A Pox on the Patriarchy
Yesterday I had two rather similar experiences, with vastly different outcomes. One was rather enjoyable – the other triggered a pretty drastic trauma response, the after-effects of which are still lasting today. I thought it was worth writing about it, since I think it provides a useful example of how women asking to not have their boundaries violated does not mean that no men can ever talk to women they don’t know.
Yesterday, I was on a panel at Sky News talking about online abuse. A car was sent to pick me up, and one was waiting for me when I got out to take me back home. On both occasions, the driver was a man. On both occasions I asked if it was all right for me to sit in the front, as I often get car sick in the back. Both drivers were fine with this.
My drive there was great. I chatted with the driver all the way – we reminisced over past raving days, he told me about appalling racism he has experienced in his cab. He told me about various events from his life. It was a nice, fun chat with another human being. I didn’t initiate the conversation, but he was a lovely guy and I was very happy to talk to him. It was a thoroughly pleasant addition to my day.
The drive home was somewhat different. This driver made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. He started telling me about all the women he had hit on his cab; his struggles to find a girlfriend; how picky women are over which men they date; how upset he gets when women don’t respond to his texts. All this interspersed with not-so-subtle attempts to find out if I had a boyfriend, and compliments about how I looked. He asked me what size clothes I wore; described his perfect woman. He kept telling me how he wished more women were like me. He asked me if I were single would I have gone for a drink with him. At the end of the journey, I felt so uncomfortable that I didn’t want him to drop me off at home. I asked him to drop me off at a cafe instead. He asked if he could join me for a coffee. (I said no, I had loads of work to do; he joked that my boyfriend wouldn’t like it anyway.)
What’s the big deal, you might think. So a taxi driver tried his luck and failed. What’s my problem – why am I so uptight?
Let me explain. First of all, as is standard for cabs now, he had my mobile number. He also had my home address since he was dropping me off there. I have been panicking ever since that he will try to call me, or come round. I was polite and chatty, even jokey with him. I reassured him about getting a girlfriend, said he seemed like a nice, interesting guy. I’m sure he will have thought I was leading him on (something he complained about women doing), although I made it clear I had a boyfriend and wasn’t interested.
Why did I behave like this? Because I felt it was the best way of ensuring my safety under the circumstances. I was under the control of this man. I was in an enclosed space with him, in a moving vehicle, which he was driving. I couldn’t just get out whenever I wanted. I didn’t want to antagonise him. And of course, like most other women, I have been socialised to be pleasant and chatty to people who talk to me.
All this would have been bad enough, but it was made worse for me in particular, by the fact that my most serious sexual assault also took place with a man when I was in an enclosed space in which he was in control – that was his flat in a city I didn’t know. He also then drove me home after he was finished with me. I had to sit in the front seat next to a man who didn’t see me as a human being, but a tool for his pleasure.
I do not deny that that experience will have made my response to this driver more dramatic than it might otherwise have been. But even if it had not been for that experience, I would have, like so many other women, been through a myriad of experiences where I felt unsafe with a man. Where I knew that, ultimately, he could rape me if he wanted. Women are brought up to fear male sexual entitlement; men are brought up to know this is a weapon they can use against us – of course most won’t, but they could. And we can’t tell who will and who won’t. So when a man you don’t know, under whose control you are, however temporarily, who has your number and home address, starts coming on to you in the most creepy way, your heart starts racing. You start panicking. You keep a frozen smile on your face and you just pray to get through it and to get out. I felt sick with anxiety for the rest of the day. My anxiety levels are still up today.
So men, you can talk to women. Of course you can. It’s great when you do – and I think my two experiences yesterday, so similar and yet such miles apart, illustrate this. Unexpected human contact can be a beautiful thing. But don’t hunt us and treat us as your prey – and then be surprised when we run away. When we respond with fear, shock and sometimes anger. I think most men know the difference. I think most men know when they’re treating us as human beings – and when they’re treating us as tools for their own enjoyment. Please don’t be that guy. It’s terrifying.