Between the ages of 14-16, every day after school I delivered a local newspaper around the neighbourhood where I grew up. As much as I can remember bemoaning the prospect of the job to friends, it got me out in the fresh air, earnt me some extra pocket money, as well as giving me the opportunity to listen to the latest cassette mixtape creation on my Walkman. The route was pretty straightforward and after a few months, I perfected it so that it would take no more than 50 minutes and that included the collection of the newspapers themselves and getting back home.
You’d be forgiven for wondering where this little anecdote might be going, but I promise it’s going somewhere. There were a few things that I noticed when I was doing this paper-round, these things were usually completely benign but they did form patterns of association in my mind; I knew which houses had dogs, I was aware of which people were likely to say thank you (usually the elderly), I could recognise which plants to collect from the churchyard to feed my guinea pig and rabbit back home, and I also knew which areas to generally avoid for fear of/to avoid harassment.
Much less benign.
Even as I sit here writing this and think back nearly 20 years, part of me wonders whether I was/am over-reacting, perhaps even my mind is playing tricks on me and that I am exaggerating events that occurred.
Nothing serious happened, right?
Well, perhaps not and for that, I am quite obviously relieved. But it also begs the question of what I define by ‘serious’. Let’s say that the ‘less serious’ incidents of harassment during this time were the catcalls from males teenagers and male drivers as I was walking, and the ‘more serious’ being the small number of occasions where I was followed by a car for part of my route.
I didn’t intend for this post to be about trying to unpick some of the reasons why those events occurred, but more why they left a lasting impression on me or rather a bitter taste in my mouth. As it is these events that have stuck with me and have in some way ultimately shaped some of my perceptions about my agency as a woman.
At the time, I attempted to tackle my discomfort by doing the following; turning the music up on my Walkman, roping in friends to accompany me, adjusting my route to avoid (as much as possible) places where I knew and had experience of being on the receiving end of catcalling, and when it was winter, I would ensure that I completed the quieter, less well-lit roads first so that I could walk in well-lit and busier areas when it was dark.
In short, I had to be the one to change my behaviour.
I’ll admit, the vast majority of the time nothing much happened, aside from me completing the paper-round that is. The vast majority of cars/people passed me by and caused me absolutely no distress or shame, but the events that did, subsequently caused me to second guess myself. In one such incidence, when a group of teenage males passed by me on the other side of the street, one shouted something like ‘show us your tits’ rather than ignore it, which I had grown accustomed to, I turned and scowled in the shouters direction, he then proceeded to shout abuse at me.
As I hurried away, worried he and his group would follow me, I wondered if I had been the one to lead him on somehow? Was it because of something I was wearing (which at the time was usually my school uniform of trousers, a polo shirt, and baggy jumper plus one fluorescent yellow newspaper bag)? Surely, this incident must have been my fault as well as others like it.
This line of thinking has accompanied me right up to adulthood. Two relatively recent incidents stand out, both whilst in the UK. Whilst still living there, I eventually stopped going out for a run in the area that I lived due to the remarks I received from male drivers on a regular basis. It mostly consisted of whistles or the standard ‘show us your tits’ (perhaps the same teenage boy from my youth was haunting me as an adult). And of course I want to prefix this with what was my standard running kit: baggy and not form fitting. And secondly, another incident in the UK last year whilst I was waiting for a bus, a man who was crossing the road proceeded to walk up to me (probably a distance of two metres away), stopped and looked me up and down before walking away. He was quite deliberate, almost methodological in the way he did this. And it most certainly wasn’t a case of mistaken identity. I immediately felt myself flush, embarrassed and looked to the ground. I wasn’t wearing anything remotely revealing, yet, in both of these scenarios, my reaction was to turn inward and consider how my behaviour/my actions (including what I was wearing) somehow was the issue.
None of the events I have written about here were physical in nature, and perhaps to some reading this, they may seem insignificant when compared to women and men who have experienced physical harassment/abuse.
Nothing serious happened to me, right?
But what they, and other experiences I have had (like many other women and likewise men), illustrate is how normalised harassment is. We may pass off the catcalls as banter, be encouraged to take it all as a compliment (as one female friend said to me when we were teenagers), or simply, try to ignore it. The latter is what I have usually opted for. However, with the #MeToo campaign it has highlighted to me once again how ingrained sexual harassment is in society and harassment as a whole, yet people are often afraid to speak out for fear of further harassment/abuse.
A hashtag is a good start in raising awareness, but much like other viral trends on the internet/social media, they can quickly fall into the internet abyss as quickly as they arrived. There must be in the first instance, a clear and open discussion of the issue between governments, the media, within family units and amongst social groups, and secondly, it must encourage change.