I used to read articles about everyday sexism, 21st century misogyny, daily microagressions, and think – that sounds awful, but that’s not my experience. As a 30-something, Western woman, I can’t relate to these stories. Either I’m very lucky, or their prevalence has been overblown. I’ve never been a victim of misogyny, or male aggression.
After reading yet another article, I finally I stopped and thought about it. Off the top of my head, I could think of at least half a dozen occasions where I had been targeted as a woman. The catcalls and tss tss hisses were almost constant during my time in southern Spain and Latin America, but they didn’t really bother me. ‘Guapa’ (pretty/fit) was a croaked reflex, a kind of chauvinist Tourette’s, every time a woman walked past a man in Andalucia – so much so that it became meaningless, amusing even. I felt sorry for these men.
But the men who would shift just a little to allow me to pass them on the narrow Moorish streets, forcing me to brush against them – that was never pleasant. Do you protest, and let them see – and enjoy – your discomfort? Or do you squeeze past, pretending you’re strong and couldn’t care less? I chose the latter, and a bit of my spirit fell away each time.
Then there were the masturbators. Seriously. Here was I, a woman who considered herself never to have been on the receiving end of sexist behaviour – and I had been publicly wanked over three times. Once on a near empty beach with a group of friends – who all pleaded and yelled at our stalker to stop. He didn’t. Twice in a park while eating my lunch, alone.
Not long before that, I had opened the door to my sobbing housemate in as she pounded on it in the early hours, having been raped. No, it wasn’t me who was attacked. But was I traumatised by her experience? Of course. It was a horrific reminder of the fact that no matter how many campaigns are aimed at women (Don’t drink! Don’t wear short skirts! Never leave your glass unattended! Don’t go home with a strange man!), ultimately, none of us have the power to avoid being raped. Our attacker is the one who gets to decide. It was a terrifying wake up call.
There was the time a passerby grabbed my breast in the street, and I was too stunned to react. There was the time a tour guide kept inching too close, using wandering hands to “point out wildlife” – and I was too embarrassed to call him out. What could I do anyway? It was just us in the forest, with one other oblivious tourist. I chose the English response, avoiding creating ‘a scene’, as if it would have been my fault.
I consider myself lucky in my relationships and my career. Yes, I have been talked over by the odd customer who insisted on speaking to the manager (yep – the manager was me), but that must be infinitely easier to deal with than a boorish colleague or boss. And I don’t even count all the incidents in bars and clubs – groping, leering – because that’s just what happens in bars and clubs, right? Incidents that are upsetting, disturbing at the time don’t even make it into my long-term memory bank of microagressions; they’re too predictable, too commonplace.
But I guess that’s the problem. Even I’m dismissing these incidents. I have been talked over at work – but it doesn’t count if it’s by a customer. I have been masturbated over – but only abroad. I have been grabbed in a bar – but that’s what happens in bars. I’m letting these men off the hook. Maybe it’s so that feel as if I have some control over the situations I put myself in, so I can avoid bad things from happening. And when they do I shoulder the responsibility: eating in a park, alone, in Andalucia? Whoops – silly me! And I’m a flipping feminist.
Just as these attacks are considered insignificant, so too, we tell ourselves, are the ways in which we change our lives to avoid them. Women stop travelling alone, they eat at their desk rather than in the park, they don’t go for the promotion because they “don’t look like a manager”, they fork out for black cabs, they sunbathe only on busy beaches, they cover up uncomfortably in warm climates, just in case their exposed skin is blamed for an assault.
This is why the Women’s March is so important. As I’ve now realised, even confident, empowered women can normalise the misogyny, disrespect, assault, and frankly disgusting behaviour that is directed towards us – and it seems that we may be moving backwards not forwards in that respect. I’m upset that I can’t join those who will be marching around the globe on Saturday, but I have an important commitment – a little girl’s fifth birthday celebration. That doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t be joining the fight. I’ll be staging my own quiet protest: helping her to read, teasing out her natural feistiness and ensuring she understands that she doesn’t need to excuse or pardon the behaviour of anyone – male or female – who doesn’t treat her with every bit of respect that she deserves.