The other night, walking in town around 8pm, a female friend and I were accosted by a group of 6 or 7 males who looked to be in their late teens/early twenties. As we carried on chatting getting ready to pass them in the street, walking at first together, they split into two groups so that we were surrounded as we came to cross them. They offered the unoriginal but now-expected “what you doin’ tonight?” before, just as we exited the ‘tunnel’ they had formed around us, one of them cupped my hand in his for a brief moment. No, not sexual assault. Not even assault. No violence. But an assertion that I was there to be looked at in lustful glances, touched possessively, spoken to in a demeaning manner. It gave me the shivers…almost made me feel ‘dirty’. Why had he touched me?
I wrote in November about some of the issues surrounding rape in NI (‘rape jokes’, victim blaming and a culture of sexism) and more recently about rape prevention campaigns. In exploring the issue further, I have come to realise that I do not either live in blissful Bambi land where I feel safe and light and fluffy; nor do I live with the dark reality of having been raped. Whilst the act of rape is an absolute, our culture murks the waters by creating such a continuum of shades of grey that are important to consider – shades like sexism, for example. Shades in my own life, like the night my hand was cupped.
We must acknowledge the fact that in today’s society, women are still at times/often treated as though they are in the public domain, to be looked at, touched, exploited. Discussions regarding the way the media treat women aside (you have heard enough of that for one day), it also comes down to individual women’s daily lives.
I remember during my high school years feeling physically sick at the thought of walking to my day job in the morning when my usual route was diverted due to road works – it meant I had to walk past a building site, the building work undertaken by men who without fail would look and whistle and shout rudely when girls walked past. Daily. Habitually. I felt uncomfortable and would take out my phone and pretend to call someone, or put in my headphones so as to drown out their sound, or run past the buildings. (I do not wish to perpetuate the stereotype regarding those who work in the building industry, or indeed criminalise all men. Please understand that this post aims to address the effects of certain members of society; not to generalise and alienate groups. And whilst women play a part in our own objectification – something I am currently exploring, these particular occurrences happen when men are the ‘instigators’ and women the ‘receivers’, read: victims.)
There is appreciating beauty (more on that to come soon – I’m a fan, I promise), and there is acting like a buyer at a cattle market. There is feeling appreciated, and there is feeling like cattle. These experiences were instances of the latter. They are not isolated experiences. Because of this, I feel uncomfortable in so many situations. These things happen every day. Are they just a part of life? Are they normal?
They’re certainly now expected and accepted as part of society. But I will not be reduced to something to be looked at lustfully; touched inappropriately; spoken to in a reductive manner. Because I am more than that. Because the roots of these things share ground with the roots of rape.
Women are not objects.
Nor are we playthings for men’s eyes, hands, or penises.
I am not public property.