Recently in both the UK and Australia there has been a big debate in the news about women’s safety, or as it really should be called, male violence against women.
Chris Hemmings gave an excellent interview (you can watch the 2 x clips here on Twitter) about this problematic framing of the debate, and I have seen it previously posted before in a very succinct way that I like:
“The constant framing of sexual assault as a women’s safety issue should OFFEND you as a man.
I could not agree more with this sentiment, and on seeing a blog post by a close friend of mine on the issue, I recalled the incident she describes (I was there that night when some stranger men grabbed her under her skirt in the middle of the street, and I stood helplessly watching her weeping for hours afterwards unable to fix it or make her feel better). So many of these kinds of incidents have happened to #metoo, and yet what shocks me the most looking back is how completely un-outraged I was at the time, It was all so normal, to be expected, and now, as an almost 40-year old woman I am exceptionally ANGRY about it.
I want to go back to that teenager that I was and shake her and insist that she calls the police after a stranger spiked her drink on a night out when she was 17.
One minute I was drinking with my friends at a club, then nothing, blackout, as if I had lost consciousness, then suddenly I came to in a deserted bus shelter in the dark, absolutely terrified with no idea where I was or how I got there or where my friends were, and I was still apparently kissing a random guy I had no recollection of at all. It was like suddenly waking up, and realising I had been asleep, yet I was still somehow standing up and had my tongue in someone’s mouth.
All my friends told me later I was plastered and went willingly with him, and no doubt any witnesses would have said the same, as I appeared to be fully conscious and willing. I wasn’t. I literally have no conscious memory at all from when he brought me a drink until I came round mid-snog in a deserted bus stop on the other side of town. I don’t know how many minutes or hours I lost that night or what happened in between.
Yet later, safe at home, talking it over with my friends, realising I’d only had two drinks before that guy bought me one, I couldn’t possibly have been that pissed as to black out, but already knew that there was no point calling the police. At 17, I already knew the police would ask if I had been drinking at all, and how come all the witnesses saw me go more than willingly after making out with him publicly all night (so my friends told me), and what exactly was I wearing anyway, and why was I drinking in a club at all when I was underage, etc etc.
My friends and I simply shrugged it off as one of those things that happens when you’re a girl. As if there was no point shouting about the fact that a strange man drugged me, abducted me from a club and tried to rape me. (I should be clear that I was not raped, I was lucky that it wore off before it got that far, but his intention in drugging me and taking me to a deserted place across town was very clear and very frightening). I was lucky too that when I came round, I was able to push him off me and start walking as fast as I could away from him, lucky that he decided not to chase me or hold me down, lucky that I finally recognised the back of a pharmacy and figured out where I was in the deserted town and which way to walk to get back to the safety of my friends.
Why wasn’t I fucking INCENSED?
Because it has been normalised for us all, for far too long. Girls get their drinks spiked when they are out. You don’t leave drinks unattended. You go out in groups to protect yourself. “Getting your drink spiked” sounds so tame and minimal and everyday. Drugging a girl and abducting her against her will and raping her sounds a whole lot more serious, yet we don’t frame it in those terms. The shockingly low conviction rates are another reason why most young girls don’t report this shit. What’s the point? Everyone is going to question why you were drinking in the first place, what you were wearing and witnesses will say you were clearly up for it and appeared to be conscious. Men get away with it literally all the time, so women shoulder the burden and can’t go for a damn piss in a bar without fear of being abducted and raped. It’s fucking insane that this is the world we live in and we all accept it as a normal state of affairs.
Go ahead and ask your female friends, do a poll, ask how many of them have had their drink spiked, or know someone who has had it happen to them. I know at least 3 people it’s happened to here in the UK aside from myself, and there’s probably a lot more that I don’t know about. This report from 2004 suggests that one in four women who regularly go to clubs and pubs have had their drinks spiked.
When my first driving instructor, a middle-aged man told me I was changing the gears too hard and he needed to feel my hand stroking his thigh as I changed from 1st gear to 2nd gear, I thought maybe I was hearing him wrong, as he seemed so sweet and harmless. When he told me to keep my hands on the wheel and concentrate on driving, then offered me gum, dropping the wrapper into my lap, and insisting I keep my hands on the wheel while he retrieved it from my crotch, I felt embarassed and uncomfortable, and somewhat violated. My mum wanted to report him but I was a mortified teenager and insisted that she didn’t. Although my next driving instructor was a woman.
When my friend and I were out at a bar in my first year at Uni, and a man stopped me on the stairs and told me I had the biggest pair of melons he had ever seen, my friend was gobsmacked and horrified that he would say such a thing to my face. I was unfazed, as I had heard men for years and years commenting openly on the size of my breasts behind my back, or as they walked past me, shouting obscenities about my body from across the road or a safe distance. My perspective was so warped by how NORMAL it was for men to openly talk about my body as if I wasn’t there, that I was actually happy he had at least said it to my face for once.
It has never, not once, occurred to me or any female friends of mine to openly comment on a strange man’s body in the street, to tell a stranger that his chest is too small, or his arms are too gangly, or his hips are too girlish, or his bum is too big. Yet women get this kind of constant judgement and unwanted opinions on their bodies almost daily, and it wears us down, it becomes normal instead of shocking or outrageous.
Once at a pub at Uni, another total stranger came up to me in a pub, and said “I bet you a pound I can make your tits move without touching them”. Then before I could answer, he grabbed both of my breasts and jiggled them, shoving his face into my cleavage and “motorboating” my boobs, right there in the middle of a busy bar, then he laughed, handed me a pound, and said “I lost the bet” and went off laughing to his friends. I was so shocked I barely reacted at all.
There was the time in India when I was on a sleeper train, and I woke up around 4.30am to find the train guard standing over my bunk masterbating over me while I slept. I got up in horror and didn’t sleep for the rest of the train journey, while he simply buttoned his trousers and smirked as he walked off. Who the hell do you even report that too, when it’s the train guard’s job to protect the passengers?
There was the time in Kuwait when a 60-year old shopkeeper grabbed my breasts and shoved me against a wall, and grabbed my face trying to kiss me until I shouted at him “NO!” and smacked him on the head like a naughty puppy and then stormed out. In a country like that I didn’t even consider reporting it. Especially not to a bunch of male policemen who were likely to try and do the same if I were left alone in an interrogation room with them.
Another time in Kuwait, walking home from the gym on my own, a man starting driving alongside me in his car, shouting in Arabic for me to get in. I cut across an undeveloped lot hoping to lose him, but he drove up onto it and started driving in slow circles around me as I walked. I knew I couldn’t outrun him, so I picked up a rock and started throwing them at his car, screaming at him to Fuck Off as loudly as I could, hoping people living nearby would hear me and come to look, until he drove away. I walked the rest of the way home clutching a large rock in my hand and jumping at every car that came along.
Let’s not even attempt to list or count every time that a man I don’t know has pinched my bum on a crowded train or bus, groped my boobs or felt up my legs, or shoved a hard erection against my back or bum. Literally dozens of times. For most women who commute it’s an almost daily occurrence. Or the hundreds, if not thousands of men who have made unsolicited comments about my body shape and size.
I had my drink spiked again a few years later. I was at a bar with a friend in Liverpool, and needed the loo so I asked her to watch my drink.
When I came back from the loo, my friend informed me that she had seen a man putting something into our drinks even though she was right there, so we asked the barman to dump our drinks down the sink, and informed the bouncer on our way out, giving him a brief description of the man she had seen. We didn’t think much of it, again, even though a man had been trying to drug us and abuse our bodies. It’s SHOCKING how unshocking those events are somehow. That we just went about our evening as if someone hadn’t just tried to drug us and abduct us in the middle of a bar.
I picture my friend, weeping for hours in the restaurant bathroom after those men grabbed her out on the street, and I think of all the men who still shout comments about our bodies after all this time,
I look back and wonder how many strange men’s unwanted, unsolicited, constant barrage of opinions on my body might have contributed to me having major surgery at age 20 to reduce the size of my breasts. Would I had still done that, if not one person had ever commented on my body, instead of literally hundreds of men by the time I was 16? I really do wonder.
I wonder how much all of this constant sexist abuse has dripped and dripped until it wore me down, and diminished my sense of self and my sense of self-worth. When women are told we are too meek, or not assertive enough to ask for a raise, to ask for a promotion, how much of that is tied up with literally years of being judged, and commented on as if we didn’t exist. Of being made to feel inferior and expendable as we go about our daily lives, until we shrink to fit the space we’ve been given.
And how many teenage boys think it’s just harmless banter, or egg each other on to shout about that girl’s big tits, to grab that girl’s bum or crotch on the street, bet each other to grab a strange woman’s tits in a bar. When will we really start to raise a generation of men who don’t think it’s “just boys being boys”, or “just banter” and recognise how incredibly harmful it is? When will we reach a place where a woman can just go to the loo in a bar, as a man can, without expecting to be raped if she dared to leave her drink unattended?
Imagine for a moment if a lad’s night out had this kind of behaviour normalised. If a bunch of lads age 22 went out on the lash on a Friday night, knowing that it was likely they’d be drugged and raped if they didn’t stick together, watch each other’s backs, knowing that it’s just what you get for going out and having a few pints with your mates. That you accept it as part of lad’s night out because no-one will believe you or will assume it’s your fault you were raped. I cannot fathom a world in which men might be treated this way with such overwhelming and universal acceptance.
So how do we fix the problem?
This is a men’s issue and it can only be solved by men. Changing their attitudes and behaviours. Calling other men out on it. Challenging these stereotypes when they see them. Challenging their male friends if they make sexist jokes or comments about women’s bodies. Don’t let that shit slide. It is not harmless, it is very much harmful.
TALK to your male friends about how they can support women and be allies. Be open and encourage your male friends to talk about what they can do to help make women safer.
Well said Stephanie. It makes me ashamed of how we men act. If we think it we are capable of doing it. You have the courage to call things out like they are.
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