So, I was in this singles bar wearing my skimpiest outfit sitting beneath a flashing neon sign that read ‘I am available, please approach me’, and this man just wouldn’t leave me alone. Eventually I had to shout at him to go away, and he appeared quite shocked that I should have done that, seeing as how I was so obviously just waiting for him.
Except it didn’t happen like that at all. It actually happened like this:
I was walking home from the supermarket wearing jeans and a puffer jacket. It was after 5pm and already dark. As I crossed the road, I heard a man making kissy noises and saying ‘Sweetheart, sweetheart.’ I assumed he was calling to his dog, reassuring it that it was now safe to cross the road.
I was wrong. He was talking to me. I did what I always do in these situations and completely blanked him.
So he followed me, actually walking at my side, all the time saying, ‘Sweetheart, sweetheart, why won’t you speak?’
There are a few reasons why I won’t speak. Firstly, I spend a lot time lost in my own head, often planning something I’m working on, and I don’t like to be interrupted; secondly, I’m not in the market for being chatted up in the street, so I don’t want to be perceived as giving even the slightest encouragement by entering into any kind of conversation, and thirdly, well, why the hell should I? If someone needs help or directions, then I’ll do what I can, but the usual opening gambit in that situation would be ‘Excuse me, do you know the time/way to the bank/gross national product of Brazil?’ and not ‘kissy kissy sweetheart.’
Another reason is that I’m very good at keeping control of my temper, but incidents such as this have a cumulative effect, and, like a volcano that’s been simmering away resentfully for decades, eventually I am going to explode. And then I’m in a bad mood for the rest of the day, which means I can’t work effectively on the things I was working out in my head before I was interrupted.
Anyway, explode I did. Not in an extreme way. I simply said, ‘leave me alone, ok?’ but in a far sterner and louder voice that he was probably expecting a ‘sweetheart’ to have. But then he had followed me half the way home. He seemed shocked, contrite even, and sloped off.
I didn’t feel scared or threatened in this case, though sometimes I have, I just felt irritated and annoyed. And once more I was reminded that being a woman is in some ways similar to being famous.
If you are famous people stare at you in the street, maybe take photos. They strike up conversations while you’re trying to catch up with friends over a drink. Sometimes they follow you.
All those things have happened to me, and I’m not famous. But some people feel the same sense of entitlement towards women as they do towards celebrities.
By which I mean the same mentality that says to the famous, ‘you’re in the public eye, therefore you’re available to me 24/7’ says to women, ‘you’re out in public, therefore available.’
Some of my friends are famous in their field and are often recognised when we’re out. They’re always gracious about it, but it makes me uncomfortable to think that private or business conversations might have been eavesdropped on, or that I might be the subject of gossip, the ‘mystery blonde’ spotted with someone I’m merely having coffee with or discussing a project we’re working on.
Sometimes what women wear is blamed for attracting unwanted attention, though most of my unwanted attention has been received when I’m dressed casually and usually laden with shopping, so I can’t put it down to dress, even though in an ideal world one should be able to dress how ever one chooses without fear of being accosted.
A well-meaning former work colleague (male) once suggested that perhaps my hair sends out the wrong signals.
Of course! That must be it. All the time I’m going about my day, minding my own business, behind my back (literally), my hair has been rising up like Medusa’s snakes and spelling out messages like ‘come and get me, big boy’ and other such 1970s sitcom-style chat-up lines.
Whilst it seems a ridiculous idea that someone might perceive a hairstyle as a come-on, it gave me a valuable insight into the way some people think. If anyone considers hair, eye or lip colour as being some kind of signal of availability, then they have to be pretty messed-up.
I don’t believe a woman’s appearance has anything to do with whether or not she gets hassled, although it may be used as an excuse: ‘she was so attractive I couldn’t resist’, or ‘she was a bit plain so I thought it would cheer her up’, maybe ‘she was wearing red lipstick’, or worst of all ‘her hair led me on’.
Why is this still happening in the 21 Century? I have no idea. Will things ever change? I doubt it.
I don’t personally know any men like that. Whether they’re friends or colleagues, none of the men I know behave in a predatory or disrespectful manner towards me or other women.
The only ones who do are strangers; which leads me to consider that as strangers they don’t consider me to be a ‘real’ person, but rather a representation of the idea that women are objects, just there for amusement.
Maybe those strangers act differently towards woman they know, maybe they don’t. Maybe there are just some elements of society that will always disrespect others.