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Why we do not speak

An interesting piece about a woman’s response to being sexually assaulted on a crowded London tube gave rise to, well the bottom half of the internet. The bottom half of the internet raised a number of very logical and sensible questions.  The bottom half of the internet wanted to know how on earth a woman could stand in the middle of a crowded tube and be assaulted. How could she not say anything? What person in their right mind would just stand there and endure something like a man masturbating against them in public?  What is wrong with society? And also, won’t somebody please think of the children?

Here’s the thing- you learn it slowly. It starts when you’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Ask ten women you know. Ask them if they remember their first time. Maybe it was a compliment about what she was wearing and she felt comfortable with it and it improved her day. Maybe it was a leer from a moron who bent over to look down her top. Maybe it was a few people in a car who hit the horn as they drove past, leaving her confused, and then embarrassed. Did I know those people? It must have been someone I know because why else would they hit the horn as they drove past me.

Maybe it was hey, darling. Maybe it was cheer up, love. Maybe it was niiiice.

Who could possible feel aggrieved about hey, darling? That’s the hallmark of the insane feminazi. And anyone who could summon outrage over cheer up, love is heading right down the path of irredeemable misanthropy and should just be ignored. These are compliments, or at least some of them are. Why make a big deal? Why are you criminalising and stigmatising basic human interaction? Is it a crime to speak to a woman? What is wrong with feminism?  Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Maybe it wasn’t disguised as a compliment though. Maybe it was I want to fuck you; maybe it was fat cunt.

These are regrettable. These are the price we pay for living in a society made up of all sorts of people. But they are completely different to an objectively bad thing. That’s when someone physically assaults you. That’s when some stands pressed against you on a crowded tube and presses their dick against you and masturbates on you. Come on, people, if something objectively bad was happening to you then you’d say something. Right? Assault is not the same as subjectively experienced ‘harassment’.

While you’re asking ten women you know for their personal history of street harassment, or unsolicited interaction with strangers, or the little foibles of gendered interaction in public spaces, ask whether they have ever experienced the angry escalation of such an event.

It goes something like this:

Hey, darling, like the [insert approved item of clothing or body part]

The subject of approval ignores and continues to walk.

Hey! You! I know you can fucking hear me. Bitch!

The subject of approval walks faster, pursued by a hail of abuse. She is trying to decide whether the embarrassment or the fear is worse. That will be decided by how many people are around, how well she knows the neighbourhood, whether anyone is likely to come to her help should things escalate further. It will depend on what her former admirer (after all, it did start off with a compliment) is now saying, how unpleasant or personal the abuse becomes, whether it happens to find a sore spot, something she’d always hoped would not be roared at her across a street.

There is no easy way to distinguish the tedious from the bad, or either from the really fucking ugly. You only ever know afterwards.

A man is standing beside you on the tube platform, and as the tube arrives he says something. It is a somewhat stark expression of sexual intent. You, buoyed on the confidence that comes with being in a crowd, make a facial gesture of unabashed revulsion. You would not normally do this. You are supposed to pretend you did not hear, keep your head down, walk quickly. He enters one carriage and you another. You think no more about it. It is after all, just the way of things. You get out to change at the next stop. So does he. He doubles back around, leans over to you. Says, I will fucking kill you. He spits these words in your face, then turns and storms away. You stand still, absorbing his fury. When you start to move again, you wonder if he means it. You wonder if he is waiting for you at a corner, outside the station. You wonder how angry he became while he brooded upon your rejection of a proposition only ever intended to demonstrate his need to assert power. You challenged that, just for a moment. How far might he go to re-assert that? This is what you wonder until you get home, and feel safe again.

Over time, you learn that these things are mostly designed to make you flinch, so you learn not to flinch.

You learn to ignore, to block out, to endure a baseline level of nonsense on the street and public transport. Ignore it all. That’s the only way. You smile briefly and walk quickly. You keep your head down and walk quickly. You wear headphones and walk quickly.

You have absorbed on a cellular level the safe and sensible way to get by within the established parameters of the world, and then one day, something bad happens. Something that the world agrees is objectively bad. And that’s when everyone asks, why didn’t you say anything?

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