A Pox on the Patriarchy
Over the weekend, there were a number of articles about Femme de la rue, the new film by Sofie Peeters which documents the daily sexual harassment that the final-year film student undergoes each time she steps out into the street.
Caroline Crampton wrote about it for the New Statesman, in the process sharing a disturbing story of her own, about being chased down the street by a man at ‘half-past eight on a weekday morning’, after she refused to acknowledge him. She revealed that when she tweeted her experience, she received many responses from women relating their own stories.
Writing in The Guardian, Angelique Chrisafis also covered the film, noting how ‘at any time of day, [Peeters] would be greeted with cat-calls, wolf-whistles and jeers of “slag” and “how much do you cost?”’ Apparently her female acquaintances had gone to extreme lengths in their attempts to avoid the unwelcome attention, including changing the way they dressed, the routes the took, even where they looked.
The problem is clearly extreme.
But despite the clear prevalence of this unwanted attention, as revealed by the film itself and the articles about it, an exchange I had on twitter starkly revealed to me how far we have to go before even the most ostensibly open-minded of men understand its extent.
On the day that the New Statesman and Guardian articles were published, I saw that a well-known male journalist had tweeted a link to the Guardian piece, accompanied by the comment ‘shocking but not surprising story about sexual harrassment [sic] in Belgium- bet its [sic] very similar in the UK too’.
The phrasing of the tweet expressed some doubt (‘I bet’) about the extent of the problem in the UK; as a woman who lives in the UK, I thought I would help to relieve that doubt. It seemed like a great opportunity to further educate a man who seemed open to understanding the female street experience.
So, not expecting a response, I told him ‘it is’ and backed up my claim by letting him know that, ‘I don’t know a woman who doesn’t experience this on a daily basis’.
So that was that, I thought.
But then I did get a response – and it was by no means a pleasant experience. The tweet read: ‘my wife for one…extreme statements don’t help’.
Now, let’s ignore for the moment that ‘my wife for one’ doesn’t actually make sense as a response to a tweet that speaks about people that I actually know. (I know neither him, nor his wife.) Let’s also ignore the fact that this man felt so confident about speaking about his wife’s daily experience; I know I never really speak about these kinds of things with my partners – and I don’t know that any of my friends do either. But I don’t know him – maybe he and his wife have nightly discussions about her trips out of the house every day – who am I to judge? Finally, I do my best to ignore the proposition that someone who doesn’t experience this is in a position to tell me, someone who does, what does and doesn’t ‘help’.
But what I would like to draw attention to, is that this man, who doesn’t know me, doesn’t know where I live, doesn’t know who my friends are, felt capable of dismissing out of hand the experience I had chosen to share with him. And not only this, he felt able to label it as ‘extreme’ – aka ‘untrue’. In short, he felt in a position to judge both the truth and the relevance of my comment.
When I read the tweet, I felt like I’d been hit in the stomach – and at first, I wasn’t entirely sure why. The tweet wasn’t aggressive in any way, there was nothing obviously wrong with it. But it niggled at me for the rest of the day.
And I eventually realised what had bothered me so much. It was because it felt like so many of the other reactions I’ve had online from certain men, when I’ve spoken about my experiences of street harassment. It has been belittled, it has been dismissed as ‘not that bad’, it has been placed in the ‘context’ of ‘what happens to men’. The ways of rejecting, of wiping out my experience have been myriad. But they all come down to the same thing: there remains a significant proportion of men who either can’t, or don’t want to, accept the reality of the situation faced by so many women from the moment they step out onto the street.
And I suppose the reason why it hit me so hard in this case, despite it not being nearly as bad as the far more insidious rejections, the far more aggressive put-downs, is that it was entirely unexpected. When dealing with men’s rights activists, one expects to have one’s experiences denied and belittled. You go in expecting it, and you gird your loins.
But when a respected journalist, who himself tweeted (and therefore presumably had read) the article, did this, it had an unexpectedly forceful impact: when a man like this denies your own experience to you without any qualms, when a man like this feels capable of judging a woman he doesn’t know, and so confidently, so flippantly dismissing her own experiences, then we see how deep the disbelief runs. Getting this was a depressing moment. Because until more than fifty per cent of the population recognises this as a real and present problem, there seems little prospect of it stopping. And we’re clearly not there yet – not by a long shot.