The very act of walking as a woman…

This week has been a tough one for a lot of reasons. This year has been tough. So let me start by saying that I know my privilege.

I am white. I live in a country where I got a almost free university education. I have a job. I have a driving license. And I own a wee car.

I grew up in a city. Not in the suburbs but right in the city. Until I was 14, I was walking distance from a theatre, department stores, the city’s main train station, bus station, a football stadium, a waste disposal plant…

I was the child of a single parent.

My stair was generally full of lovely neighbours who had lived there for longer than I. An elderly couple across from us. Various people on the top floor. A retired lady and her adult daughter underneath us.

My friend and I first had a taste of ‘stranger danger’ when we were very young. Somewhere between 6 and 8. We were playing in a council car park on our street which was empty at weekends. A man offered us ‘sweets’ from a matchbox. We said no and ran to her house and told her Mum.

Police were regular visitors to our stair, as men…mostly ‘professionals’ we found out later who took fun after football games going down the streets and smashing car windows, slashing tyres. So our rusty fiesta would be one of the victims every few months. Until they caught about 30 of them in a furniture store car park along the road from us one night.

I remember being in primary school when a man was trying to beat up (we assumed his partner) after they got into a screaming argument. My Mum was about to call the police when the lesbian couple who lived in one of the flats in a stair along from us came out and pulled the guy off her in no time.

A new couple moved in above us at some point. They would often get drunk and we would hear them running about laughing. And then something would smash. The laughing would stop, and we would hear hitting and punching. The police would come. We would see black eyes hidden behind sunglasses.

My Mum remarried, and it meant we could move to a bigger place so my brothers wouldn’t have to sleep in the living room when they came to stay, and we could get a table big enough for all 5 of us to all sit around. And it meant we could move to a better school catchment area. However, to do this afforably we had to get a very much falling apart place that it took us 3 years as a family to refurbish (doing most of it ourselves). My first 2-3 years of high school I had a long walk to school.

I could take the shorter route, down the path through a park and on an old railway path with bushes often littered with glass bottles, glue and needles inside them. My Mum didn’t like me going that way (especially on winter mornings) because it was not busy.

So I took the longer route down a main road to a crossroads and up another main road to get to a park where it would be busy with 100s of students making their way to the high school on the other side. Until one morning a man came out from a car and asked if I would help him find a buzzer to a flat, telling me he couldn’t read the names on the buzzer as he had forgotten his glasses.

It was 8 am. It was daylight. Cars were going by. But there weren’t many people. The crossroads had some walled car parks where there were garages and bigger retail outlets (your electronics, carpet stores, tyre places) none of which were open yet.

He was persistent. There was no one else around.

I refused to go in the doorway kept my distance and watch on him and pretended to look and then walked as fast as I could without seeming like I was running away scared.

From that day on, unless I could meet a friend at the crossroads, I went along the pathway. It somehow felt safer even though it was legitimately exactly the kind of place you’d imagine being where a dead body might be found.

I travelled on my own on buses. Several times I stood in bus stops where people came to smash them up. One afternoon while travelling on a bus to a dance class a brick came through the window. The bus went through the red light district and I often saw the female sex workers, and skeezy men in the cars picking them up. I also learned where to sit on the bus and saw men leering and making inappropriate comments to other women, and sometimes to me.

I was taught what ‘saunas’ and ‘beauty salons’ were actually brothels so I knew not to go near them. I knew which pubs to keep a wide berth from. I was taught to dress ‘appropriately’. When we started going ‘up town’ our parents would give us money to share a taxi, and we would plan our route so that two of us would be pretty much dropped off together. We learned to take note of the taxi number. And when we got mobile phones, we would even call one of our Mums to tell them we were in the taxi, what the number of the taxi was and where we were and how long we’d be. So the driver would hear.

When I was 16 my friend who lived in the suburbs came to stay at my house after we’d been in town. It was Saturday night and the taxi queue was long so we decided to walk home…on the main roads. We were 15 minutes from my home when a man started following us, slightly drunk cat calling. My friend from the suburbs was freaking out, she had never experienced it. My Mum had taught me from a young age what to do. So we crossed the road, I knew which parts of the street had places we could more easily be dragged into. My friend started shrieking at him to leave us alone. I told her loudly how we were almost there at ‘XXXs house’ (we weren’t) and went to go into a residential street. I got my phone out to call the police. He shouted obscenities angry and went off in another different direction. My friend burst into tears.

When we went on holiday with her family, a man stood in the street at 3 pm in the afternoon masturbating in front of us, hands down his pants as we walked down the road to the beach.

One night her holiday boyfriend insisted his friend come to the local bar with us, and then his friend kissed me and groped at me. He was bigger than me and I couldn’t get him off me. My friend saw downed her drink and dragged me out of there. Then her boyfriend tried to come into our apartment. We were pretty sure the reason why. We didn’t let him, so he dumped her. A few nights later he had a new ‘girlfriend’.

On my 16th birthday it was the last day of term so I wore my new vest top and a small cardigan over the top. Lots of us didn’t bother wearing uniform on the last day of term and teachers rarely bothered to give us punishments on the last day. One of my male classmates called out ‘Whoa! you’ve got boobs!’ I looked at him. And just said ‘Yes, I’m a girl. I’ve had them for a while now’. He genuinely meant it as a compliment, and the reason for his shock was that usually I wore baggy blouses or an oversized school sweatshirts or oversized sports jackets over my uniform. A lot of my male friends ‘complained’ that I didn’t flaunt my ‘assets’ (which were sizable F cups by then).

At university, I lost track of how many men thought it was fine to grab onto my ass or start trying to put their hands up my top in night clubs. I was very lucky I had 3 ‘big brothers’ who looked out for me. My tall rugby player friend insisted on walking me to my friend’s 21st Hawaiian themed birthday from the bus stop before heading back to the student union bar because he was worried I might get attacked by someone in the 5 minute walk.

A year later, on Hallowe’en, while I was working in my job as a night club bartender, my friend got assaulted on the 2 minute walk from our flat to her flat right in front of a church. She managed to fight them off. One of the first questions my fellow staff asked when I explained why I was upset 2 days later was ‘Was she dressed in a costume?’ like it was her fault for dressing up for Hallowe’en.

A week earlier, the regional manager of the company that own the nightclub and 2 bars in the city came to visit and called me into the manager’s office. He asked if I could possible unbutton my uniform shirt more to help ‘sell more drinks’. I stood there in shock. I told him no. I stopped getting as many shifts, and I needed the money. So I’d agreed to cover Hallowe’en. I felt guilty that my friend had been assaulted. If I hadn’t agreed to do the Hallowe’en shift we would have been out together and my flatmate and I would have walked her to her flat, because the 2 of us could have walked back to the same flat after. I quit my job.

Within 6 weeks of my friend being attacked, a male friend got jumped while cycling through the city centre and assaulted. Another male friend got mugged. A female friend had someone jump in her car and held at knifepoint until she went to a cash machine to give him money.

When I got my first youth work job, we were given panic alarms.

One night a male friend got drunk so I made sure he got home safely. He tried to pull me into his bed. Thankfully yelling at him made him realise that his behaviour was inappropriate.

Twice men tried to get into my car while driving in city centres. Each time I had someone in the car with me so I felt less scared. I learned to make sure to lock the doors as soon as I got in, just in case.

For several years I’ve had to do regular trips to London for work. I’ve had my fair share in the evenings of interesting encounters most of them being anecdotes I laughed about but the only time I felt threatened was not at 9 pm from the guy who begged me for money as he had got so drunk he had lost his oyster card, it was at 6 pm on a summers evening when they had put me in a hotel outside of central london in a more residential area. Two guys started catcalling me and shouting offensive stuff at me because I had been visibly disgusted by them spitting in the street. They followed me until I pretended to go in a street towards a tube station that was thankfully busy it being the end of rush hour.

One night on a bus a man started cat calling a girl a little younger than me. She was visibly scared, and other passengers did nothing. He went to spit at her, and she moved shrieking. He then moved seats to regain his closeness. So I moved to sit on the aisle seat next to her window one. A female passenger started calling to the driver to do something. I told him to leave her alone and then a guy finally stood up when he started having a go at me, and Mr Skeezy man went to punch the guy in the face. Only then did the driver stop, pull over and call the police. I stayed with the girl as the driver and some passengers pulled the guy off the bus and the driver locked the doors as the man started kicking the door and windows of the bus yelling at the driver to let him back on. The girl was shaking and crying. She thanked me for moving to sit next to her.

One of my boyfriends thought it would be funny to pin me to the floor showing how he was stronger (ha, ha, ha) while I screamed at him to get off me and went into a panic attack. He laughed. Until I managed to get an arm out and slapped him across the face. Only then did he unpin me. He looked at me shocked and ran out. He made out that I’d attacked him and been violent. He manipulated me into apologising to him for not being able to take his ‘joke’.

Another boyfriend got mugged one night, having just moved to a new city. He got jumped from behind. He was too embarrassed to go to the police.

Most of the women I know who have been sexually abused, raped or sexually assaulted – it’s been by people they knew and not at night. They’ve told people and not been believed because ‘those boys/men’ are good people, and it’s been assumed they led said man/boy on.

I purposefully get to know my neighbours in the hope that if something happens to me or I go missing, they’d notice and help me be found. I keep my phone by my bed in case someone breaks in during the night so I can quickly phone the police.

I will go out of my way to give friends or colleagues a lift home when it’s dark outside.

During the times in my life when I’ve lived in less desirable neighbourhoods or had to walk home from somewhere alone at night, I’ve called a friend and given a loud running commentary sharing my location so if anyone is trying to sneak attack me they are aware that someone knows exactly where I am. And also so my friend can call 999 and tell the police exactly where Iast was.

I used to choose my bus routes carefully knowing which routes were more likely to have someone on the bus that would give me hassle or creep me out.

Remember my 3 big brothers at university? All 3 of them are straight men, and you know when I got sick one of them slept in my room to make sure I was ok. When some of my fellow halls mates got drunk (one of started stripping off in front of them and everyone else with her door wide open as she got changed into pyjamas one time), they never took advantage. They were respectful. And trust me, they saw us in mini skirts. They saw our underwear. Two of them did end up dating one each of my hall-mates. In fact one of them is now married to the ‘hall-mate’ they got to know through me. So I know that guys can control themselves and it has got squat to do with our bodies and what we wear.

You might notice that through these memories I’ve shared (and there are those I’ve chosen not to share) they’ve not all been female. Because the whole issue of violence and safety at night – there’s plenty of guys who are just as much at risk…from other guys. Especially if they are part of the LGBTQ+ or seen as ‘different’.

It starts at school, with a tolerance for teasing and bullying, it starts at home with us overhearing the opinions of parents as they judge others. It begins with us thinking it unacceptable for boys to like to dance, wear dresses or pink. It begins with expecting that boys will be messy and girls will be neat. It begins with us showing on TV that men are the ones we should listen to – our politicians are men. Our news readers. The sports games we show. Who has power in the courts. Who is policing our neighbourhoods. When our economy is built on the free labour of women, and our systems give more power to the perpetrators and leave victims wondering if they’d be better off with their abusers so at least they have food and shelter.

This did not begin with Sarah Everard.

And the Black Lives Matter movement did not begin with George Floyd.

But are you listening? Are you willing to piss off your mates by pulling them up when they laugh about a girls’ tits, or think that it’s ok to grope a woman on the dance floor, or try to show you the violent porn on their phone? Are you willing to not police what your daughter wears any more than you would your son, and not make jokes that your daughter can’t date until she’s 30 while high fiving your 15 year old for getting his first kiss? Will you show in your actions that learning how to clean a bathroom, do laundry, cook meals, wash dishes is the work of all genders. And will you not be afraid of your friend, child or family member being gay, bi, non-binary, trans…because love is just love. Love is caring. Will you believe someone when they report assault? Will you make sure the first question isn’t ‘what were they wearing/doing/why were they there?’ when you find out when someone is attacked but instead ask ‘why did the attacker think that was ok?’

Will you show up to ask your politicians why Breonna Taylor’s killers walked free? Why police thought it was ok to arrest women protesting without violence? Why it is that a domestic abuse victim has to leave, but the abuser gets to stay in their home?

Listen to the women. Listen to people who have experienced racism. Learn. Go research.

Then do the work. It’s going to be exhausting.

But with any luck, the next generation are going to be looking back at us saying how they can’t believe the attitudes, laws and policies we once had.

It will seem like madness.

Because it is.