Whether on a conscious or subconscious level, it’s exhausting and draining for women to constantly be on high alert.
“Isn’t it funny how we laugh it off to hide our fear, when there’s nothing funny here?” – Dua Lipa
Recently, I returned to London briefly for a few days. Like many people, I moved out of London and back in with my parents temporarily during the pandemic — though, at this point, it seems more indefinite than temporary. I hadn’t been back in London for over a year by this point, and it was surprising to me how much I’d missed: the constant buzz, the diversity, the transport links.
It was also surprising to me how frustrated and exhausted I suddenly felt about automatically being on high alert. I’d be the first to admit that I have a serious fear of being alone the dark, especially when there are likely men around. I’m lucky in that I don’t have any serious personal trauma that this stems from per se, and I sometimes jokingly explain it with the sheer number of crime shows I used to watch, but this fear has only got worse in recent years.
Obviously, my line of work and the constant deluge of reports of women and girls being kidnapped, going missing, or being harassed or assaulted don’t help. But, I am also conscious that what I previously described as a phobia in the sense of it being irrational is increasingly becoming a very legitimate fear.
What prompted all this?
I went out for dinner in the evening and took the tube alone in heels and a ‘revealing’ outfit — which in and of itself should not even be worth mentioning.
Luckily, I was not a victim of sexual assault or worse, and I know of many stories of public sexual harassment that are much worse.
That sentence is not a sentence that I ever imagined I would have to write, and yet I am not surprised — but it says a lot about where we are now that we are comparing experiences of sexual harassment.
I was subject to constant stares, almost exclusively from men, that were so off-putting that I nearly fell over and twisted my ankle on more than one occasion — and yet, as I’m sure many women would, my first reaction was not scorn at these men but worry that I would be much more vulnerable if I had an injured foot.
My outfit had an opening in the chest area. A couple stops after I got on, two large men got on together and, despite there being plenty of space and seats next to each other available nearby, sat down one either side of me — and looked at me as if I were a zoo exhibit or a piece of meat. I suppose I should count myself lucky that I wasn’t subject to any jeers as they were speaking a language that I couldn’t understand, so even if they did I wouldn’t know, but then it was also disconcerting not to know what two men who were much larger than me were talking about, when they were clearly getting a lot of entertainment from the situation.
At this point, I should mention that I’m a minoritised ethnic woman, from a community that is much too frequently subject to hate crime and hypersexualised beyond belief. I have almost been conditioned by society to expect the worst.
‘Luckily’, again, my ordeal ended when I met my boyfriend at the tube station. I was extremely relieved to see him there and feel that everything would be slightly better with a man with me. Almost immediately as I had this thought, I realised how horrifying it was that I even thought this and that for some reason there has to be a man present — both for safety and for ‘respecting other people’s property’ — to minimise the likelihood of assault or harassment.
My boyfriend is extremely supportive and was helping me feel a bit better during my tube journey, but we agree that there are some things he will never completely understand — sometimes we call it male privilege, sometimes we call it white privilege, sometimes it’s a bit of both.
I texted him saying I felt so uncomfortable with the stares and his initial response was to ask whether they were good stares or bad stares. This is by no means a criticism of him, but just an example of how there are some things he will never understand as a White man.
I can only say that I feel lucky in that, so far, my experiences have not involved serious physical harm — but I don’t know what the mental injuries have been. Ironically, I think I’m not as affected by it (on the surface) as I might be because I feel like I’m used to it.
Women, and especially minority women, have enough on their plate already without constantly having to expend energy on personal safety and then trying to explain why this is necessary to other people. This is why my work is so important to me, because at JAN Trust we work to support and empower marginalised women against the inequalities they face.