All too often women experience some form of verbal harassment, whether it’s a “nice arse”, a “slut” or occasionally, a “pussy”. Entirely dependent on the situation and the woman, we have a few seconds to decide whether we are going to respond – essentially a fight or flight decision – and most times, I jump at the chance for a fight.
Swimming in my local pool a few weeks ago, I noticed three, middle-aged men loitering by the side, making loud, obscene comments about the women steadily doing lengths. It was clear they had no intention to exercise – but instead to make the other, predominantly female swimmers feel uncomfortable. They jumped into the opposite end of the pool, directly into my path.
Splashing and shouting – the trio seemed to have evaded evolution entirely – they turned their attention to me as I entered the shallow end. “Come and sit on my knee, love,” one of them jeered, while the other two guffawed, slack-jawed. I diverted away from them and began to turn away. “Fancy a shag?” one of them called. The other women in the pool watched awkwardly, and I cast my eyes across at the children paddling opposite. Fuming, embarrassed and tired, I decided to take one for the team.
I marched – or waded – over and promptly informed the three men that I would rather sew myself up and remain sexless for the rest of my life than have relations with any of them. My fellow swimmers tittered, while I stood, trying to maintain as much dignity as possible in a late-90s Speedo swimsuit and a red face. Then the middle one came forward and hissed, menacingly: “You fucking bitch.” Fear began to set in and my heartbeat quickened. I could feel my pulse in the soles of my feet. I glanced up but the life guard was busy watching over the kids. As I turned to swim away, I could feel them watching me. After two more lengths, I got out.
It’s a myth that verbal harassment is just a bit of harmless fun. It’s about power, control and intimidation, and as I have found out from personal experience, it can easily turn into violence. Cat-calling, verbal harassment – whatever you want to call it – is never flattery. The Everyday Sexism project has received thousands of stories from girls aged eleven and twelve, who have received comments about their developing bodies while they walk to school in their uniforms. Shouting, whistles, even clicks (I watched one man whistle and click at a woman in a bar once – like a bat), are never designed to be taken as a compliment. Verbal harassment causes a flood of different emotions. Fear. Anxiety. Anger. Frustration. Impotence. Misplaced shame. But the real threat is the potential for reprisal – of what will happen to us if we respond.
I escaped unscathed. But for Oxford University student Jeanne Marie Ryan (pictured), an incident in a bar quickly escalated into bloody violence. A couple of months ago, Ryan was on a night out with friends at a bar when she was groped by a stranger. Infuriated, she turned around and told him that his actions were unacceptable. The man then punched her seven times, breaking her nose and leaving her battered, bruised and shaken. Although terrible, Ryan’s attack took place around the same time as the breast cancer awareness “selfie” trend – and by posting a picture of her bruised face, she raised £12,000 for her local rape crisis charity.
When some men ask what the big deal is – that you should “take it as a compliment” – the whole notion of verbal harassment becomes trivialised. It’s not that simple, and certainly not a brief experience. It’s horribly drawn out. Crossing the road to avoid large groups, scanning the street as you walk, clutching your keys between your knuckles, the sinking feeling of noticing someone’s eyes on your breasts, legs or arse – it all has a lingering effect on your mental health. Verbal harassment is no more of a compliment than rape is sex.
Cat-calling is a statement of power. It’s a way of telling us that a man has the right to our bodies, a right to discuss them, analyse them, praise them, criticise them – whether we like it or not. It’s dehumanising. But when we respond, however calmly or viciously, the rejection disrupts their entitlement to our bodies, which society has allowed them to believe is their given right. This leads to the violent outbursts. We might be taking our lives into our own hands, but the more we react, maybe the more this will change. That’s going to take time and while it does we must take care of ourselves.
Lydia Smith is a journalist for the International Business Times UK and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Daily Mirror and the Huffington Post. Follow her @Lyd_Carolina.
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