Emma Bright wrote this rather excellent post, Girl On The Platform Smile, about her experiences with sexism.
Inspired by her article, and in the spirit of solidarity, here are a few of my experiences with sexism that some may consider easily walked away from, ignored; as unimportant. Not worth making a fuss about.
Sometimes I did make a fuss; sometimes I didn’t.
In year 5, a boy in my class told me I should perm my hair. It would, “make you prettier.” I don’t know why this has always stuck with me.
In year 7, during lunch break, a boy made obscene jokes about me and a particular vegetable. He went on for about half an hour, all the other kids laughing and joking, oh my – it was hilarious. I stayed with the group because my friends (at the time, not for much longer after, thankfully) were there and I felt as though I had nowhere else to go.
The bell went for end of lunchtime. On the walk back from the field to the school building, I punched him hard in the face. Apparently he had to put ice on it and afterward everyone laughed about that too. I was so nervous I was shaking the rest of the afternoon. However, he never made lewd jokes or bullied me again.
I wrote a story in year 10 English about GM brain/body swapping and politics. The (male) teacher said it was unusual that a girl would write such a serious science-fiction. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this as my life to this point had been steeped in sci-fi, books and film, both serious and humorous, for as long as I could remember. He wasn’t to know this, of course, but it does not excuse the sexism. So I smiled and agreed. Yes, wasn’t it unusual.
This was from one of my best teachers too, one whom I respected, whom I actually learned useful English-y things from.
He was not one of those wretched excuses for a teacher, one who would ‘go for a drink’ at lunchtime and then tell a friend in an afternoon class that she needed ‘holes in her trouser pockets so she could play with herself’.
There was an investigation; the friend in question had witnesses; he still teaches there 20 years later, last I heard.
Whilst at university in 2001, I was at a club and a man grabbed my arse. I slapped him really hard; he didn’t expect that. The shock on his poor, little, pathetic face… I do not advocate violence on the whole; nevertheless I’d consider this a proportional response. And if felt really fucking good.
I was working for a company in the early 2000s that made films with young people who were at risk – those who were excluded from school, or homeless, or refugees. I was a production assistant and sound op.
On one occasion when we’d taken the group of mainly male young people to lunch at a cafe, we got onto the subject of having children (I say ‘we’. I would sit and listen to their inane chatter as I’m really rather introverted and small groups of people whom I don’t know well make me less than comfortable). Upon being asked the usual questions, answering no, I didn’t have children, and no, I didn’t want them, I was offered help to have them by the head of the film company, sitting to my right. I laughed it off.
I was furious. By that time, somehow, I’d had the notion to fight back socialised out of me, or perhaps I wanted to keep my job so I didn’t hit him. I berated myself for not pointing out how inappropriate and offensive it was. He was in his 40s. What a brilliant example to the at-risk youths in our care.
I fell off my bike early this year (2017) near a pub where there was a big group of men standing outside, pints in hand. Oh, the laughter (to be fair, it probably was pretty comedy from afar)! Then a couple of guys came over to help whilst I popped the chain back on, which was nice of them: faith restored in humanity.
Then, as I cycled past the pub, one of them yelled, “Get ‘em out!”. God how I wish I’d had the courage to go back and give him a gobful but I was not brave and it would only have served to give them more comedy fodder, I’m sure. So I cycled on. It was easier. It was safer.
At the time, I blamed myself for choosing to cycle through an area that I didn’t know very well and, though it’s a recommended cycle route, wouldn’t be somewhere I’d like to be caught alone at night. The best way I could describe it is a bit dodgy. I’d learned my lesson not to cycle past there again, even if it was one of the more useful cycle routes into town.
On the train recently returning home from work in Hull, I had to sit with my bike in the vestibule rather than leave it there to go sit in the adjacent carriage. There were already two bikes there (there’s only officially room for two bikes on Northern trains) so I was making sure mine didn’t fall or get in anyone’s way.
I was there on my own, reading a book, when a man, clearly drunk, came and sat in the opposite chair and started talking to me. I smiled and went back to my book. He offered me a brownie. No thanks, I’m fine. He bumbled on for 5 mins or so, drinking his Stella. I gave up trying to read (just like Emma in her article) and stared out of the window, offering a smile whenever it was clear he was waiting for a response. I just had to keep him quiet till he got bored with me and went away.
He offered me a brownie a few more times. Really, that’s very kind but no thank you. I’m really not hungry. I’ve just eaten. I DON’T TAKE FOOD FROM STRANGE MEN.
He asked me what my name was, where I was going. Alarm bells. I lied. Helen; Doncaster, I said. I went back to my book and desperately hoped he wouldn’t sit with me for the entire journey.
He eventually got bored (tf for that) and stumbled off. I heard his raised voice with the train guard in the next carriage. They put him off at the next stop.
I blamed myself for getting a busier, later train at rush hour. I could have got through work faster that day, I could have been more efficient, I could have even started work earlier, I could have chatted less with the friends I was working with on site.
The blame game
This is nowhere near everything, but it’s pretty representative.
What’s become clear to me in recent years is for some reason I think it’s my responsibility for being in the way of any misogyny directed towards me. That, if and when it happens, it’s something I’ve invited somehow – never deliberately, but by being naive and not expecting it, or by being too trusting. This leads me to think I must be more ready, more prepared, so I don’t ever find myself giving that opportunity to someone.
The inverse is that I’m wary of any man I don’t know merely making conversation, as polite people sometimes do, when, for example, the weather is poor and you’re waiting at a bus stop for a bus that’s running late. He was just being nice, but it was dark, and I’m hypervigilant… which, it’s becoming increasingly clear from writing this, seems unsurprising.
It is hard, individually, for women to fight against the constant, pelting, daily sexist hail; often it is safer to just ‘laugh it off’. Until we live in a society where women don’t feel like their jobs or lives are on the line for standing up for themselves, it will be nigh impossible to make any progress.
That’s why the Weinstein and Stafford-Clark cases and the #MeToo hashtag are so important: to make it known that we are not alone in our experiences, it is important, fixing this sorry state of affairs benefits both women and men , and it is not the fault of the person targeted by sexism, in all its forms: outright barbaric, insidious and everyday. It is never benign; it is always toxic.
It is never fucking ok.