Last Saturday, I spent 45 minutes on a packed train, approaching midnight. I was sleepy, getting to the end of Nancy Mitford’s lovely Don’t Tell Alfred and looking forward to being under my duvet after a long day. Then, a male voice laughed and shouted, “She’s going to get raped.”
I looked up, because you do when you hear that word, but things were carrying on as normal. The female guard was smiling as she collected tickets and the woman next to me was messaging on Facebook. The young voice behind me carried on loudly though, joined by three or four others.
The conversation was about girls who had had sex with boys they knew.
“It’s not like she’s fat and ginger,” one laughed. “Oh, wait…”
In between, one boy got texts from his mum. He segued seamlessly from sexual-assault gags to relaying details of his mother checking what time he would be home, which made it obvious that this sort of chat was mundane to him – and that, actually, was one of the worst things.
There was a long discussion on what was preferable – having sex with a girl their friend had slept with or with various inanimate objects. There were worse things too, about defecating on girls. Once, I physically gagged. I made promises to myself that I would make sure my eight-month-old son knew that it was never, ever OK to speak about women in anything approaching that way. But what I didn’t do was speak up. Instead, I sat in my seat, unable to tune out of their conversation, but still ostensibly just leaning against a window, reading my Mitford.
Off the train and waiting for a taxi later, I caught sight of the teenage boys, who’d been sat behind me, so out of view, for the first time. I also saw what else I hadn’t been able to – that one of them was holding hands with a girl. She’d sat through the whole thing in silence.
Would others in the carriage just see it as boys 'being boys'? Would it make any difference anyway? It’s no surprise then that these boys felt invincible
I got home with a strong feeling that I’d let us both down. That much-used Edmund Burke quote – "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" – kept running through my mind because I am good, and I did do nothing, and in that carriage, as those boys yelled louder and the rest of us retreated, something bad did triumph.
If one of the boys had hit a girl on the train that night, I know I would have said something. But with this kind of misogyny, there was technically no criminality, and I felt that. Would others in the carriage just see it as boys "being boys"? Would it make any difference anyway? It’s no surprise then that these boys felt invincible. If these kind of thoughts stopped people from challenging them, they must have known they could say what they liked and no one would utter a word.
Because, we don't, as a rule, do we? We don't speak up for many reasons – for fear of being threatened in retaliation, because of every comment we’ve ever read that puts the blame of attacks at the hands of women. We shy away from speaking up for fear of standing out a little too much, or for actually having to confront something, perhaps. I hold my hands up: I wanted to block out that there were people in the world speaking like this. I wanted to retreat into the world of my Mitford; the woman next to me had chosen Facebook and Beyoncé.
A group of teenagers at ease with speaking about women like this, at a train station late at night, sounds alarm bells. For me, part of my silence was because I felt threatened. More than likely, those boys were all talk, but one thought niggled and it nagged: what if they weren’t? Just as powerful though was something that’s ingrained in me – in many women, I think – which was a desire to keep my head down. I didn’t want to be laughed at. I didn’t want people to look at me. I didn’t want to cause a fuss.
I was hard on myself about not stepping in, in the days after. Is it valid to be so uncomfortable with confrontation that you validate misogyny with your silence? Of course, it's valid to fear for your personal safety. But we are all complicit if we do absolutely nothing.
What we can do to combat it, if we can't confront the individuals at the time, for whatever reason, is not simply to walk away and forget. So, in this instance, because I can, I’m writing about it. I’ll speak to friends who have sons – and also who have daughters – about how important their generation is to feminism. When I come across teenage boys – on work experience, at family parties – I’ll engage with them and challenge them. Personally, I will keep it in the forefront of my mind as I raise my own son to respect women. I’ll make sure that even if I didn’t speak up at the time, I will speak up extra loudly afterwards.