by Jenni Tomlin
I was walking down the road yesterday from the underground station to my house, it had been a fairly long day at work and I was walking with purpose, looking forward to sitting on the sofa at the end of another crowded commute. Out of nowhere a man in his car slowed down, pulled up alongside me and
shouted out of his open window “looking good gorgeous, really sexy”. He took a brief but purposeful stare at me before accelerating off down the road. The brevity of the situation meant that I had only seconds to assess my response, should I:
(a) Give back a cold and angry stare,
(b) Return his comments with some angry words about my disapproval of his choice to reduce my existence to a walk on part in his sexual fantasy,
(c) Duck my head, look down, avoid eye contact, walk on and do nothing.
My instinctive response was a deep unwillingness to extend this experience, to prolong my interaction with such a deeply unwelcome intrusion into my already-rather-tired state. I also felt vulnerable and wanted to remove myself from a potentially threatening situation as quickly as possible. I chose option (c), looked at the pavement walked on briskly and did nothing. Only seconds later I desperately wished that I had had the energy and courage to choose option (a) or (b). As I walked away I was deeply irritated by this person’s decision to interrupt my day with a leering comment that felt threatening and derogatory. I was even more ashamed at my instinctive choice not to challenge his assumed right to do so.
The most depressing part of this experience however, is that up until writing this down, I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone at all. As I walked through the door and my husband asked how my day was, I didn’t even think to mention the leery man in the car, despite the fact that it had happened less than a minute before. Such behaviour is so commonplace, so perfectly everyday, has happened to so many women so frequently, that I didn’t even think to mention that a man had made me feel like his sexual object—threatened, insecure and slightly dirty—just because I was walking down the road.
A recent YouGov survey commissioned by the End violence against women coalition has found that 48% of young women in London have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces within the last year. This highlights just how commonplace these experiences are. According to the same survey, 31% of women faced the same sexualised attention on public transport with 5% experiencing unwanted sexual contact.
The knock-on effects of this cultural background noise are numerous. Not only does it create threatening experiences for women in their everyday lives, discomfort and a sense of violation, but also has huge implications about how women in our society are valued. If women still face a constant barrage of unwanted and uninvited sexual attention, the perception that women’s primary purpose is that of a sexualised object is daily and continually perpetuated. Alongside this, the frequency of this type of communication maintains a convention that it is acceptable for men to have sexualised interaction with women without their consent, or any sense of invitation. This, even if jovially or allegedly innocently meant, creates an ingrained imbalance of power between sexes.
Even more frustrating is the suggestion that these comments, wolf whistles and car horn beeps should be regarded as compliments. How often is it that you speak to someone you highly respect and comment on the size of their breasts, or the sexiness of their walk? Also, what should receiving this as a compliment say about my personal sense of self-esteem; that I appreciate being judged superficially and am happy to have met with your sexual approval, despite the fact that you know nothing more about me? Or that I will be pleased to meet with a positive appraisal whether or not I hold any level of respect for your judgment?
These comments are not marks of true regard, they are quick and cheap thrills made at someone else’s expense without their engagement or invitation. The fact that they are simply accepted by women and men alike is a strong indictment of our expectation of gender equality in our society. This action should be met with a stern wall of disapproval, rather than shrugs of inconsequence. The pervading view that these incidents are merely trifles and not an external sign of our valuation of women as sexual objects must be challenged and the culprits must not be idly tolerated.