Posts Tagged ‘groping’
On Sunday I walked out of the front row of a burlesque show during a song about intimate partner violence. If you think you’ve read this post before, you kind of have, except that I had less courage in the last one. This time I’d had chance to think. I’d already sat through a song about killing a lover who wants to leave, and displaying his dismembered body parts. As the audience applauded at the end I’d stared at the performer, hoping he’d catch my eye. I’d told the lover how upset I was during the interval. When the performer returned in the second half I was hopeful. He’d been fairly funny during the song before the abusive, murderous one, he’d sung about dogging. But, no, he sang, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, and if you leave me I’m going to kill you.” It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny twice. I couldn’t sit through it, I couldn’t sit still. Also, I kind of needed to pee. So I left. When I returned, the compere asked, “Were you somewhere important?” That’s when I told the all the people at the Lowry that I was offended by the act. I guess the singer heard, too.
So now I’ve been upset by people singing about violence towards their partners at two burlesque events. Is it just coincidence? Or is it a genre?
The odd thing about this particular performer is that I know people he knows. Hell, I like people he knows, and they like his performances. So I began wondering whether they had heard the song very differently, in a different context. We’ve all made jokes that have fallen flat because we told them in the wrong place, to the wrong people. Like when an assistant got me to try on a particularly zipped and pocketed pair of cycling trousers with Velcro cuffs, and I told him they would be ok if I was going camping with dykes. The joke would have been ok if he’d known I’ve fallen for butch women, that I’m a card-carrying SM Dyke.
About a week after I saw Joe Black, I came across this interview with the author of 50 Shades of Grey. Everything that I’ve read about this book encourages me to hate it. Everything that I’ve read of this book (the first page, while stood in Sainsbury’s) convinces me it is very, very badly written. It’s Twilight fan fic, Twilight being a series that glamourizes abusive relationships in books for impressionable teenagers. I hate this book because it represents BDSM as unsafe and non-consensual, and represents kinksters as traumatised and damaged. And most of all, I hate this book because I’ve nearly finished writing a novel about kinky relationships, and I don’t like the idea that it will be lumped in with, or worse, compared to, this trash. I’m writing about kink honestly and wholeheartedly, and I’m looking at a success that tells big fat lies about it. I’m primed to hate.
But…the woman’s kind of sweet. She says the book is her midlife crisis. She’s amusing about frantically tapping it into her phone on the train. And she happily admits that she can’t write. I begin to wonder, am I
hating something out of context?
If my flatmate was an avid Twilight reader, I would sigh, and get her a copy of Wuthering Heights packaged for Twilight readers for Christmas. I wouldn’t be angry with her. If for two years she spent all her spare time obsessively writing out her erotic fantasies, I’d try to get her out more. In fact, I’d take her to kinky events where she could meet similar obsessives, who write their own sexual fantasies on their blogs. I wouldn’t be angry with her, although I might hope that her life picks up soon.
When you’re writing a blog for your kinky acquaintances on Fetlife you don’t have a responsibility to represent kinky people or play in any particular way. When you’ve sold 2 million copies of a book, that’s 2 million people you’ve misinformed. I’m sure she didn’t write it with that many people in mind, but there you go. The audience matters.
Which leads me back to Mr. Joe Black, and his audience at the Lowry. The lover pointed out that he normally plays to audiences of Goths. Much as I’m sure there is intimate partner violence in the Goth community, it would have sounded much more like an amusing take on Gothic eroticisation of death. In the bar he’s playing soon in York, Stereo, the audience would be a bit less mainstream, and the song would sound less like it’s reinforcing mainstream values. The Lowry, unfortunately, has the most thuggish audience I’ve ever seen at a burlesque show. Slippery Belle there featured a man yelling, “Show us your tits!” at the compere, and being cheered by a significant proportion of the audience. At this show, the compere made a song and dance (literally) about being gay, but the prevailing assumptions were that the audience was straight. The female performers draped themselves over the men, never the women. A singer danced with a man two chairs away from me, he groped her, she pushed him off, and he groped her again. Sexual violence, albeit in a form all of us have experienced, wasn’t a distant possibility, it was going on right there. The reality of people killed by their partners as they try to leave was a bit too close.
From now on, I’m going to try hard to ensure my writing communicates its tone effectively enough that the contents can’t be misunderstood. If it’s a fantasy about schoolgirl canings, there should be no way that you can think that I believe schoolgirls ought to be caned, if it’s my personal take on what it’s like to be a splosher, you should be conscious throughout that I have never practiced, nor knowingly conversed with a practitioner of, sploshing. It will be good for my writing, and it would be good for us all to take a little more responsibility for what we say. Don’t let the bastards think you agree.
Only two novels have ever made me sob in a café. I don’t mean that I blinked a couple of tears from my eyes and looked around soulfully. My face was smeared with the tears I’d unsuccessfully tried to wipe away, my nose was running and, as I came up on the worst bits, I made little mewling sounds. I put the book down and breathed slowly to regain control, but couldn’t stop reading for more than a few seconds. One of the books those books was Anna Karenina. The other was ‘Taming the Beast’.
The first time I read it I was in a spin for a week. Near the end I was in a café in Derry, ignoring my lunch, unable to stop reading, but pausing sometimes to search for a dry patch of handkerchief. My boyfriend came back from his errand to find me with a red, puffy face and a bowl of cold broth. I tried to explain: he was dangerous, she was going to let him have her, and I wanted her to, and I wanted him to, and it was so, so, awful. A week later he bought me a copy of ‘The Courage To Heal’, he clearly thought that the only explanation for such twisted thinking was the trauma of abuse. Lacking any such history, though, I’m still looking for other reasons.
I’ve reread the book twice this year. It’s about a girl who loves poems and her English teacher, the affair they have when she’s fourteen and the affair they have when she’s twenty-two. It’s got white panties, asphyxiation, a precocious girl and a stern older man, but my reaction goes beyond my list of kinks. It isn’t porn, there’s an emotional truth it in that I can’t quite decipher.
The first time I read it, I’d just finished ‘Daddy’s Girl’, a story about a woman who plays the little girl to her sadistic ‘Daddy’. It’s a story that starts as porn, for those of us who like that sort of thing: naughty girls being spanked, special clothing to be torn off during rapes in the garden, a rich, sophisticated man who knows his girl is special.* It becomes a story about how reality reasserts itself: Daddy’s doesn’t always know best and sometimes he isn’t there when you need him, you might just have to stand on your own. That upset me, because I want the fantasy of an older man who’ll always love me and always make things right. I want it the same way I think some people want God, as a self-validation and a safety net rolled into one. All the same, ‘Taming the Beast’ leaves me with a greater sense of loss.
In ‘Daddy’s Girl’ the narrator loses her Daddy when she realises that the man can’t live up to the fantasy. Sarah, the narrator of ‘Taming the Beast’, sees her lover’s self-justifications, his blaming her for his loss of control, the fact that his need to beat her is at odds with his position as the sensible, caring adult who should be in charge. Sarah is under no illusions, she knows he’s a sadistic criminal, and she wants it, she’ll give up everything for it. She doesn’t care if she dies.
Then he lifted his head, looked into her eyes and slapped her hard across the face. ‘Dear God, Sarah! Why won’t you let me do this right? Why won’t you let me treat you with respect?’
Sarah knew that he could not see how ridiculous his question was. He didn’t see that biting her legs and slapping her face was less satisfying than a mutually satisfying screw. She didn’t know why this intrigued her when any sane person would be disturbed. She could see the twisted logic, the distorted morality, the dangerous self-justification; it’s just that she didn’t mind.
I think that’s what upsets me. Not only seeing the limitations of the fantasy, as in ‘Daddy’s Girl’, but knowing that the impulse doesn’t dissipate, even when it is demonstrated that it’s flawed. There’s something akin to Sarah’s decision at the centre of most of my kinks, the choosing something without reference to the self. Submission involves a suppression of the self, pain reduces the self by narrowing focus to sensation and shutting everything else out, and pain that seems unbearable is not only engrossing, but pushes you to a limit at which you’ll happily give up anything, if only that will make it stop. Pain trumps integrity. In a sense, my kinks involve chasing dissolution of myself, and I’m sad that I can’t take it as far as the impulse goes, because I have other priorities: staying alive, achieving something, independence from fallible lovers and crutches.
On the other hand, interesting and Bataillian as this analysis is, I do wonder if my feelings are baser. I envy Sarah her story. I want to be the girl whose teacher loves her enough to risk seducing her, beat her, teach her poetry and come back for her eight years later when she’s all grown up. I’m disappointed that I can’t have that in real life, which seems mundane and filled with ordinariness and washing up in comparison. Then it struck me that I did have what Sarah had when I was fourteen, and it felt very different.
I was one of those teenagers who suddenly discovered the power of her sexuality and couldn’t restrain myself to trying to form a relationship with one of the boys of the best local independent. I wanted to be thought irresistible by everyone: the bus driver, the teachers, friend’s brothers, friend’s fathers, and probably any workmen visiting friends’ houses. I remember getting cold in the doorway turning the charm on the pizza delivery guy (and I got cold pizza, too). My school made us wear blue check summer dresses, primary-school style, until we were sixteen (my mother memorably told the head they were ‘a paedophile’s delight’). I used to loll in the grounds under the cherry trees, wearing daisy chain circlets and reddening my lips with sticky cherry lollipops, parodying what I was. Now, I associate the memory of my doing that with one man.
He was a friend’s father. He worked in publishing, in a low-level job that sounded much more impressive at the time. Like Sarah’s Mr. Carr, he told me I was brilliant, intelligent, and understood him like no one else. He showed me his poetry, which he’d shown no one before, not even his wife. He taught me the word ‘pertinent’. He played me the Sisters of Mercy and he told me about Ruskin’s love life. I felt special, beautiful, chosen. Then one weekend, at my friend’s sleepover, in the kitchen, next to the living room where his wife and daughter were having breakfast, he put his hand up my nightdress and onto my breast. I left the kitchen. He sat next to me on the sofa and drew my duvet across his lap. He held my hand. I thought that perhaps he was sorry. He pulled my hand across to his hot, hard penis. I looked down at his daughter sitting by our feet. I didn’t know what to say, so I just pulled my hand away, and put it, which the other, on top of the duvet.
Writing this I feel disgusted, angry, ashamed, let down by all the people who should have educated me about what to do in such circumstances (I had nails!), guilty and sad. I don’t feel turned on. For months I avoided accepting lifts and visits with varying amounts of success, for years I blamed myself, I still feel terrible that I didn’t say something to someone who could have curbed his activities. I realise that none of this was particularly hard-core, but there’s one notable thing about it: it isn’t seductive like ‘Taming the Beast’. I could argue that Sarah’s lover was more handsome, erudite, etc. He undoubtedly was from her perspective, but like me she saw through his conflicting and simultaneously held visions of who he was (and who she was, for that matter). I saw through my molester, too, but it mattered less when our shared activity was preferring poems to chemistry homework. A hand on the penis is a great clarifier: I enjoyed admiration, but wasn’t foolish enough to desire him. I knew, even then, that I was better than that.
I think my tears throughout ‘Taming the Beast’ are for a fantasy shattered. I fall into it again every time, I want to be the girl who knows her Keats so well that her teacher can’t help himself. And then, as the plot progresses, and Sarah gives up more and more (including, eventually, her studies of poetry) I want to follow her, so very badly, but I can see clearly, and I’m sad that what ought to be raging passion turns out to be nothing but gropes beside the toaster and furtive grabbing under a duvet while watching daytime television.* I’m crying for the limited nature of every role play scene, and the fact that I have to be a grown up and look after myself.
I’ve read it twice this year, and I know it backwards. I want more books like this in my life. So, dearest readers, since you’ve made it through 1,500 words of post, will you do one more thing for me? Tell me which books leave you off-balance and make you ask questions about who you are. I do so very much want to know.
*It’s unfortunately got all the hallmarks of paperback pornography, too: long passages during which the author describes her bottom, and a world in which inappropriate behaviour is always an accepted sexual advance. I can’t think what would be said if I decided to take a bath with the door open half way through one of my friend’s parties. I imagine it wouldn’t be, “that Not, she just can’t help doing sexy things!” Feel free to invite me to better parties.
**This point could be made just as well with ‘Lolita’, but everyone’s already read that, and they should be spending more time talking about Nabokov’s amazing language, narratorial perspective and tension, anyway.
Looking around the room at a Modern Jive class, at women’s dresses and men’s lumbering attempts to find the beat, I suspect that many go to jive to meet people. They’re guaranteed thirty-odd snatched conversations, each with someone of the opposite sex, during a lesson. They’re also guaranteed numerous opportunities to slide their hand over someone’s buttocks, something that seems to happen to me “accidentally” several times a night. In an angry moment I told one perpetrator that I’d slap him if he did it again. “I was feeling for your hand,” he said. We haven’t danced again.
Because of men like him, I try to keep my distance from those I dance with. I don’t want to inadvertently indicate that I’m open to being groped. In fact, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m there for anything but four and a half minutes of dancing, in case they start asking impossible questions about whether I’d like their number or to go for a drink.
Then I got to Stockport. I’m not quite sure how it happened; I think it started with a scream.
I was with a good dancer. This became clear during the first few bars and fear rushed in, knocking me off the beat. The first dance with someone good is like an audition; if you screw up, he’s not going to ask again. I imagine myself stuck, going over the same tired moves with men who never master the basics, knowing there’s nothing to be learned that way. Surprisingly, though, I wasn’t a disaster. I was keeping up, I was spinning, I was—oh God, I was nearly on the floor! That was how he discovered that I scream when thrown towards the ground and deftly caught. He pulled me onto my feet and smiled at me through my messy hair and flustered expression.
I think he took joy in hearing me scream. Over the next couple of weeks, I tried to suppress it as he whirled me into dips and drops, but surprise and terror always took over. As he was leading me off the dance floor, with my heart racing and a sheen of sweat on my forehead, another man caught my arm. He said, enigmatically, that his friend had told him about me. I didn’t have time to wonder about that, as I was again hurtling downwards. There was a definite smile as he heard me squeal. The evening ended with the pair of them competing for the best scream. I think it was a draw. It was also rather fun.
One of the things about being thrown towards the floor is that, as you’re grabbing on to your partner on the way down, you don’t think too much about the signals you might be giving. On at least one occasion I’ve left four little cresent-moons in his shoulder, but it hasn’t put him off any more than the screaming did. Slowly, my resistance to touching my partners has worn down. Touching is better than lying, broken on the floor. Well, in most cases, anyway.
Last week, the second the man asked if I would make fixed couple with him during the class, rather than join the rotating group. When I saw the routine we were going to learn, I nearly changed my mind. At one point, I was to hook my leg around his thigh, where he could sink his fingers into the flab above my knee and pull me close. Then (and this is the worst bit) we were to wiggle. If I’d been in the main group I’d have quietly sloped off at this point. He was there, though, and it was too late.
I faced him, standing self-conciously in his personal space. He looked at me. I looked at him. He raised his eyebrows. I raised my leg, very slightly, to within a couple of inches of his hand. He grabbed it behind the knee and hauled it up, pulling me closer with a hand on my back so that we met in the middle. He had a squidey belly. There was a very clear moment in which I thought, “Gosh, I can feel his willy!” I pulled away. We practiced variations on that move, leans, wiggles and all. I just couldn’t do them. It was as if getting myself to into position was as much as my prudish body could muster. I certainly wasn’t going to wiggle against any man’s crotch on command! Being there at all was a shock.
Last night, with another man (the good dancer above, if you’re keeping track) I think I cracked it. After a dance (several quiet squeals, one “eek”) he offered to show me how to do some of the difficult moves, rather than just inflict them upon me. I agreed. I did, at one point, end up on the floor, but I was slowly lowered there, rather than crashing down, and he did say sorry. As he took me through the moves slowly, as we traded sweat and overbalanced and as I collapsed against his chest in giggles, the physical intimacy we’d been building grew. I have to admit I liked it.
I love the feeling of being physically comfortable with someone. My relationship choices have improved since I discovered that it’s the activity, rather than the person, which inspires my fuzzy warm response. I have to like the individual, but I don’t need to settle down with him or her and plant a rose garden.
Is this the perfect solution to my craving for contact? Evenings of dancing close with men who take my breath away and always catch me before I hit the floor? Or am I, as I wondered afterwards, setting myself up for a fall? What if I don’t feel like doing the willy-move the next time? May I decide on a track-by-track basis, or have I granted closeness for all time? Will other men watching assume that they may do the same when they dance with me? Do the men secretly feel molested by such close contact, but too manly to say? It’s a minefield.
I’m going to give it a whirl. Hopefully it will all work out. There’s one thing I know I need to do though. I’ve caught myself, more than once, supported in the arms of the man who has just made me scream, gazing up at him with a look of fear, betrayal and excitement as I bite my lip. That’s an expression I wear all too often in kinky scenes, and those are two worlds it would be best not to mix. For now.
Last New Year, as I stood in a crowd watching the fireworks and feeling a stranger’s hand squeeze my bum, I made a resolution. I was going to stand up to gropers, harassers, wannabe-rapists and people who refused to read my subtle signals. I wasn’t going to put up with it any more, because putting up with it only encourages them. If I was to become a shrill harpy of a feminist in the process, so be it. I didn’t have a specific plan, just a vague anger towards the people who think my body isn’t exclusively my own.
I should have made a plan. As it turns out, not suppressing my first reaction usually leaves me feeling guilty as well as grubby and violated. A couple of months ago, when a man passing on the street leant close to my ear and said, “nice tits,” I didn’t reasonably respond with, “I object to your sexually harassing me,” but choked out, “fuck off!” at an inappropriate volume. When a man touched me last week, I said if he did it again I’d kick him in the balls. While he didn’t seem too phased, I’m ashamed of myself for threatening violence. If violence is ever the solution to anything, surely it should be the last resort.
None of my readers have admonished me. If anything, those who responded implicitly supported my reaction. The notion that violence is acceptable in these circumstances seems to be widespread, look at the comments on this post, for example. I can see why. There’s a fire in it. The same fire I felt when I first read this:
Lots of women (men didn’t dare comment on the subject) stood up to publically declare: “How revolting, we absolutely must not consider that violence is an answer to rape.” Why not? You never see news items about girls—alone or in gangs—biting the dicks of men who attack them, or trailing their attackers to kill them or beat them lifeless. This only happens, for the moment, in films directed by men. [...] You see how men, if they were women, would react to rape. A bloodbath of merciless violence. Their message is clear: why don’t you defend yourselves more fiercely? [...]
But women still feel the need to say that violence is not the answer. And yet, if men were to fear having their dicks slashed to pieces with a carpet knife should they try to force a woman, they would soon become much better at controlling their “masculine” urges, and understanding that “no” means “no”. I wish I’d been able to escape the values instilled in my gender that night [when I was raped], and slit each of their throats, one by one.
Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory, trans. Stephanie Benson (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009), pp.36-37.
There’s something very seductive in that. I could write all of my pain on the bodies of men who invaded mine, those who raped me, groped me, squeezed me, prodded me with their erect penises or otherwise made me feel violated and afraid.* In so doing I would send a message to all of the others. Maybe if I’d punched that man on Portland Street, he wouldn’t rub his dick against any more women.
On the other hand, maybe he’d have punched me back, harder, and left me bleeding on the ground. I didn’t reform one rapist even after breaking two of his toes. When I hit a colleague, reacting to a girl shouting, “get this man away from me,” my boss told me I’d done the right thing, then went off to advise the man against carrying out his threat of breaking my arm in retaliation. I’d done a great job at de-escalation as you can see!
I think there are two reasons why, on some level, accept a violent reaction in these situations. One is that it proves you meant “no.” I would be very hesitant to turn up at a police station to tell them about rape or sexual abuse without a scratch on me. I don’t think I would be believed. I’d be even more reluctant to fight back hard, though, because I’d rather be raped and alive than unraped and dead or seriously injured. I guess I’m weird that way.
The other reason is that women are seen as weak. Lashing out at men, they can look like the poor, victimised underdogs going after the baddie and grinding him into the dust. It’s an empowering image. The might of the powerful being used against the weak is not. The flaw in this view (apart from its obvious inaccuracies) is that the violent reaction is only acceptable because we’ll lose. Its premise is our weakness, our vulnerability. I’m allowed to hit him, because it won’t really hurt, he’s tough. If we all started punching men who touched us uninvited tomorrow, I suspect the result would be the same horrible power dynamics and black eyes all round. If it wasn’t, soon campaigners would be calling for an end to the reign of terror, and suggesting solutions for the oppressed underdogs: the men.
I got it wrong last week. Threatening to kick a man in the balls felt like standing up to him, but I was positioning myself to lose. I’ve replayed it in my mind many times since, and I still don’t have the answer. It’s nearly a year since I first resolved to do it, and I still don’t know how to confront the gropers. Do you? Will you tell me how?
*Apart from the ones who made me feel violated and afraid in a good way: Sade, Nietzsche and a few others. You know who you are. You all deserve cuddles and cake.
I just threatened a man with violence, then bought Christmas cards. Well, Season’s Greetings cards, actually, because they’re for the Amnesty Card Campaign and I don’t want to offend non-Christians. I don’t want to offend anyone, me.
Except this man in a tracksuit on Portland Street in Manchester. I want to do a lot more than offend him. I want to punch him in the face and kick him until he cries. I don’t even know his name and I hate him. I’m a more violent person than I knew.
I got up this morning, looked out of the window and wondered if I could bring myself to leave the house. It is one of those days that looks inviting but numbs your fingers and scorches your throat when you go out. I decided to run a couple of errands on the bike and call it exercise. Knowing I would have to put everything in the wash when I got home I put on a pair of lycra trousers which have been chewed at one cuff by my bicycle and a jumper with at least two holes in it. I thought about tidying my hair, but it was only going to be crushed under my helmet. I looked decidedly scratty, but who cares? I was returning library books, and retrieving lost property, not going on the pull.
I got to the cafe where I abandoned possessions yesterday, locked my bike up and the pushed on the doors. It was closed. I harrumphed quietly in frustration and went back to my bike, listening to Linkin Park (yes, Linkin Park, I never pretended to have a sophisticated taste in music) being loud and angry through my earphones. I bent over my bike to coax the lock open. After a few seconds I felt something press—no, poke—against my buttocks. I straightened up, right into the body of a man standing immediately behind me. I jumped, I even made a little, involuntary noise of surprise. Stepping away from the man, I said, at a volume I couldn’t judge because my earphones were in, “what are you doing?” I couldn’t hear his reply over Linkin Park. I jerked them out of my ears and said, “What?”
“Oh, yeah, I was just going to ask you the time.” The man grinned.
I held up my bare wrist, “Sorry, I don’t wear a watch.” I had a few seconds to reflect on the fact that I had just apologised to the stranger who, I realised with gross clarity, had just been jabbing me with his erect penis, before he grabbed my arm and said,
“The thing is, yeah, my mate’s over there,” he gestured vaguely up the empty street, “and I was going to get behind you and do this, right?” He spread his arms and legs wide and thrust his hips forward in an obscene motion, then he laughed.
“Next time,” I said, “I’ll kick you in the balls.”
“Yeah,” he said, “do that!”
I wheeled my bike around and started to walk away. He grabbed my arm again. I wrenched free. “Don’t touch me,” I said, and again, louder and shriller as I reached the curb, “don’t touch me!”
I cycled aggressively, dangerously, and then shot people dirty looks as I browsed for Christmas cards. I turned the volume up loud and listened to Nickelback on the way home. It didn’t help. I feel dirty, angry, and ever so slightly ashamed. I’ve been a professional peace worker. People have spent real money on my mediation training. I’m a fair way to being a pacifist. All that, and after one touch I’m threatening violence. He wanted a reaction and he got it, which makes me angrier still.
“There’s always one creep,” a man said to me last week, before twirling me around and semi-ironically staring at my breasts, “at least one.” I have to say that I like this man. He’s one of my regular dance partners, a proper Yorkshire man, quiet to the point of gruffness, who teases me over the inordinate quantity of hair with which I occasionally hit men in the face (entirely by accident) as I twirl. I’ve brought him cake and he’s offered to have a whip-round so I can pay for a proper haircut. We get on, but he doesn’t understand about the creeps.
I’ve just about had it with the creeps. I used to have better tolerance levels. I used to be able to think it was a laugh, that it was an odd sort of compliment to receive someone’s attention. If I’m entirely honest, I’ve sometimes been a little disappointed not to have been the object of more creepiness. There are so many books about young, beautiful things catching the eyes of teachers and uncles, throwing them into paroxysms and crises which I would have been flattered to cause.
I didn’t have the sun-kissed body, slender legs and shiny hair of the charming teenager of those novels. I didn’t even have a white tennis skirt. Instead I had a cloud of frizzy hair and the pale complexion that comes of spending too much time in the library with a dusty volume of Tennyson. So when I did meet my first creepy man, he wasn’t of the vintage car and picnic hamper variety, he was a hairy homunculus with an overworked wife and a study full of poetry books. We read each other’s poems, he talked about Ruskin, I flirted outrageously and one day at his daughter’s sleepover he put my hand on his penis. Suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore.
I didn’t tell anyone and I did my best to avoid him. It took me years to work out that it wasn’t my fault.
That’s the problem with creepy men. You’re never sure whether you’re imagining the creepiness. Afterwards, instead of feeling angry, you feel guilty, and keep it to yourself. You think that to be getting that sort of attention you must be doing something wrong.
Now I wonder, if I had told someone, what would have happened. Would he have been dragged off to prison for molesting underage girls, or would someone have had a quiet word with me about being more careful in future?
I was rather blasé about the creeps after that. Nothing that bad was going to happen, I thought. To my credit, I was right. I managed to wriggle out of the grasp of every creep. Even when my boss pressed several glasses of rice wine on me and sent me home in a taxi alone with a colleague who’d been trying to get into my pants all evening. It somehow culminated in him declaring I was like a daughter to him and putting me on the phone to his very confused wife. All part of a colourful experience, I thought as I plotted a route off-campus which wouldn’t take me past his office.
I don’t know why I attract the creeps. I don’t know why, the last time I was in London, I was asked out by three men between the tube station and my friend’s house, or why, the time before, someone followed me to her door. I don’t know why it’s me who men choose to feel up when we’re dancing, or why they think that I will be receptive to their advances as they offer a phone number or a walk home. Are you thinking that these things happen to all women, not just to me? I know that they happen to me significantly more than they do to my friends, I don’t know how often they happen to you. More importantly to me, I honestly don’t know why they happen. I’ve been through so many reasons. Am I too friendly, too smiley, too open, too likely to flirt, too sluttily dressed? I’ve tried changing my behaviour in all sorts of ways, but it keeps on coming. I begin to think that blaming myself is like feeling guilty for having conversations about poetry when I was fourteen. It’s wasn’t my action, it was his.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to find a polite way to tell a man twice my age that I’m really not interested. I’ve been hiding behind pillars to avoid a man at dancing who stares at me. I don’t know if he still does it, as I’m scared of encouraging him by looking his way. Last night a man put my hand on his penis again, this time over his trousers. When you’re in the middle of a crowded room, snatching your hand away from someone’s crotch, you do begin to ask what’s going on.
I still don’t think anything terrible is going to happen. Dance halls are not good venues for assault, sexual or otherwise. Overfriendly middle aged men are more lonely than violent. All the same, I can’t tell you how much I wish they would stop.
I’ve tried telling people about the staring man. I’m told that he’s reacting to my nice dress, that he thinks I’m attractive. It’s been implied that I’m paranoid. It’s difficult, apparently, watching women dance. There’s always one creep, it’s no big deal. Some men find it difficult to interact with women, we should make ourselves clear. The men don’t take it seriously; I wonder if they have considered who they are aligning themselves with?
At midnight last night I scanned the room to see if anyone was available for the last dance. An overweight man lumbered towards me, and I thought “if he waddles, rather than walks, how is he going to dance?” Nevertheless, I politely accepted his invitation, on the basis that good manners cost me only the length of a single track. I submitted to being pressed into his sweaty side and having my hips and waist pawed for a couple of minutes, then escaped his clutches. A couple of minutes later he appeared beside me and leered, “are you here alone?” At the same moment I realised I’d lost my keys. I was stranded twenty miles from my locked house, in the middle of the night, with a creepy man who wouldn’t leave me be. I tried to shake him by walking to the car park and back, but he waited. I repeatedly told him I’d be fine, but he lurked, and as the crowd cleared I realised I would soon be alone with him. I thought I’d managed to lose him, but he pulled up in a car and told me to get in. I was rescued by a woman half my height and weight, who told him, in no uncertain terms, where to go.*
She made me very, very happy.
I’ve had enough of creepy men. You should have, too. On a bad day I feel as if I’m living my life under siege. I think if a single one of the men I’ve mentioned it to understood that, they wouldn’t make excuses for the starers, the pinchers, the feelers and the lurkers. They wouldn’t want to think of themselves as in the same category. They don’t have to do anything inappropriately manly, there’s no need for a confrontation, but, men, I could do with a hand. If you see me struggling to get away from another creep, because there’s always going to be another one, you could make your presence known. Perhaps you could even whisk me off for a nice, chaste dance. I can’t tell you how much I would appreciate it.
*It isn’t relevant to creepy men, but you might like to know that my rescuer and her friend, both good friends of my father, calmed me down, drove me home, offered to climb up ladders and through windows, but didn’t have to because I had neglected to lock the back door. United with my spare set of car keys, I was driven back to my car and not left alone until they’d checked I was happy, safe and sufficiently fuelled. Some people are just amazing.
I’ve been having violent fantasies for two days. Not the good sort, where I close my eyes and imagine a big strong man who wants to have his wicked way with me, in spite of my insincere protests (note for men: don’t try doing this is real life unless you want a rape conviction). No, these are fantasies of turning to the stranger who grabs my bum in a crowd and punching his face until blood and bone fragments are trickling from his nose. Or driving my knee hard into a groper’s crotch and watching him double up in pain. Bashing the rape apologist’s face into his computer screen witnessing him trying to extract the glass shards from his eyes. I could go on, but I’m sure you’d rather I didn’t.
I’m not a violent person, generally. I once broke two of my ex-boyfriends toes after he hit me and then stood between me and the door, but I feel that was justified. I’m mostly quite peaceable. I’ve worked for peace-building organisations. So the violent images running through my mind are rather disconcerting.
I think I know where it started. Yesterday I was walking along Blackfriars Road, deeply involved in conversation with a friend. A passerby leaned in close and said “nice tits.”
I would love to believe that you are sitting behind your computer screen thinking “what a git!” but I’m a realist, so I will add this information: I had paid the man no attention, and, in fact, was hardly aware of him until I heard his voice. I was wearing an ankle-length skirt and a woolly jumper, no heels, no make-up and no revealing clothing. So whatever version of “asking for it” you can come up with, I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.
It would be lovely to live in a world where men didn’t think it was appropriate to comment on my breasts as I walk down the street, but I’m a realist and I don’t ask for too much. Wherever my personal comfort zone is, someone will always act outside it. Some people are socially inept and some people delight in provoking reactions, especially negative ones, and will do whatever necessary to get one. I know all this, but the comment got to me, all the same.
As these sorts of experiences accumulate, I feel like I’m under siege. Every woman has tales to tell. The comment on Blackfriars Road was so ordinary that the friend I was with didn’t even feel the need to comment on it. Since then, I’ve mentioned it to two women, and both of them had stories of harassment: a man sat next to my friend on a train wouldn’t stop rubbing his leg against hers; another friend has been followed home my numerous men.
Don’t get me wrong, I think flirting is great. I think spontaneous compliments are lovely and I very much enjoy the sensation of a hand stroking my bum (or smacking it, but that’s another story). I even like it when men come home with me. The thing is, I like to choose the men. In general, it’s best to wait for an invitation. If it’s true of calling in for a cup of tea, it is certainly true of grabbing my privates. You don’t need a high level of socialisation to work that out.
I’m tired of men saying “it could have been a misunderstanding” about everything from inappropriate comments to rapes. You don’t need to be highly skilled in non-verbal communication to interpret a woman edging away from you. You don’t have to get stuck in a quandary of “does she want it or not?” for the entire duration of the life of your vocal chords: you can simply ask. The most compelling evidence to show that miscommunication isn’t a relevant excuse, though, is the satisfied smirk on the face of the man on Blackfriar’s Road. I saw him gloat.
Men, I challenge you. Next time you witness, or hear of a woman being harassed, don’t offer possible excuses for the aggressor. There’s no need to be defensive, the woman isn’t using her harasser as a specimen to critique all men. Instead, try to put yourself in her place. There’s nothing a woman can do to defend herself. Even if I had the strength and speed to enact a violent revenge, I don’t really want to do it. I just want to be able to walk down the street unmolested. I have a woman’s body, so there’s nothing I can do to achieve that goal. No matter what I wear, how I act, the gits keep coming. Imagine living with that every day and then, perhaps, praise our restraint.
Somebody hurt me last night with something they said. They made me feel worthless and angry. I don’t think it was deliberate. The words were “I bet everyone wants to dance with you, you’re the prettiest girl in the room.”
I’m sure most people reading this, up to and including the lesbian separatists, are thinking “he paid you a compliment, what’s your problem?” Perhaps you even suspect me of boasting about my attractiveness from behind a veil of feminism. The truth is, I was honestly upset. After years of not entirely understanding why feminists can’t take a compliment, I finally got it.
I’ve been going to the same Modern Jive class once a week for months. Every week I’ve danced with this man. I’ve been happy when he’s said that my dancing is improving, and tried to thank him without looking too pleased with myself. I’ve been comfortable with him. I wasn’t about to invite him round for late-night Cointreau and a heart-to-heart, but he was one of the people who made Wednesday evenings good.
Then he said I was pretty. Not only that, but he said that the reason men want to dance with me is because I’m pretty. Not because I can dance. Not even because I can’t dance, but they would like to help me learn. No, the reason men dance with me is because I’m pretty; how good I am isn’t a relevant factor.
I got to wondering why men want to dance with pretty women. Is it just to bask in their presence? Is it to be seen on the dance floor in their company? Or is it, the thought nibbles on the edge of my mind, to cop a feel? Modern jive requires physical contact. Some moves put people in your personal space, others involve quite a bit of physical touching. Usually you get a choice about how close to get (the last time an instructor invited the ladies to press their pelvis against the man’s buttocks and wiggle, I declined), but often you don’t, and it is easy to engineer a bit of touchy-feely with a stumble, or by spinning the lady off balance. From that thought on, I’m flicking through my mental catalogue of dance partners, wondering who touched me for the purpose of the dance, and who had ulterior motives. Is that man sweating due to exertion or arousal? Is this one really unsure where my hips are, or just trying his luck? Paranoia is setting in.
I’m sure the man who said I was pretty thought he was being nice. Most girls like to be told they are beautiful. It would be lovely to think that I really was the prettiest girl in the room last night (I wasn’t, but she’s straight, so never mind). I want to be more than pretty, though. I want to be clever and well-read, to make great meringues and write interesting stories. My looks have no effect on my ability to understand ‘Madame Bovary’ or whip egg whites. Tell me I’m pretty, by all means. There’s a comments box just down there. While you’re at it, if you could tell me why men want to dance with pretty women, and testify that it isn’t about feeling them up, you’d put my mind at ease. And the next time you’re about to compliment someone’s looks, consider mentioning their meringues, or their intelligence, or their dancing, as well.