Walk a Mile in my Shoes

I walk everywhere. I walk to work, I walk home from work. I walk into the city centre, I walk out of it. I hike in the countryside, I hike abroad. I hike on my own, I hike in groups.

Almost imperceptibly, I adjust my behaviour according to location, daylight hours, who I’m with. I’ve found places where I can walk alone in confidence, but still hold my breath when the figure of a lone man (or group of men) comes into view, and blow it out in relief when I get a cheerful ‘hi!’ from them.

I do what every woman does when walking alone – I make sure I’m in a lit area at night, I hold my body in readiness for potential assault, I sometimes hold keys if I feel under threat, I avoid eye contact with men, my pace quickens.

Now that the nights are drawing in I’ve had to adjust my route home to avoid a lit, but lonely path that runs up the side of a park. I’ve tried walking it as darkness falls, and it is simply too long for me to cope with the rising panic as I rush through it. There are sometimes couples who walk it and I make the most of the company, but in the end, it’s worth the extra half-mile walk to avoid it. That’s what I did last night.

I’m used to hearing men shouting as I walk – shouting into their phones, shouting at each other, shouting at me. I push my earphones in further and comfort myself in a great podcast. Sometimes they mouth obscene things at me while I’m listening to Woman’s Hour – “Ssh, the women are talking,” I think.

Last night, a man shouted things at me. I could sense, outside the busy tube station, that he’d singled me out for his unique attention. He had the mark of the crazy, and I told him to fuck off. Not content with just shouting, he slapped/pushed me on the back, twice, and I turned to the nearest person in the crowd, a man, to ask for help. He looked at me blankly, as though I wasn’t actually there.

I had to run, fast, into the nearest Sainsbury’s. Thank goodness I’ve ditched trying to walk in man-pleaser heels and now wear trainers when I’m travelling. I was able to sprint headlong into the supermarket, where the high-vis-jacketed security guard muttered, “he’s always out there”, and followed me out. His response was to slap/push him on the back to move him on.

A man I’d originally asked for help joined us, saying, “oh he’s always here, he’s harmless.” “Is he?” I say, “because I can put up with men shouting because I’m wearing earphones but when it comes to hitting me, I don’t think that’s harmless.” Cue blank looks from both men. Another man joins us and watches the crazy stumble up the road. He recognises him too, and tells me he’d have ‘punched him’ if he’d witnessed what he’d done.

“He’s harmless, he’s gone now. Are you going to get the bus?”

“No I want to walk home.”

“Ok, I’ll watch while you walk.”

My brain momentarily processes a stream of men passing me, making eye contact, as potential attackers but it doesn’t last for long. I ponder the look on the guys’ faces back at Sainsbury’s – like they were holding their breath, waiting for me to get angry, hoping I wouldn’t. Maybe hoping I wouldn’t have a massive rant about men who attack women on the streets and men who make excuses for them.

I wonder if I should’ve phoned the police, or if that would just making a fuss. The same thought passed through my head when I was flashed at a few years ago while on a solo walk. A man I’d asked for help told me I should. This time online friends (pocket friends!) tell me I should. I call the non-emergency line of the Met Police. They log the crime and promise to call me back.

I get home and post a quick description of what happened on Facebook. The comments are so predictable. Instant support and outraged comments from a stream of female friends and that same handful of supportive gay and straight male friends whom I know won’t shy away from the topic. Then the silence from all the other men who don’t want to get involved.

They don’t know how much it means to a woman just to have this stuff acknowledged. Just to have a man say, yes, this happened to you, yes, I think it’s shit, and yes, I stand next to you in outrage and I do not like that it happens. For some reason they often feel personally responsible for it, as though they themselves have committed some outrage for which they should feel ashamed.

I wonder if the silent men are thinking, “What was she doing to attract that attention? Why didn’t she just shrug it off and walk on? Why is she sharing it on here? Why didn’t she just get on a bus?” A little bit of victim-blaming to ease their consciences. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not getting on a bus because women should not be getting off the streets just to stop men attacking them. It’s not us that need the curfew.

A man did it. It’s always a man. It’s #notallmen but it’s always a man. As soon as I got into the office today a colleague told me about her story of being chased along a tube station platform by a man. When I was flashed at, women of my acquaintance reported that it had also happened to them, some of them THAT DAY. They hadn’t bothered to say anything because it’s such a regular occurrence, let alone report it.

Men we know can’t believe it happens, and that it does so so frequently. I once live-tweeted my street harassment throughout the course of a day. It happened, on average, every half an hour, on a lone walk. My followers were astonished.

These men get you when you’re on your own. Not necessarily in a lonely place, but you’re on your own. It can happen on a bus, a tube, in a crowd, in a shop, in darkness or in full daylight on a busy street. But you are always on your own. Every woman I know has a story like this.

Just believe us. It makes it all so much easier.

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Knee Jerk

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.