I wish Laura Bates’ website had been around then. As a large-breasted, cripplingly self-conscious and generally friendless teenager, with an unaccompanied two-hour journey to college and back, I was subjected to this “niggling” kind of sexist treatment routinely, all the time.
I grew up in the depths of the countryside, so I was about 15 before the brutal shock started to sink in: urban public spaces, streets, parks, whatever, didn’t mean public to me. Hitherto, I’d understood that the public meant the grown-ups, but I’d maintained the happy delusion that one day I’d be a grown-up and a member too. I’d be free to come and go as I liked, when I liked, where I liked. It wouldn’t matter not having a grown-up to take me, or even friends to go with. I didn’t have to wait for a boy to ask me. I could go out anyway.
Wrong. Gradually it became clear; just because I was female, I was never going to be left in peace. I couldn’t walk alone, I couldn’t go to a café or a bar or a cinema alone, I couldn’t even sit in a sunny park and read. All these places really belonged to the boys, how stupid was I not to grasp this? Was I expecting an emblazoned Men-only sign or something? I could only stay on sufferance. I really needed an explicit invitation. If I went on my own, I was – surely I understood? – actually asking for one of them to join me. And of course, I liked it really. To be picked up was what I had come out for, right?
I’m not talking about strip-clubs, or even bars. I’m talking about public parks, cafes, libraries, cinemas, anywhere.
This was the kind of invisible purdah in which western young women lived, back in the late 1970s. On Laura Bates’ evidence, they still do. It affects everything about us; our interests, our self-confidence, our ambitions; everything.
Even as I write this I hear the old silencing voices in my mind: “Oh, she likes it really.” Like the stealth-boasting mum complaining about her too-precocious child, all women who complain about sexual harassment “like it really, all women do . .” “They’ll complain quickly enough when nobody notices them” and, the more intellectual, misquoting Oscar Wilde, “Well, lady – there’s only one thing worse than being whistled at in public – and that’s NOT being whistled at in public!” The same voices are chorusing now, “She’s only writing all this to remind herself of how good-looking she once was, now that’s she’s an ugly old crone.”
“That Laura Bates too – she should be so lucky! Look how good-looking she is in all the photos? Don’t pretend she doesn’t know it! Who wouldn’t wolf-whistle that?”
I wasn’t ever as good looking as Laura Bates, though it is possible that I had bigger breasts. But even so, I didn’t like it really. I always hated it. And I couldn’t really believe those who insisted I’d be sorry when the catcalls stopped, though my brilliant father’s absolute certainty on this point did make me wonder. But I was right and he was wrong. Oh, I was so right. One of the very best things about being 55 is how, for just about the first time in my life, the streets, the public spaces of my city are mine at last. At last, I can walk, eat, sit down and read or survey the view, and nobody bothers me at all. I only wish I had more time for it.
Nor is it lonely, because should I wish to approach a male, I can do so, generally, without gut-assumptions being made about what I’m after, or what chance they might have. I am free to have an unencumbered human interaction. This is the malign heart of the assumption we faced; that a woman had to choose between being constantly sexually harassed and consigned to neglect and loneliness. But actually, few things are lonelier than the basic-human-neglect of constant sexual harassment. Common or garden neglect is a cinch by comparison; or put another way, it’s freedom.
I loved living in Mexico City, mostly. I loved the freedom I had there, as an already-mature, developed-world woman (for want of better phrase) to travel the length and breadth of that stunning country on a shoestring. I loved the $100 a month flat I returned to, with its roof terrace and nearby tropical park. I was freed by my status, my relative wealth, and my relative age to do much as I pleased with this gorgeous, cut-price playground. But it was also the loneliest place I had ever lived. Nowhere was it clearer, the chasm between constant sexual harassment, attention or call it what you will, and companionship. And nowhere were its consequences more evident.
If popular culture is to be believed, Mexican women, unlike “unfeminine” northerners, genuinely enjoy street sexual harassment, so long as it’s only “little compliments”. They genuinely worry if they don’t get them, apparently, on every excursion. Look how they attend to their appearance, doing do all they can to maximise its incidence. But wait a minute; popular culture is in Mexico is what it is around the world: the popularist voice of the male, and there’s more than a hint of admonition in it: you ladies out there; don’t get any ideas above your station. Make sure you preserve that femininity.
For Mexican women were among the most timid I have come across in my entire life. The Mexico City metro, pickpocketing aside, is about the safest place in the whole city, yet the prospect of travelling a single stop unaccompanied filled the well-brought up native lady with horror. “It’s not safe!” they gasped, looking at me aghast, convinced that in my daily ignorance I was courting the most desperate attacks, clearly sexual in nature.
Well, I was once rubbed against in a packed carriage during rush hour. But that was it, in three years spent bumming about on my own on public transport on a daily basis. The only time I was afraid – briefly – was confronting a gang of boys on an isolated beach after dark, very far from the city. I kept my head, crossed my fingers and succeeded in shaking them off. The freedom I enjoyed in Mexico was not shared by local women of any social class. And that, yes, was very lonely for me.