Once upon a time, I was on a train. I was chatting to a very good friend on my mobile for half an hour (yes, I’m one of those annoying phone-on-train ‘oh has it cut out again?’ people) until my phone died. I’d finished my book. Boredom ensued. I decide to go on a saunter down the train in search of some coffee. As I went through the carriages, on my saunter, I came across a fairly packed carriage, carrying some football fans. As I walked past the throng, I heard someone shout something after me: ‘lift up your skirt a bit love, let us see some gange!’ Being a good feminist, and generally protected by a bubble of reasonable, non-violent people, I turned around, and with my best scowl (and best Mancunian accent), asked, ‘who said that?’ Honestly, I can barely remember the details of what followed anymore – it’s too long ago and anger/upset erases the memory. Check the court transcript if you’re curious (I’m guessing it’s public). Anyway, what got shouted back was seriously offensive, and pretty threatening. Perhaps somewhat naively, I politely informed them that this was unacceptable, and that I was going to report them. I turned and stomped down the train passage way (full of silent passengers), and by the time I’d got to the other end of the carriage, I saw that some men had sprung out of their seats, and were following me down the carriage.
Let’s pause for a minute. Now the thing is, mostly when the topic of sexual harassment comes up, two ideas always seem to rear their ugly heads. To me, those seem to be a) surely it’s just a compliment, as it’s usually directed at people who dress ‘sexily’? And b) responding will only escalate the situation though, won’t it? All I can say is that you don’t need to take anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or intimidated as a compliment. It’s just harassment. And verbal abuse (including sexual comments), and physical intimidation (including following someone) are utterly wrong, and they should be treated as crimes. If in doubt, you can always call the police! You’re not wasting their time, you’re doing society a massive favour by calling out those who intimidate and harass. You may just be the thing that stops them.
So intermission aside, I was feeling full of shame (god, is my skirt too shirt?! Why was I so foolhardy? Could’ve just kept walking!) and half running down this train carriage, until I got to a door at the end of the train, where the women running the food trolley was. I was pretty distressed, so we went into a little room, and I explained the situation. She was not keen on reporting it to anyone, even though I was too scared to walk back to my seat, because they would have to stop the train, and that would mean they would run late. I feel like this is a good example of people’s responses to casual misogyny on a day-to-day basis: ‘Can’t you just put up with it? Complaining will cause delays.’ At this point the football fans (four of them), had caught up with me, and started hammering on the door. The woman who’d previously been less than heroic really stepped up to the challenge now, by opening the door a little and trying to reason with them. The men proceeded to threaten to force her to give them head, amongst other things, giving weight to the concept that sexual harassment has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power. If the original ‘lift your skirt up love’ had been about wanting to compliment me, the fact that I wasn’t sexually interested in them wouldn’t have mattered. Both me and this woman stood up to them, and demanded to be treated as equals, and it resulted in threats of violence: the men attempted to assert their physical power when verbal intimidation wouldn’t work. At this point we called the police.
From here this story has a good ending. The police got on at the next station, arrested two of the men, and treated me with a lot of respect. The ‘ringleader’ was charged in court, had to pay me £100 in compensation, and write a letter of apology, in which he said he was ashamed. Who knows if he meant it, but hopefully this experience stops him next time he has the urge to sexually harass or threaten someone. Some of the people in the carriage, who got off at the last stop with me, apologised for their silence, and said that they’d felt awful about it. It was sweet (if belated).
The message behind this is simply this: whatever you need to do to feel safe, just to do it. You’re under no feminist obligation to shout ‘em down every time they shout up. But just know that you do not have to take it as a compliment, you do not have to feel that you have done something wrong, worn the wrong thing, or behaved in the wrong way. And most of all, you do not need to accept it. You are not wasting time if you make a complaint, and what they have done is not okay. 80 – 90% of women have experienced sexual harassment, and though we might describe it as ‘low level abuse’, it is still fundamentally wrong, and it’s time society started fully recognising that.