a plaything. We still feel the need to deliberately wear our scruffiest clothes in an effort to avoid being shouted at by strangers. We are made less than human every day.
And we will not stay silent any longer.