“I WANT TO TIE YOU UP LIKE A PIG AND MAKE YOU SCREAM.”
Stepping off the bus at 11.15pm on a Monday night, these were not words I expected to hear bellowed from the rolled-down windows of a silver sportscar on a rather well-to-do street in central London.
Yet there they were, strung into the air in capital letters, spat out by one man and his three friends. And there I was, off-guard and staring as their engine revved over a chorus of catcall-hisses then sped away.
This was two minutes away from home. One moment I was tweeting, laughing, barely paying attention. The next I was wondering what it was about my black jeans, black jacket and ponytail that inspired four complete strangers to scream at me.
Ah the catcall – the unsolicited dick-pick made IRL. Every time a catcaller opens their mouth, it’s tempting to put a gun in it.
Recent months have seen a swathe of news reports and statistics about street harassment, particularly of women.
October 2014, the video of Shoshana Roberts walking through New York for ten hours went viral. In the film she was catcalled over 100 times, with hundred more instances of wolf-whistles and unsolicited attention to add to the experience.
May 2015 saw the release of a report by anti-street harassment group, Hollaback!, that on average 84 per cent of women experience harrassment before their seventeenth birthday. In Britain, the results suggest this figure is as high as 90 per cent and includes being catcalled, fondled, groped and followed by strangers.
August 2015, Everyday Sexism shared a Twitter post that illustrated the sexual violence and harassment experienced by women out running or doing their damnedest to workout or riding a fucking bike to work (nothing says sexy more than sweating through your pantsuit amiright?).
With so much already in the public eye, even after the encounter with the four human turd-buckets, their desire to hogtie me in the middle of posh London wasn’t really blog-worthy, I thought. After all, this was just another form of #EverydaySexism to add to an ever-growing hashtag, just another catcall in a long-list of misogynistic slut-shamey rape-culturey bullshit that women experience on a daily basis. Other writers, writers far better than me, were talking about it. Therefore, whilst this was one of the more illustrative verbal attacks I’ve experienced, it was far from my first and no doubt far from my last.
However, I recently spoke to a friend, let’s call her Lila, about what writing I was doing, why I was frustrated with today’s crime fiction. I tried to explain how I felt a decided lack of women and LGBTQ characters in my favourite genre, and how I had this protagonist in my head, who – just like me – is seething behind her smile on any average day. Why? Because of the endemic sexism that pervades contemporary society but many seem blind to.
On a daily basis I’m pulling out stories on the lack of diversity in pan-sector boardrooms, even in industries where women comprise the bulk of entry-level employees. It makes me bristle when I read ridiculous headlines that can be summarised as ‘semi-famous human with vagina leaves the house WEARING CLOTHES’ or ‘Put Away Your Nipples You Whores’. And it makes me fume that in every article regarding experiences of harassment, I can see myself and my friends experiencing the same thing.
— Lizzy Pritchard (@Lizzy_Pritchard) April 28, 2014
Both Lila and I, and others previously mentioned on this blog, have experienced assholes in bars, on streets, in local food stores. Any of us could share tales of being followed or verbally attacked. Regardless of time, place, what we wear, any of us can tell you about that occasion in Tesco on a Sunday afternoon or the not-illogical fear for our safety when walking even short distances from tube station to front door after dark.
Oh of course we understand that fear makes people believe there’s more risk than there is actual danger, but we don’t avert our eyes because we’re scared of some invisible boogieman.
We don’t perfect our Resting Bitch Face because of silence.
We shy away because on any average day someone won’t treat us with respect, someone will touch us without kindness, someone won’t let us be proud of our own bodies because they think that being a woman makes us needful of their approval. We’re not humblebragging. We know it’s not our model-hot bodies. We’re hollered at because we’re not seen as people at all.
I started writing about the misogynistic, sexually explicit and aggressive verbal and physical abuse directed at girls throughout their lives in my novel because of such repetitive, mundane, unsettling experiences.
So why then wasn’t I blogging about it too? Because somehow I wave off that kind of toxic, masculine behaviour as ‘not a big deal’ in public. When I told my flatmate, we even cracked bad Fifty Shades jokes – because what else could we do? We’re constantly told to brush it off, to change our route home, to ignore or deal with it. I convinced myself I didn’t want to write about harassment because it seemed too prosaic, an issue that didn’t need rehashing. There are bigger things to worry about in the world right? Like whether EL James was victim or villain in her recent twitter showdown. Or where the best coffee is in London.
Truth is, my silence on the blog stems from a different place; when dealing with fiction, I don’t have to deal with the aftermath. I didn’t want to write a blog dealing with everyday sexism because I was scared all that would happen was I’d be told I was nagging.
That I’m exaggerating something that doesn’t exist.
That a threat of violence or unwanted touch is ‘just a joke’ or better yet ‘a compliment’.
Big thanks to the guy who decided to follow, imitate & mock me whilst I was running :):) I now want to have your babies!!! #everydaysexism
— Eliza (@deepoceandive) July 11, 2015
Not so long ago, Lila headed home from work on an overground train. It wasn’t rush hour; commuters sat dispersed throughout the carriages, a couple here or there. She sat alone, headphones on, nodding along to ABBA as she gazed out of the window. When a middle-aged, couldn’t-pick-him-out-in-a-crowd chap sat down in the same four seat section as her, she thought it was weird but not much else. Until she saw, reflected in the glass, the motion of his hand. Ghosting over his crotch, his fingers squeezed and rubbed. He was staring at her. Gaze fixed. She refused to meet his eye, pretended she hadn’t noticed. By the time they reached the next stop, he’d pulled himself free from his trousers. Lila collected herself as calmly as possible and jumped off the train several stops early.
Do you really think this man had a compliment in his mind when he started whacking one out in front of a single young girl or do you think he was sexualising and objectifying her, treating her like just a body there for his own enjoyment?
Catcalls are not compliments. Wolfwhistles are not compliments. Groping someone on the train is not a compliment.
Lila shivered and shook her head twice as she told me two more disconcerting things: first, when she tried to report the incident the attendant refused to understand her meaning so she dropped it and left, feeling like an idiot; second, when she arrived home, she tried to laugh it off with her flatmates. Just like me.
Why do we do we try to laugh? Because it’s easier to deliver vulnerable truths when they’re coated in light-heartedness. Because by making yourself part of the joke, a reality seems more palatable and the lump in your chest doesn’t sting as much going down.
Catcalls are directives. Turn around! Come talk to me! Smile girl! At their most basic level, they assume an ownership of the woman being catcalled. These aren’t innocuous. They’re not fucking playful. They are symptoms of entitlement, and imply that women don’t deserve control over their own bodies.
Stop telling girls that this shit is meant well. Stop telling them it’s empowering. Stop expecting them to fucking stay quiet about it. And stop letting them believe it’s their fault for wearing the wrong clothes or living in an area with other people in it or acknowledging another human.
As Ashely Ross wrote for Time Magazine, “If women only had to put up with whistling from a few men in hard hats, an eye roll could suffice as a reaction. What women are actually dealing with are verbal attacks that make us feel unsafe, that make us feel threatened.”
Women shouldn’t feel this way today.
In the UK, we live in a society that is brilliant and wonderful for its respect of human rights and freedom of speech. Men and women are the closest they’ve ever been to equals. And I know so many wonderful people who would stand up and say something if they saw harassment happening. The problem is that until many are forced to see it, a lot of them won’t, they can’t.
Which is why we need to be angry on our own behalf and other women’s and other diversity groups. To report incidences instead of laughing them off. To write about it, speak about it, make sure that both halves of society can understand what the issues are and begin to address them.
Things can change. But they only will if we make it happen.