Strange and disturbing exchange on Twitter today about casual sexual harassment on the street. Someone wrote how odd it is that men expect a positive response from the kind of ‘nice arse’ building site shouts that we all get on a daily basis between the ages of about 12 and 35, tailing off (almost disappointingly) by 40.
I pointed out that these blokes are not looking for an actual shag (that would probably be an effectively petrifying way for us to respond) but for a feeling of dominance, having humiliated the girl or woman in question. At this, a bloke pointed out that most men doing the calling probably think they’re being friendly, flattering, just boisterous or something. That’s almost certainly true in most cases (especially from building sites when they’re really doing it for each other in a way that probably borders on the homoerotic rather than demonstrating aggressive heterosexuality) but it doesn’t take into account the experience of the woman. Walking alone and having sexual comments shouted at you from cars is at the very, very least unpleasant, at worst terrifying.
Of course, we’re used to it by the time we’re about 20 and have all kinds of prepared reactions to hand, from sarcasm and counter attack to smiles and acceptance of what might be intended as flattery. All pretty much okay as long as the comments aren’t too rapey. But what about younger girls?
When it first starts happening it’s quite frightening. I remember feel acutely self-conscious, pulling my skirt down, blushing, wondering what the right reaction would be. There didn’t seem to be much difference between this and the actual assault of having my arse pinched and felt up by men on the escalators – something that happened from the age of 12 probably once a month or so (I went to and from school on the tube in a conservative uniform). Do I scream? Is that over reacting? Do I punch them? No, that’s dangerous? What, seriously, do I do?
I’m now 43 and so used to being sized up and judged by entirely random men in the street that I even slightly miss the attention now that I don’t get it any more. It’s a kind of conditioning – I am of value only if random men express a desire (however sincerely or insincerely) to have sex with me. So, fair enough, we as older women can laugh it off, talk back to the men as equals and weave it into the lives we lead as objects of desire or objects unworthy of same.
But my daughter? It is just beginning for her and it makes me want to weep. The miserable injustice of having to be subjected to demeaning comments about her sexual desirability just because she’s female…tits, arese, fat, thin, doable, not doable…and put up with it for most of her early life so that at least part of her self-esteem is based on it. Grim beyond imagining.