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Column: Making lewd remarks to women on the street is not 'banter'

Vulgar comments, wolf-whistles, groping – almost every woman has been subject to this kind of unacceptable behaviour. It’s not ‘banter’ and it’s not complimentary, writes Mia Doering.

Mia Doering

EARLY LAST WEEK, I sent a tweet to @Everydaysexism, to vent that, yet again, a perfect stranger had decided to generously share his opinion on my appearance with me. This somehow got picked up by a radio station and became the focus of a long discussion about the incident. I am fully aware that these shows are the warm and tepid breeding ground for assumption, generalisation and judgement, but nevertheless, for some masochistic reason I listened in.

First, let me tell you what happened: while I was dragging my bicycle down the steps in my local train station one morning, I felt five pairs of eyes on me. Four or five middle aged high vis jacketed men were sitting on the other side of the tracks. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, try carrying a heavy bicycle down a flight of steps in heels, while being gawked at by a group of neanderthal men. Comfortable it isn’t. As I got to the bottom and plopped my bike down beside me I heard the end of a sentence featuring the word ‘saddle’.

Oh for God’s sake. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what they’d said. I looked over at them sharply. I didn’t need to hear it again. I’ve heard it before. Women on bicycles can’t help but hear it every now and then – it’s such an original and hilarious statement to make, how could it not be common to hear? Then he made his witticism again, for the benefit of his more hard-of-hearing colleagues.

‘I’d love to be that saddle’.

Beautiful. The High Vis Gang sniggered. The most insulting thing about this – horrific attempt at humour aside – was that it wasn’t even said to me. It was said about me. Twice. Let me be clear that both times it was said with the intention of me hearing it, but it allowed them to escape any response. Perhaps he was afraid of a wittier retort, which wouldn’t have been difficult to be honest.

As it happens I did not have a wittier retort. I was too baffled that someone, evidently in the company of his colleagues, would behave like that. I was too busy spluttering with anger that someone, a professional, would inform me that he would like to be next to my genitals.

I can’t imagine leaving my dentist one day and him shouting after me ‘Nice tits by the way!’, or being greeted by a bus driver with a wistful ‘What I would do to you…’. And if they did I’m pretty sure they’d be instantaneously fired. No, when this kind of thing happens, it’s on the streets, it’s outside pubs on your way home, or from passing cars. Reacting with anger gives them what they want. Reacting with laugher (some youngsters call this ‘banter’) gives them what they want, and also encourages them to keep doing it, so being silent is the only thing you can do. And maybe seethe silently to yourself and mutter self-love affirmations all day.

Fodder for a mid-morning laugh

Perhaps the High Vis Jacket gave them some sort of cloak of immunity. Perhaps the fact that there were five of them and one of me made them feel like big men, funny men. Who knows? Either way how I might feel about being spoken to or about in that way wasn’t at the top of their priority list, or anywhere near it. Lets be honest, he was not after a date; his only reason for saying it was to belittle me. I was just fodder for a quick, mid-morning laugh. The fact that I was a human, with thoughts and feelings is very boring and mundane. It’s much more interesting to see me as an accessible sex object, built for your viewing pleasure, whose pedigree is to be observed, judged and of course, commented on, because as a man, of course you’re entitled to comment.

As the grossness of what he’d said and how he’d said it slowly hit me, I felt painfully self-aware. Embarrassed. Shy. Exposed. Uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be on show but by virtue of being a woman in this gang’s sleazy presence I was forced to be on show. I went from pondering if my lunch would hold up okay in my lunchbox to feeling like someone had just pointed out that the back of my skirt was tucked into my knickers.

On the train I felt as though the eyes of all the other passengers were on me. I was wearing a new dress I really liked. I wanted to be in something less nice; something big and thick that would render me into a shapeless blob. The last thing I wanted was to be seen as ‘sexy’. I realised that my hands were shaking. I gave out to myself for wearing my stupid new dress. Then I gave out to myself for having that fleeting thought. Five minutes before, I’d been happy with how I looked. The thought of him and his cronies made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I felt ashamed, weirdly, and a little dirty. It’s a sad fact that when an offence is sexual in nature we take on the shame that is missing from the perpetrator and aim it at ourselves.

Is being harassed part-and-parcel of being female?

As my day went by I thought about other times people had decided to share their feelings about my sexual appeal. I was reminded of the various ‘nice tits’ comments (one on George’s Street with a complementary grope), the many guttural ‘hey sexy’ comments, the numerous wolf whistles, ‘wank bank’ comments, attempts to look up my skirt or down my top, horn blowings and touches that have happened over the years. I know that I’m not alone, or some sort of special case. This is part-and-parcel of being a female.

And don’t tell me that shouting something about wanting to be my saddle is a world apart from groping me. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment and all the various forms of it exist on the same continuum, and, in a world where one in five women will be raped in Ireland, any sexual harassment carries significant weight. Rape may not be imminent or even vaguely possible, but harassment is a reminder, a little whisper in your ear, that you are powerless.

Perhaps another girl would’ve attempted to laugh it off. He still shouldn’t have said it. Perhaps another girl, deluded maybe, would have taken it as a compliment. He still shouldn’t have said it. Perhaps another girl would have, as suggest on the late night radio chat show, done a ‘happy dance’ to have gotten such a ‘compliment’. He still shouldn’t have said it. Perhaps it would have made someone’s day and made them feel ten years younger. He still shouldn’t have said it.

Breathtaking assumptions made about me

The radio show was purely about my reaction. In fact, the title of the show was ‘Are Irish Women Too Sensitive?’, not ‘Should Strangers Give Insulting Compliments to Other Strangers?’ or ‘Do Your Workers Need Extra Training in How to Speak To Women?’ or ‘Is it Ever Okay to Tell a Stranger That You Want To Be Next to Their Genitals?’. Long winded, I know, but surely more accurate.

My age was dissected, with them ‘narrowing’ it down to between 20 and 30. They also somehow knew I was Irish. I know that these late night talk shows aren’t known for objective and non-biased thinking, but the assumptions and judgements made about me were breathtaking: my nationality, my personality, my reaction, my motive for tweeting, my attitude, where I was going and at which time of the day, whether I was struggling with my bike or not, if I was a ‘sociable’ person or not, if I had a sense of humour, if I was too sensitive, if I was just a total bitch, and possible past experiences were all scrutinised. One man was adamant that I just didn’t like people and therefore shouldn’t get trains.

Not one word was spoken about the High Vis Jacket Ringleader. Not one word. He got off this conversation as the victim of a malicious killjoy, bent on destroying a fun-loving man. His nationality, age, personality, style of delivery, sense of humour, attitude and motive for saying such a thing were not discussed.

Speaking up

One caller even suggested that if it should happen to his daughter he hoped she would be clever enough to have a witty comeback, rather than communicate with the correct channels. This is when I despaired. mean what is next? Should we tell victims of racism to just get better at responding to mildly racist remarks rather than solving the problem of the source of the mildly racist remark? Should we tell them that it’s just a bit of banter and they need to ‘get a life’.

In offenses of a sexual nature, the victim is scrutinised, held up and examined. A microcosm of this took place on that show. A few brief mentions were made that no one condoned what the man did, but these comments were made more as a precursor to castigate me further. ‘No one is saying he should have done it, but…’, kind of like that old chestnut ‘I’m not racist, but…’ I was made to feel guilty about getting this man in trouble, when the only person who should be feeling guilt and shame, should be the perpetrator. An opportunity to discuss issues around street harassment was totally and purposefully missed.

How often do we preach to children that if they feel unsafe, to say something? That if they feel threatened, to say something? That should not stop in adulthood. We should help to make the world be a safer place for women by calling out those people who make it feel unsafe.

Put yourself in a woman’s shoes

If you still think I’m just a boring dry shite with no sense of humour, and you’re okay with women getting shouted at and about by strangers in the streets, work with me for a moment. Imagine that you’re in the High Vis Jacket Gang. Your daughter opposite them – alone. Or it’s your friend’s daughter, or your niece. Imagine it’s someone you care about. Bring her face into your mind.

Now imagine that one of the gang shouts over that he would like his face to be next to her genitals. Watch the slow, dawning realisation on her face. Watch it crumple as the others in the group snigger. Your colleague has embarrassed her, made her painfully self-conscious and insecure, but that’s her problem because he was only being funny. It’s not his fault if she doesn’t have a sense of humour.

Watch her become flustered and self-conscious as she storms away, as far away from you and your cronies as she can get. Now laugh with the group. It’s a joke isn’t it? Everyone else is laughing.

Go on, laugh.

Mia Doering is an English language teacher and trainee psychotherapist. She is currently researching a non-fiction book on sexual violence against women.

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