On saturday, a friend and i were subject to intimidation on the streets of Peterborough. Walking back to my car – a distance of little more than 200 yards – we were briefly followed and catcalled.
But, not being raped or assaulted, the event was in no way newsworthy, so that was alright.
A familiar story
The discourse that follows will be familiar, i think, to every woman who has ever opened a “feminist book” – and to most that haven’t as well. The circumstances of this incident were pretty ordinary. We were out at an ’80’s themed party and both fancily dressed: my outfit (some of you have seen the awful pics!) was an explosion of bright colours, ridiculous heels and a pink tutu: my friend had gone for the punk/bondage chic look.
The party wasn’t over, but i had decided to dump some bits and pieces – including the smart but toe-destroying heels – back in my car, and then move it closer to the site of the party for quicker getaway later that evening. It was so close, i almost walked the distance alone: “don’t be stupid”, my friend warned. This is not the most salubrious of areas: i’ll walk with you.
I was glad she did. As we passed a bus stop, our outfits acted as magnet to a certain sort of drunk guy, attracting first catcalls, then a half-hearted attempt to follow us. “Hey, you!”, i think was his cunning attempt at an introduction.
Was i terrified? Quaking in my boots (or stiletto sandals?). No. Was it unpleasant? Yep. Because, as every woman knows: you never know. Like the charming drunken idiot who foisted himself on me waiting for an early morning train on KX station about this time last year, shoved his face into mine and politely inquired: “do you take it up the arse?” Did i instantly expect rape? No. Violence? Maybe.
But that’s neither here nor there, and now we start to get to the nub of the matter.
The right to occupy spaces
My friend and i had every right to be walking the streets of Peterborough, even at the ungodly hour of, oh, 10.10 on a saturday night. We have every right to do so dressed as we wish and that is NOT, ever, a hidden message or invite to every passing dickhead to think we’re open to his attentions. And, quite frankly, it is grotesque, when such stuff happens, for people to start to split the atom of oppression into “not really a rape threat”.
Am i bothered? No. Its simply unpleasant. Its frightening. Its intimidating. And if guys genuinely don’t get that people walking up to them on the street and threatening, loudly and angrily to insert some unwanted item into their bottoms is that, then a) they’re utterly thick b) i may have to reconsider my views on euthanasia and c) maybe a little bit of guerilla feminism, involving the random abduction of guys and insertion of probes is called for.
Oh. Sorry, guys. Just joking. As one does.
As i said at the outset, that discourse is intimately familiar to most women, as too the decoding of it. Its all about space – an extension of the basic sexism that saw the likes of Mary Anning not recognised for her scientific achievement because women weren’t allowed to enter the hallowed (male) portals of the Royal Society. Thereby also proving the slur that women didn’t do science!
Society has historically been constructed of spaces, many of which have been highly gendered: and power and influence have often been closely tied to men’s spaces.
And as the history of the struggle for women’s rights shows: every attempt to move into “men’s spaces” has been resisted. Directly, legally, sarcastically. You name it. If women can’t be barred directly, they’ll be barred through ridicule and workplace sexism, which is why many workplace “just-a-jokes” are so damaging.
They’re not just jokes. They’re barriers to entry. Or remaining.
And today, the new frontier is virtual space: social media. Women are doing great things out there: they’re getting together and campaigning and sharing and supporting and…somehow or other, that gets up the nose of a certain sort of man. How DARE they?
Or if they must, then they must learn to play by the men’s rules. They need to be thick-skinned. If something upsets them, they should walk away from the keyboard.
In essence, this is an attempt to state, loud and clear, that bad behaviour is the norm and if women can’t deal with it, its their fault. They’re obviously not up to dealing with the big bad world.
Space: the final frontier
So let’s finish with two things. First, i am, ever so slightly, sorry that the focus for debate has been on the rape “threats”: most of these probably aren’t. At least not in the way that police and prosecuting authorities call them, in the sense of credible threats with a high probability of being put into effect. That, i fear, is media hype – putting the focus where it shouldn’t be.
Only, as far as i am concerned, that is NOT to minimise the issue here. As both Suzanne Moore and Louise Pennington put it, in different ways today: its about the abuse, stoopid! And angels on pinhead debate about just how real a rape threat needs to be before it counts for anything is just insulting.
Second, the fact that this takes place in a virtual space does not make it a different issue. Nope: its the same old, same old. Women have had the temerity to show their faces, strongly, in a space that men see as belonging to them. Some men have chosen to respond by trying to bully women out.
There is absolutely nothing different at all here: the battle for virtual space is as important to equality as the fight for every other space, er, known to man. And that’s that!