The right-wing media frenzy over ‘violent student protestors’ of late is an issue that is, for me, tied inextricably to the oppression of women in our society. The voice of neo-conservatism that questions what right women have to be angry about gender inequality in the current ‘post-feminist’ landscape is the same voice that characterises students attempting to escape kettles and raising their voices against the coalition government as militants bent on stirring things up rather than having any base for their actions. The pseudo-liberal project of being anti the ‘extreme’ is the recurrent trope, and the power relationship implied in the notion of telling someone to ‘calm down’, is made all the more powerful by the mitigating culture of being falsely ‘moderate’, and law-abiding. This is a discourse drafted and promulgated by a white, male, cis-gendered, middle-class patriarchy. Women are, of course, often complicit, but they are one of the largest sectors of society to be censored by this masculine liberalism, which all too often appropriates the language of oppression to further bolster a societal status that has become hegemonic.
I can pinpoint this discursive connection most clearly in my own recent experiences. In November and December I was living essentially alone in Manhattan, kindly being put up in an apartment on the Upper West Side, and busking most days well into the evening, and often in the night. I had a wicked time and met some cool people, encountering no remarkable problems as a woman alone in a city. I am not for one minute suggesting that women are not abused, raped, assaulted and verbally oppressed in New York, but I feel that my experience of the following was certainly made more emphatic and shocking to me considering the relative security and autonomy I had felt while living in NYC. In late December I got back to Cambridge to play a gig at The Emperor, on Hills Road. Before I started playing a guy had already approached me, but I figured that was okay and chatted to him for a couple of minutes before starting my set. After my set the guy started talking to me again, which was fine, and then another chap came up. This one first looked at me and ‘oh sorry you are a dude’, to which I replied ‘only occasionally’. He obviously took this as a cue to embark on a process of entitlement, which I can only assume would have been rendered void if I had responded with a voice like Morgan Freeman and whipped out my cock. The first guy – let’s call him Horny McHornson – proceeded to LITERALLY HAVE A THINLY VEILED PRIVATE CONVERSATION with the second guy – let’s call him Randy Partridge – about their proprietorship of me, which went something like this: ‘Sorry mate am I – ah- steppin’ on your toes? Is this one yours?’ Horny McHornson: ‘I – ah – yeah, sorry mate…’
Needless to say, Randy Partridge did not vacate. The situation was spiralling. The look of absolute disgust upon my face was apparently doing nothing to deter my suitors.
At that point, while I was struggling to keep down the vomit that threatened to lurch forth at any given moment, a passing man – let’s call him Henry Fucker – reached down and grabbed my arse. There was an incredible swarm of people in the bar, and unfortunately – or, perhaps, fortunately – his attachment to my posterior was so fleeting, and he was swept off so quickly, that I didn’t get a chance to say ‘WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK TO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING MISTER HENRY FUCKER, DO YOU WANT THIS FIST IN YOUR ACTUAL FUCKING FACE’ (NB. The fleetingness of his assault was the only thing I am trying to characterise as fortunate, I was clearly desperate to scream a list of expletives in his face, and later, as we shall see, my chance came).
The only available people upon which to offload about this incident were, sadly, the two men who were still standing in front of me, having some sort of inane battle of witticism and feigned interest. I immediately said: ‘Fucking hell I can’t believe that guy just did that’, to which Horny McHornson said that he ‘was not aware that I already had a friendship with [Henry Fucker]’. I promptly said I had never seen Henry Fucker before in my life, and descended into a well of further offence and frustration that my agency was apparently lying at my feet in absolute tatters. At this point one of Randy Partridge’s affiliates approached, clutching a pint of light ale, and slurred/spat that he didn’t know ‘WHAT you’re doing, Randy, she’s not even pretty’. Proffering only an involuntary eye twitch and an incredulous, slow shake of my head, I did not have the time to verbally respond, because at that moment, Henry Fucker made his second appearance, and his grand finale in this circus of patriarchal horror. He swept up to me, without introduction or explanation, and grabbed my left breast, twisting it roughly before literally just trotting off into the crowd by the bar. I was totally dumbstruck for about 20 seconds, and could only utter disbelievingly, to the wall of chauvinism before me, the words ‘what the fuck’ about 5 times, with escalating vigour. Then, realising that Henry Fucker was still about 4 feet away from me, I strode up and shouted in his face along the lines of ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing, do you understand that it is NEVER okay to do that to someone?’ etc etc, which was received with an alcohol-induced half-squint and a smirk at my obvious anger and disgust and ‘getting out of my pram’ness. I then turned to the original Horny McHornson, in a bid to get someone to agree that what had just happened merited my feeling of sickness and trauma, and all I got was the same ‘I didn’t realise you knew that guy’, like by being sexually harassed this absolute turd had somehow revealed my violation of his property rights. Faced with this embankment of either indifference, ridicule or appropriation, I promptly burst into tears and headed outside, followed by Horny McHornson, who quickly decided that the best tack to take was one of apology, because he felt ’embarrassed that he hadn’t gone and sorted out that man’. Please. Leave. Me. Alone? Then out comes Randy Partridge’s friend – let’s call him Ubermensch O’Neill – who sidles up to me, where Randy is also unfathomably situated, and loudly asserts that ‘I told you she was ugly’. The final nail in the coffin was when the swarm of people around me told me I shouldn’t worry about Henry Fucker, ‘because he’s blatantly a fag’.
Overwhelmed by the unbelievable amount of objectification, sexual judgement, homophobia, entitlement and sexual harassment, I finally manage to leave, only to be followed by Horny McHornson, who apparently thought it was appropriate to try and get my number and invite me OUT FOR DINNER.
What amazed me most about this saga was not even the complete lack of awareness of Randy, Horny, Henry, and Ubermensch, but my default and involuntary reaction to it. I was immediately aware that I was obliged to downplay my horror and anger in order to get my voice heard. When I reacted aggressively I was met with a collective response that was perturbed and uncomfortable by my emotions. This was pasted over with a belittling layer of comic mockery in a bid to mute my reaction. There was a real sense of ‘how dare you ruin our night by being so fucking upset’. This just made me more splutteringly incensed and distressed. Outside the pub I heard myself actually apologise to the organiser of the night for being so upset. The group who surrounded me outside did not include one single woman and was mainly composed of men who were either totally indifferent, mocking or clamouring to be the one to go inside and ‘beat up’ my oppressor. It was probably one of the most stifling experiences of my life and one in which I genuinely felt like I had lost most of my autonomy.
My propensity to immediately blame myself for ‘over-reacting’ or not being assertive enough to deal with that situation really troubled me; I am a feminist dyke who is fucking proud of her leg-hair, her bralessness, her loudly professed beliefs about gender equality, and I have thought for a long time that I wear my politics on my sleeve. Yet in this context – and certainly in other, less salient incidents – I have reduced my reactions, felt the obligation to restrain, to make sure that my manner of response is measured enough to actually make sure people listen to me, rather than write me off as a crazy militant, or as an ‘extremist’. Why should this be the case? It is not up to us as oppressed individuals to be nice and ‘persuasive’ to the people who are objectifying us, abusing us, molesting us. I am sick of hearing critiques of the student movement at the moment that rely on the idea that ‘kicking off’ isn’t ‘persuasive’ but ‘alienating’; that somehow reacting aggressively to systematic oppression, economic sadism and the abuse of our civil liberties is ‘unnecessary’, and wouldn’t things be so much better if we were all a lot more moderate. Isn’t it such a nuisance when we get angry and break things, wouldn’t it be nicer for everyone if we simply wrote letters to parliament or worked in an NGO.
That obligation to moderateness, to being measured and using the mechanics of a society run by white men in suits, is one of the most powerful and domineering components of the current patriarchy paradigm. They are the same voices; those of my acquaintances in The Emperor, and those that condemn our activism for its extremity. I’m so BORED of it. Is it not time we are allowed to be enraged when we are abused?