I have been meaning to write something for the last couple of months, and this isn’t it. However, this is what I’m going to write about as I think it is pertinent and relevant in the here and now.
I also wish to preface what I’m about to write by stating that it is not intended to appropriate a gender movement. Nor is it intended to mansplain, and I apologise now if it does. Instead, it is intended to support and add voice to that movement and open further dialogue. I was, in fact, unsure whether to attempt to add my voice until I saw other men do so in my Facebook feed.
I am, of course, referring to the #MeToo hashtag in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. The scale of the scandal is shocking…and yet not shocking at all. I am generally aware that women in our society still face an appalling amount of discrimination and harassment but, as a man, it is something that I, generally, do not have to suffer. Indeed, if you are fortunate enough to be a straight, white, able-bodied male in our society, or to at least masquerade amongst that group, then chances are that you find it almost unthinkable that someone could face discrimination on perhaps a near-daily basis.
And yet. Thinking about my own experiences, I recalled an instance where I was touched without my consent in a sexual manner. I thought to write about that. And then, over the course of the day, I recalled other instances, six in total, that left me feeling, to a degree, humiliated or violated after being touched inappropriately.
The first was when I was perhaps 13 or 14 years old, shopping in Meadowhall. I had left my mother and sister to clothes shopping whilst I wandered The Lanes, just off the Oasis Food Court, heading towards my favourite store that stocked a wide variety of a sci-fi and fantasy memorabilia. I was an awkward, lanky, skinny youth, uncomfortable in my own skin, dressed in clothes two-sizes too big and generally did what I could to avoid being noticed. A group of girls were walking towards me, probably a few years older, about four or five of them in total. As they passed, one of them, a brunette with shoulder-length hair wearing a denim jacket and stone-washed jeans, grabbed my bum. I whirled around, burning hot redness spreading across my face, as the girls sniggered and laughed and walked on. Now, on the face of it, you might think that is all innocent enough. Just some girls having a laugh. I wasn’t in danger – this was a public space – and of course I was a boy. Why wouldn’t I find that amusing or flattering? But let’s gender flip the scenario: a group of four or five 16 or 17 year old lads grab a 13 or 14 year old girl’s bum and laugh. It’s a bit less funny now. They would be the type of boys who’d need to be talked to about respect. Further, it was done to humiliate me. And it succeeded. I had been touched, on a part of my body that we are told and taught to think of as private and intimate, without expectation, encouragement or consent. And it had been done in a public space in full view of lots of shoppers. The powerlessness I felt at being on the receiving end of that action was acute. And short of making a scene – which I have always been loathe to do anyway – there was nothing I could do. Besides, I was boy, and they were girls. Why would anyone see that as something wrong?
The next incident was a year or so later, when I was on holiday in Tenerife. I was attempting to haggle with a market trader for a traditional African mask (no doubt mass-produced in China), in the middle of a crowded marke. In the midst of the negotiation, a hand slid from behind me, between my legs, to cup my genitals. Hard. I shot about a foot in the air, whirled around but, in a state of shock and surprise, had no idea who had just touched me. Memory suggests there was laughter; whether this is true or not, whether it was directed at me or not, I felt the same burning shame at having been touched in that fashion without my consent, a feeling of powerlessness compounding that sense of shame.
At university, I remember once being sat next to a student a year or two above me, on a night out with friends. We were sat, watching the dance floor in a club, and suddenly I felt his hand creeping up my thigh. Again, no solicitation or encouragement, no consent. Rather than risk creating a scene, I simply moved away, but whenever I saw him after that I felt a creeping revulsion, despite my own attempts to justify his behaviour as simply drunken wandering hands. A year or so later he did something similar to a friend of mine, and was subjected to a heated verbal tirade, and rightly so.
In London, two incidents spring to mind. The first was whilst I was out on a date. I was sat with my date in Village, in Soho, chatting away over drinks. There was an old gentleman sat, seemingly asleep, not too far away on my right. He appeared to be in his late sixties, dressed smartly in a suit, and dozing, or so I thought, until his hand gently slid across the cushioned seat and attempted to group my bum. Again, that instant feeling of shame and revulsion, of humiliation, which was only added to when some other patrons saw and laughed. I mean, why wouldn’t they? Some harmless old grandad trying to feel up a skinny twink? Thankfully my date also failed to see the funny side and switched says with me, with a withering look cast in the gentleman’s direction. He didn’t attempt it again.
The second incident was on a night out, some time after the Astoria had closed but before Heaven had opened in Charing Cross. The club was cramped and stifling, having something akin to its own tropical microclimate. It was heaving. I had gone to the bar to purchase drinks for me and my friends, being jostled and nudged and bumped all the while. As I waited to be served, I felt someone press against me from behind. Initially, I thought he, too, was being pushed and jostled by the teeming crowd, until it became apparent he was highly aroused, and began to gyrate his crotch against my bum. I was hemmed in, not even able to turn around, and again, didn’t want to cause a scene. It didn’t occur to me then that I might not be the only person who didn’t appreciate that kind of behaviour. I put up with the hideous behaviour long enough to get served and try to make my escape, whereupon he asked me if one of the drinks was for him. He had no understanding, no comprehension, of how odious his behaviour was, and seemed genuinely confused when I curtly snapped that they were to and stalked off.
The final scenario that comes to mind occurred only last year, on a weekend away with friends and friends of friends. The first night, there was copious amounts of alcohol for some of those gathered and one woman in particular was slightly worse for wear. Whilst chatting to her, she propositioned me, and proceeded to grab my crotch. All whilst in a room full of people. I laughed it off, made my excuses, and moved away to comment on it to a friend. To her credit, when someone told her what she’d done the next day she apologised, but as another woman there pointed out, if I had been the one to grab a woman there by her crotch, I would almost certainly have been told to leave.
The purpose of this lengthy explanation of six instances of harassment is that if I, who could generally pass for a member of the most privileged group in our society, can be accosted that number of times, how much worse is it for women in general? I personally see these instances as rather mild, and in no way attempt to suggest they are as damaging or painful as the experiences of others. But they upset me, made me uncomfortable, and left me with feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and humiliation. Now, in general, I can walk the street, go out at night, be on my own with a stranger, and not worry about any of the above events taking place. That is my privilege. This is not the case for women – this is a genuine and prevalent concern for many and that needs to stop.
Our society is so permissive of this behaviour: boys will be boys, women are such teases, it’s just what men do, it’s only a joke…
It’s never a joke. Touching another human being, particular in intimate areas, is not funny. It’s not a laugh. It is degrading and it is a violation. It does not make you more attractive or more desireable: far from it. And it is absolutely necessary that everyone, male or female, is made aware that it is completely unacceptable behaviour. Whether the target is male or female should make no difference whatsoever. Treat other human beings with respect. It should not be that difficult. It isn’t that difficult.