In a moment of shocking originality for a twenty-something graduate, I have moved to London. I can’t afford it, my skin has taken on a texture that is best described as ‘interesting’, and one day I got so badly lost that it took me three hours to get to work. On the other hand, it’s where all of my friends are, I’m never bored any, and I have a reading room pass for the British Library. Swings and roundabouts.
What I had not really planned on was the amount of interaction that I would have with perfect strangers. I had, in fact, been led to believe that talking to someone you do not know in London was the biggest social taboo ever. Even making eye contact with someone would be enough to have them edging away nervously, they told me. Especially during rush hour on the tube when there are mere millimeters separating your face from their armpit (just one of the many perks of being short).
I was, therefore, somewhat confused upon setting out to get my train for my first day of work when not one but two people stopped to talk to me. Of course, by ‘to’, I mean ‘at’, and by ‘talk’, I mean ‘shout comments about my appearance and make guttural sounds at’. But, semantics. Like how they would probably call such an interaction a ‘compliment’, whereas I prefer the term ‘fucking rude’.
That first morning was not a one-off. Just yesterday evening, I was walking to Sainsburys and a man thoughtfully beeped his horn, leant out of his van window and hissed at me. Not being fluent in Parseltongue, I can’t be one hundred percent sure that he was not trying to say something useful, but on balance I don’t think I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
While I am a small girl from a rural county in a big, sophisticated city, I am not that naive. In terms of catcalls (or ‘harassment’ if you prefer, but again, semantics), I have had roughly a decade of them, having had breasts for a roughly concurrent length of time. I also come from Norfolk, a place not known for its men who would cite their favourite writer as Judith Butler. Generally speaking though, lascivious comments are infrequent, especially if you avoid the many delightful establishments on Norwich’s Prince of Wales Road, known as one of the country’s ‘most dangerous streets’. What I was not prepared for was the sheer volume of street harassment that has become a near daily feature of my glamourous London life. And if I don’t hear it directed at me (for instance, when I am out with my boyfriend), then it will be at someone else, some other young girl just trying to walk somewhere on her own.
The tone here is different too. Men call out at all times of the day, not just when they’re drunk on a Friday evening and don’t realise that their ‘inside voice’ has become their ‘outside voice’. And for better or for worse in Norwich, you would often have the opportunity to interact with the gentleman clucking at you. They would be standing right there at the bar, or in the queue for Tesco’s too, not rushing past on their own commute, or squeezing by on a crowded train. In Norwich’s Mischief pub, I once hit someone with my handbag after they decided that my arse was the ideal hand-rest, their wrist presumably tired from a strenuous day of wanking. I don’t condone violence, but I was tired and wanted a gin and for fuck’s sake, touching is verboten unless I specifically say otherwise. On the Central line though, even if I was close enough to the man in question to attempt such a tactic, I would not be able to move my arm enough to carry out the manoevre effectively.
My main method of dealing with this at the moment is to permanently adopt a glare so withering that hanging out in the fresh produce section of Borough market is no longer an option. While this makes me feel a lot better (or at least a lot more fashion-forward, given the lack of smiling in Vogue), it does sometimes lead to my least favourite comment of all time ever: “Smile babe, it might not happen.” Who knew that London was blessed with such a wealth of psychic men? Really, Boris should find a better way of marketing them as a tourist attraction. And of course, by the time the phrase is out of the lovely interlocutor’s mouth, ‘it’ already has happened. The crowds and the anonymity and the speed at which everyone goes past in London, have allowed you, stranger to whom I have never spoken and never will, to make an unsolicited comment about my appearance. And you see, I am busy and in a rush and part of the crowd too. So when I am running from work to a PhD seminar, the very last thing that I need to hear from you as you power-walk up behind me is a comment about my arse.
Here in London, even if I happened to be feeling particularly brave/reckless/gin-full, I would rarely have the opportunity to ‘shout back’. The men who call out know full well that they can take advantage of the speed at which everyone is moving and the crowds that surround them and that no one can do anything about it. In one sense, this is less threatening: the harassment is over in a matter of seconds, which is infinitely preferable to being pinned in a corner by some drunken twit, or followed down an empty road by a man whose idea of appropriate social interaction with a stranger is to invite you to sit on his face (“Oh my God, I’d like nothing more,” replied no one, ever). On the other hand though, the pace and the anonymity of these comments in London goes straight to the heart of street harassment: it is overwhelmingly public and denies the women who suffer it the chance to reply. Even if we have the wittiest, most scathing retort on the very tips of our tongues, we cannot answer back at the man running across Kingsway and disappearing into the crowd, or sliding out of the tube carriage. If anything, it proves how cowardly all street harassment is, based on the assumption that there will be no repercussions other than a flustered, embarrassed girl left on Waterloo Bridge.
Because of course there is only one thing to say, given a split second’s opportunity, and that’s quite simply, “Fuck you”.