Late last night, as I made my way home from a friend’s party, I noticed a male figure appear alongside me. The man was shorter than me; around 5’9” or 10” to my six foot, and almost chasing to keep up with my stride. I glanced towards him without turning my head. He was trying to speak to me. I thought he might be asking for change, or for help with something. I removed my headphones, to address him. “Are you OK?” I asked. “You have pretty feet,” he said, without missing a beat.
I said a rushed, uncomfortable “thank you” in a bid to appease him and encourage him to leave me alone, rolled my eyes and quickened my pace to the bus stop just up the road. But, in my peripheral vision, a short figure began approaching me as I waited to get home. I knew it was him immediately but I stared straight ahead. I was trying to ignore his presence, but as he edged towards me, it started to feel like a threat of some kind. He was persisting, not satisfied with making lewd comments to me, and I started feeling increasingly combative. He moved until he was about a meter away from me. I couldn’t ignore him any longer. I looked to my right, to see him staring down at my feet, masturbating.
What would you do? What should you do? I didn’t know. I shouted at him, and he told me that he was “just day-dreaming” like it was the most natural thing in the world. As soon as I ran behind the bus stop, away from him, he started scuttling in the opposite direction. I didn’t know whether I should have accosted him, whether I should ring the police emergency number or write a report online. I realised, despite writing about cat-calling and harassment and sexual abuse and domestic abuse and assaults on women, for quite a few years, I had no fucking clue what to do.
I didn’t know what number to ring. Instinctively I thought that using a 999 call to report some creep wanking over my sandals in the street would be more of a nuisance than anything – the prevalence of cat-calling and this type of sexual behaviour is so commonplace that I didn’t consider it urgent. I went over to a woman at the same stop, and explained what had happened. She wasn't shocked – she tutted, said she was sorry, and rolled her eyes like, "men!" – and she also didn't know what to do. I considered going to Lewisham police station, around the corner from where I stood, but felt worried that I’d be considered to be wasting their time too. I settled on dialling 101, and spent 30 minutes on hold, waiting to speak to someone.
But why did I think it was in any way unimportant? Why didn’t I think that I could class a man, intimidating me, behaving in a sexually threatening manner, on a street where I stood alone at night, as something to be taken seriously?
Cat-calling, and flashing, and wanking over a woman’s feet in chilly Lewisham on a Sunday evening are not about “compliments” but power
Perhaps, I thought, because we’re told over and over that it is nothing serious. Cat-calling and street harassment over our lifetimes are a million sexualised and internalised moments, absorbed and expertly ignored and buried by women. Don’t make a fuss. Don’t whinge. There are far worse things that happen, aren’t there? Don’t ever seem too highly strung, or emotional, or “crazy”. Don’t appear like you “can’t take a laugh”. The way women are publicly treated – shamed and embarrassed by uncaring, self-righteous, self-centred men – is diminished “just a joke”. And so when something happens, we – at least, I did last night – diminish its gravitas too.
And because we’re told that there are certain ways we should and shouldn't act, we suddenly believe we can be part of the the problem. A thread on Reddit started last week about how it feels to be cat-called revealed the same thing: women are given a myriad of mixed messages of the “right” way to deal with harassment, and the “right” way to be a victim, and nothing ever works. Women are told that they should completely ignore harassers, only to be followed for being “rude”. We’re told to fight back, only to be threatened and “putting themselves at risk”. “It’s scary,” one user on Reddit said. “You’re met with limited options. You can smile / laugh, which encourages it more. You can tell them to fuck off, which could turn ugly really quickly. Or you can ignore it, in which case they normally get more aggressive. It makes me feel really small, like I’m not a whole person but rather walking real estate, and it fucking sucks.”
I wasn’t upset at all last night, but I did feel some murky embarrassment. It knocked me a bit. There was something humiliating and exposing about the whole thing, and I think some of it was feeling a little unsure and a little more powerless, and some of it was about my own response. Why did I even acknowledge him? What if I’d told him “fuck you” when he cat-called, not “thank you”; did appeasing him actually encourage it? No. Of course not.
He would have done it anyway. Strangers will snatch at ownership of our bodies, thinking they have the right. Cat-calling, and flashing, and wanking over a woman’s feet in chilly Lewisham on a Sunday evening are not about “compliments” but power. It’s men who think they have a god-given right to determine a woman’s fuckability; to undermine, sexualise, degrade and abuse women to soothe their own inferiority complex and attempt to bolster their delicate egos.
Thankfully, the police did take it seriously, and were incredibly helpful. They said that, actually, I should have dialled 999. If I’d have done that, and told them where I was, they would have picked me up in a police car and gone for a drive round to see if I could spot him. There would have been a chance to catch him and stop him from doing it to another girl.
I’m surprised at myself that I missed that chance. It shocked me that – even after writing about this subject many, many times, and arguing about it many, many times, even after simply being a woman – I didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t immediately take it seriously enough; I unwittingly internalised messages about women, and the (lack of) seriousness of sexual crimes against women that I’ve been decrying for years.
Not any more. I’ve stopped analysing my response because, of course, I didn’t fucking ask for it. And it is serious. Next time – should there be a next time – I will dial 999. And, yes, thanks, I will make a fuss.