I sat on the stairs of our Airbnb studio and laced up my trainers for my first run since leaving London four months ago. As I tied the bow I absentmindedly thought “I hope I don’t get harassed.”
And then it occurred to me: I hadn’t been harassed for four months and the only reason the thought had crossed my mind was because I automatically associated running with street harassment.
My initial explanation for the four-month reprieve was “men are different here” – and perhaps they are, but there’s another factor that might offer a better explanation: every time I’ve been out in public, I’ve been with Peter. From hiking, biking and diving to just relaxing on the beach, Peter has been by my side, unconsciously lending me ‘protection’ I don’t usually have.
Believe me, it grates the feminist in me to say this (“I have a man to protect me”) but the difference has been astoundingly clear. Of course, without spending time alone in the Pacific, I can’t say for sure if the respite is due to Peter or just a more polite culture, but I can say one thing for certain: it is fucking great.
I’ve realised that my life in London was heavier somehow. I felt more clouded as I walked down the streets, more alert, more uneasy. It wasn’t fear or paranoia as such; more a cloak of wariness.
It’s said that men are more vulnerable to physical assault on the streets and I’m sure the stats don’t lie, but what the stats don’t show is the mental load most women carry around in their everyday lives.
Sometimes, the harassment isn’t that awful and I can joke about it:
Two men just shouted at me from opposite sides of street. Ended up looking like they were hitting on each other. Wish I could’ve Kodaked it.
— Kia Abdullah (@KiaAbdullah) September 17, 2012
Sometimes, it’s seemingly harmless but still annoying:
Men, just because it’s something as seemingly innocuous as “nice” and you say it under your breath, it doesn’t mean it’s not harassment. — Kia Abdullah (@KiaAbdullah) August 3, 2014
And sometimes, it’s utterly revolting, something many men have never experienced. Earlier this year, Laura Bates (founder of Everyday Sexism) wrote a piece in the Guardian. In it she describes a patchwork of harassment as a ‘week of little pinpricks’.
When Peter read it, he commented mildly, “Wow, she’s unlucky.” After reading the first paragraph, he likely had the reaction many other men – intelligent, worldly, sweet-natured, gentlemanly men – had also. I explained that no, she wasn’t unlucky.
This is the way it is. I talked him through some of my scarier experiences over the years (most of which pales in comparison to other women’s experiences).
There was the 20-something guy who followed me on a bike all the way to school, repeatedly threatening to rip off my knickers. I was 14 years old. There was the middle-aged man who asked me to watch his van while he knocked on someone’s door to ask for the toilet – and who then proceeded to a corner and started masturbating. (Two months later, the same man approached me in the street with the same request. I walked away as fast as possible.)
There was the guy who followed me out of the tube station at 11pm and tried to stop me as I beelined for a cab. There was the group of youths who had a megaphone in their car – a megaphone – and who, when I didn’t respond to their sexual comments, shouted: “Oh, come on! Look at what you’re wearing!”
I hated myself that day because the first thing I thought was, ‘Okay, it’s red but there’s no cleavage and I’m wearing tights so there’s no leg either’ – as if cleavage or leg would excuse their behaviour. It was that same dress I was wearing when a man walked past and said ‘tits’ under his breath. I threw that dress away that day.
Not having to deal with this bullshit and all the other seemingly harmless infractions in between has made me realise just how pernicious it is, just how unfair. These past four months of freedom have taught me that what I accept as life in London is unacceptable. I’m not yet sure if this realisation, this newfound intolerance, is a good or a bad thing.
All I know for sure is that I’m not looking forward to finding out.