When Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn appeared to be proposing women-only train carriages this morning, I reacted the same way as many women did: knee jerk. In a bid to end sexual harassment of women in public places, Corbyn had actually said that he was proposing to consult with women’s groups on the right way to raise awareness and tackle the problem. Fair enough. All good with that. Just maybe don’t even mention segregating us as we’re not the ones at fault here.
Just last week I decided to record it on Twitter every time I was harassed in public. On the first day, during a two-hour walk from north-west London to King’s Cross, I was hassled four times, the first occurring eight minutes after leaving my flat. I could see that decent chaps on my Twitter feed were a) horrified and b) surprised by the sheer regularity of it. Why don’t women talk about it, they ask? I say, because we’ve been brought up to keep it quiet. It happens mostly when we’re on our own. We’re told we’re making a fuss or attention-seeking if we mention it, and should accept it all as the most glorious compliment. It’s worth listening to Everyday Sexism‘s Laura Bates on the subject – it’s a near-universal female experience.
I think the only reason we’re talking about it now is the rise of the female voice on social media. For the past few years we’ve slowly begun to record instances of harassment and have other women say, ” that happened to me” back to us. Laura Bates’ project has aggregated that experience into a global phenomenon, with women and men of all ages, going to her website to record the things they’ve witnessed or been subject to.
Predictably the press jumped on the women-only carriage concept as a stick to beat Corbyn with, as he’s a controversial candidate and there are many who want to see him go down. But like many men, he’s principled and is trying to work out what to do about the problem whilst simultaneously not being quite able to believe how enormous it is.
I think it’s laudable to want to work closely with women’s groups on how to tackle these issues, but really, the conversation needs to start with men. They’re the ones doing the harassing, they’re the ones we’re being advised to protect ourselves from, holed up in women-only spaces. As Everyday Sexism on Twitter puts it, “this puts the responsibility to deal with harassment/assault onto the victim instead of the perpetrator where it belongs. It plays into victim-blaming culture of ‘why didn’t she keep herself safe’ rather than ‘why did he harass/assault her’.”
Immediately my mind went to what would happen if we implemented women-only carriages – some men finding it hilarious to get into one and hassling the occupants like a collie with a pen full of frightened sheep. The emergence of Platform Pests as these men realise that they can find a whole bunch of us herding together, waiting for our carriage, and surely one of us will take them up on their advances. And so on.
If you have the conversation with women only, then you’ll learn something about the experience but you’re preaching to the converted. We know what street harassment is like – most of us experience it every day of our post-puberty lives. It’s like a sidebar of commentary that we’ve learned to roll our eyes at, walk away from, look on in bemusement when a guy is gesticulating wildly at us but we are wearing headphones so can’t hear what he’s saying. (That’s actually my favourite, depending on the appropriateness of the soundtrack.)
What compounds the experience is when we’re told we should take it all as a compliment or when men (and some women) think we’re just making a fuss over nothing. They’re only hearing about isolated incidents, but we now know that this is an endemic activity. If we mentioned it every time it happened, you wouldn’t hear about anything else (even I got bored with my Twitter feed last week as I recorded the incidents).
So somewhere along the line, this conversation has to start with boys and men. It’s a conversation about a sense of entitlement to a woman’s body, personal space and attention, and about how that is not the birthright of a male. Part of me thinks there’s no hope of even starting to say anything. It’s too late. I could start to sound like generations of women before me who shrugged or laughed it off and said, “it’s just how things are.”
Or I could continue to say, “this is how things are” in a bid to bring greater awareness to my small corner of the world. To keep mentioning the unmentionable things until the stream of all the mentions becomes too big a thing to ignore or disbelieve.
So, Mr Corbyn, I’m asking that should you become a leader and consult with women on this subject, that you will at least attempt to start the conversation with boys and men. You’ll probably find that this is the biggest challenge you’ll ever face in politics, but I’d respect you for trying.