An anecdote for you: I was out round Leeds with a male friend some years ago. Apropos of nothing at all, a man approached us while we waited for a kebab. He was smartly turned out, in his thirties. He shoved a mobile phone in our faces, the screen playing hardcore porn, and smiled expectantly.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “What the hell are you showing us this for?”
He seemed puzzled, almost hurt. I felt like I had unwittingly broken some unspoken rule of men’s club. He looked at me, then nudged my friend. There was the merest hint of hostility. “What’s his fucking problem?”
Yes, what indeed was my problem? Isn’t this the sort of thing men are supposed to do on a night out? Well, it is if we listen to the dismissal of Donald Trump’s “pussy-grabbing” exploits that have surfaced from a 2005 recording, in which the man who would be president says you can get away with anything when you’re famous. Yes, even sexual assault.
While Republicans might be distancing themselves from Trump like a herd of wildebeest who’ve just noticed a lion in their midst, there have been an equal number of men rolling their eyes and saying, “Come on, it’s just banter.” In fact, here comes Nigel Farage, sloshing his pint over us, assuring us it’s just “alpha-male boasting”. It might be ugly, but “it’s just something that men do”.
Is it, though? Do men really talk like that? Do we regale our mates with tales of sexual conquest, with objectified observations on the female form, with a wink and a nudge and a surreptitious nod towards the woman in the short skirt?
Well, here’s a thing: I find myself, somewhat distressingly, in agreement with Nigel Farage for the first time in my life. Is this really just something that men do? Yes. Yes, it is. Here’s the “not all men” qualifier you’ve been waiting for: I don’t. Neither does your boyfriend or your husband, your brother or your son or your father. But I’ve heard them enough times to know there are enough men who evidently do.
You see, maybe men are a little bit like dogs. Your chocolate Labrador might be the cutest animal that’s ever been Instagrammed, but let it run with some other dogs for a while and pack mentality sets in. Your dog will rip apart a sheep as soon as look at it.
A young lad on a building site might well be ashamed that his colleagues are wolf-whistling, but doesn’t have the confidence to challenge them. Peer pressure, pack mentality – it’s not something to be underestimated
When men get to go out together, they talk about being “off the leash”, just like running dogs. Dormant conditioning we’ve long suppressed, inherited cultural memories of Carry On films and Benny Hill, the banter Olympics, where gold medals are awarded to those who can surf the very edge of the boundaries of taste in the name of getting a laugh – it all comes out.
But I like to think that millennia of evolution mean we’re no longer cavemen, not in any way dogs. Perhaps there’s a more insidious reason this continues: peer pressure. I will happily call out such comments on Twitter. But say I was alone in a pub where the exclusively male clientele were comparing pussy-grabbing anecdotes. Call me a wimp, but I’d probably put my head down and say nothing. Because, rightly or wrongly, I instinctively make the link between large groups of men talking like this with the likelihood I might just get a kicking if I speak up.
And, yes, that makes me ashamed. In the same way, I imagine, that a young lad on a building site might well be ashamed that his colleagues are wolf-whistling, but doesn’t have the confidence to challenge them. Peer pressure, pack mentality – it’s not something to be underestimated.
Sometimes, when you’re out, it’s merely that nod and that wink, and the rest of the group will slap down the perpetrator and remind him what century we’re all living in. Perhaps less commonly, it’s more extreme – the chap who shoved his porn under my nose, for example.
I imagine he was someone’s boyfriend or husband. Someone’s son. Maybe that was the day I officially handed in my lads’ club membership card. Perhaps it was because I feel like I don’t see as much of this as I used to. So maybe it’s getting better.
If that’s just a rose-tinted perception, what can we all – male and female – do about it? Do we make sexually aggressive comments illegal? Do we find the courage to stand up to it, a good kicking notwithstanding? I wish I knew.
Look, we all like a laugh. But I can guarantee, if I have a night out in any normal, average town or city, I’ll overhear at some point someone talk like Donald Trump. It’s dark and it’s uncomfortable and it’s unwelcome. And, unfortunately, like Nigel Farage says, it’s just something that men do.
Not me, and not my friends, and probably not your men. But, I’m sorry to say, someone is still doing it, so just maybe it is your men. And, if we’re failing to instigate change ourselves quickly enough, it might once again fall to you to start a grassroots revolution from your own living room.
Because, for all their bluster, banter and bar-room comments, most men are not Donald Trump. They won’t engage in actual sexual assault. And it might be an old cliché, but I reckon, in 99 cases out of a hundred, they really would be utterly appalled if their wives and mothers could hear them talking like that.