Saturday, 3 May 2014

Sexual assault and why it's not me who should feel shame

Last weekend, my best friend and I met for brunch at a little ‘pop up’ place in Bristol where there’s a café and a bar and a shared portakabin of toilets grouped together. It’s a lovely spot, and a real example of Bristol creative entrepreneurship. I spent a great deal of time there last summer, as really this bar is best enjoyed under the hot, hot sun.

My friend and I were talking and she said she needed to go to the loo. I told her then that when I was here last year, this guy followed me to the toilets and tried to kiss me. Confused and angry, I pushed him away and told him he was in the wrong toilets. He laughed, and shrugged, and went away.

‘Was he embarrassed?’ my friend asked, even though she knew the answer.

‘No, of course not. I was embarrassed.’

‘These guys, they just think, well it’s worth a shot, and then don’t give it another thought, do they?’ she said.

‘Right. And there I was, feeling embarrassed, and ashamed. And he had no idea about how he had made me feel. And even if he did have an idea, he simply didn’t care.’

I’d met this man a few times over the weeks I was going to the bar. There were always lots of people around, and he was friendly and chatty, and because when the sun comes out I feel friendly and chatty too, we had talked a little bit – nothing much, just a ‘isn’t this great! What a lovely venue! What lovely weather!’ I was just being friendly, and I thought he was just being friendly too.

So when I found him in the toilets, it was a bit of a shock. And then, afterwards, I found myself reviewing all my actions. Had the fact I was chatting to him given the impression that I was looking for something more? Had the fact I’d said hello given that impression? Was it my general summery breezy attitude that suggested I wanted something else? I kept asking what I had done, to provoke this man into doing what he did.

When, of course, it was what he had done that was the problem. It was him that had behaved badly, not me. So why was I the one feeling embarrassed? Why was I the one feeling like I didn’t really want to go back to the bar again, in case I saw him again, and felt awkward? Why did I feel ashamed, and like I had done something wrong, when all I had done was follow the rules that a woman should be ‘nice’ and welcoming, and he had broken all of the rules and chosen to come into the women’s toilets?

On a rational level, I knew that it wasn’t my actions that had caused this. And yet, I was the one who felt in the wrong. I was the one who felt I had ‘led him on’ by being friendly and this was the result.

It’s no surprise I felt like this. After all, this is a message women and girls get bombarded with every day.

It’s one of the great contradictions in our skewed up attitude towards sexual assault. On the one hand, we teach girls from an early age that the most important thing is to be ‘nice’. We tell them that to be argumentative, confrontational, to stand up for oneself, is ‘unladylike’. And the message is that this is especially true in women’s relations to men. It’s why I have, in the past, found myself talking to men I really don’t want to talk to, because to tell him to go away, that I’ve got better things to do with my time than talk to them, is to transgress the rule that women must be ‘nice’ and ‘accommodating.’

At the same time, we tell women that if they talk to a man, and he then assaults her, then she is to blame. We ask women what they did to ‘provoke’ the assault. We ask whether she ‘led him on’, whether she led him to believe through her behaviour that she was ‘up for it’. We don’t talk about his behaviour. We don’t talk about the fact that talking to a woman isn’t a ‘free pass’. We tell women to be nice, and then we tell her that her niceness ‘led him on’. We find a way to blame her for any violence committed against her. It’s a pretty horrendous and dangerous double bind.

In the Guardian last month, there was an article by David Foster saying that projects like Everyday Sexism, and campaigns against street harassment, are trying to destroy flirting. It was the usual bluster that seemed to miss the crucial difference between mutual flirting, and harassment and assault.

No-where in the article did it consider how women felt. No-where did it consider that one of the consequences of experiencing harassment and assault is that it might make women feel a bit wary of a man flirting with her. Nor did it consider that if that is the case, then that’s not the fault of Everyday Sexism. It’s the fault of men who choose to harass and assault women.

My experience last summer means that now, when a man I don’t know is friendly and wants to talk to me, I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want to joke about the weather or the music. I don’t want to fulfil my expected role of being ‘nice’ and receptive to a man’s attentions. Because I don’t want to risk another man deciding it’s an invitation. I don’t want to be put in the position – again – where me being nice results in me being assaulted, or nearly assaulted.

After all, this isn’t the first time this has happened. And I would prefer it to be the last.

It’s so messed up that I have been the one to feel shame and embarrassment  whenever incidents like this happen. That it’s me that is left to question my actions, whilst the men just don’t seem to care. It’s not ok that it was me who felt like I shouldn’t go back to the bar (I did, the following week, and I told my friend what had happened, a bit embarrassed, in case he thought I was over-reacting). It’s not ok that I was made to feel like that, because I hadn’t done anything wrong.

And it’s not ok that because of the actions of a minority of men, I feel like I have to change my behaviour. It’s not ok that because of the actions of a few men, I no longer feel happy or comfortable talking to men I don’t know.

Summer is nearly here, and I’m sure I’ll be back at the bar, wearing a summer dress with a pint of beer in my hand. But this time, I’ll just talk to my friends. And if any man tries to talk to me, I won’t care if he thinks I’m unfriendly, if he thinks I’m ‘not nice’. Because it’s not my fault that past consequences of being friendly have been painful.

The next time a male journalist or man on the street moans about feminism killing flirting, perhaps they should lay the blame in the right place. Because if I don’t want to talk to you, it’s not because I’m a feminist. It’s because too many men have taught me that the consequences of being friendly are simply too nasty to risk.

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