CW: Sexual assault
A few nights ago, I was heading home on the tube from an evening in East London. I’d had a great night seeing one of my favourite bands live with one of my best friends, and so I was feeling pretty giddy and content. As it happens, I was feeling so giddy and content that I had barely registered that I was the only woman in my very empty carriage at 11pm at night. I only clocked onto this fact when I saw the man sitting next to me was filming me.
When I first noticed what he was doing, I found it pretty funny. This was mostly because of how unsubtle he was being about it. He wasn’t even pretending to be taking a photo of something above me, or pretending to be doing something while he surreptitiously snapped his footage, oh no. He was on full on selfie mode on Snapchat, and was videoing me with himself in the frame, in the exact same way that I film me and my friends dancing to Taylor Swift in a nightclub. It was pretty surreal. I stared at myself in the video (because, it being selfie mode, I could literally see the film he was getting) and my face was one of pure shock and bemusement. Once this had worn off, and he had finished I tried to get his attention to ask what the hell was going on. Unfortunately, either his music was too high or he was too concerned with sending the video to pay any attention to me. So, I did something that could have been foolish, but which seemed pretty funny at the time (and, if I’m honest, is still pretty funny). I got my own phone out and started videoing him in the exact same way. While I’m nice enough to not post the video publicly, because unlike him I respect the privacy and agency of strangers, I can affirm it was a great watch. His face when he noticed himself being filmed was Oscar-worthy. Now that I had his attention, I was able to ask him what on earth he thought he was doing. The conversation went a little bit like this.
Man: I like to film people on the tube on Snapchat to make fun of them.
Bea: Oh wow, thanks a lot.
Man: Oh no, not just you, I do it to loads of people.
Bea: Why did you think you could film me without my permission?
Man: I didn’t think you’d be offended by it.
Bea: I’m not offended, it’s just kind of weird to film women on tubes.
Man: I don’t mind that you did it to me.
Bea: That’s not really the point though is it.
Man: I’m sorry if it offended you in some way.
Bea: Once again, I’m not offended. It’s creepy. I don’t know who you are or who you’re sending it to.
Man: It’s not that big of a deal.
Bea: This is my stop.
By the end of the conversation, what had once been bemused laugher at the situation had turned into rage. Ok, so this definitely wasn’t one of the more harrowing experiences that I have had with men, and it could have been perfectly innocent. But, it got me thinking about male entitlement, especially in public. About 6 years ago, a Facebook group was created entitled ‘Women Who Eat On Tubes’. Right now it has just over 33,000 members. The bio claims that the purpose of the group is not to harass, bully or humiliating. However, the whole crux of the group focuses around encouraging people to take photos of woman (just women, I might add, not men) who are performing a basic human function to then post onto a group. The group currently only exists in a private form, and I still haven’t been allowed to join. However, there is still a public Tumblr account with the same format. One of the posts, showing three women (with no attempt to mask their identity) sitting in a row all eating, featured the caption ‘three little pigs’. Totally not humiliating, right?
The experience I had on the tube, and thinking of the Women Who Eat On Tubes page reminded me of the debacle with Matt Damon claiming there was levels of sexual assault. “There’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right?”, he said in an interview with Business Insider. Many people, probably men, might look at my experiences or the experiences of the women featured on the page and say we’re just over-reacting feminists (or snowflakes, as is the insult of choice nowadays for women who speak their minds). What these men have to remember is that I have had so many instances of feeling intimidated by entitled men, whether they be assaulting me or taking videos of me. I am sick of men thinking that I am their property, that I owe them the time of day. While I’m perfectly aware that, like Damon so eloquently pointed out (notice the sarcasm), there are levels of severity when it comes to assault, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the acts on the lesser end of the scale. It all adds up. When I noticed this guy recording me, it reminded me of the time that a man late at night on the tube kept staring at me and then demanded to know my name. And when I think of that experience, it reminds me of when I was 14 and a man followed me down the road taking photos of my arse. Which reminds me of the time a man asked how much I charge per hour while walking home in my school uniform. Which reminds me of all the countless numbers of times I have been felt up and touched and groped without my consent in nightclubs. And then I think of the time I was cornered at a bus station in the early hours of the morning by a group of men who shouting such sexually explicit things at me that I don’t even like repeating them, and I ran sobbing the whole way home.
So yes, a man taking a video of me on the tube is not a big deal in the moment. But that entitled attitude of thinking that women are there for his entertainment is the same attitude that all the other men also had. It is the same attitude no matter how severe the incident is, and by sitting back when men humiliate women on public transport we are allowing that entitled attitude to prevail.
In his interview, Damon also lamented the fact that we never talk about the men who don’t sexually assault (essentially a rehashing of the classic not all men argument). However, just like Damon points out that there are varying levels of sexual assault and harassment, there are also varying levels of complacency and responsibility. While it’s true that not all men sexually assault, it’s also true that many men will have known other men who do sexually assault, or supported it in some way. A relevant example of me, as a recent graduate, are the many men who must have been aware of their friends slapping girls on the arse in clubs but said or did nothing. If you know someone has committed a crime but say nothing, while you yourself didn’t do the crime, you will still be punished and held responsible in some way. In the same way, while you may not have sexually assaulted anyone yourself, by not calling out friends who do, or by ignoring micro-aggressions or laughing along with sexist jokes, you are part of the problem. Statistics show that 50% of women have faced sexual harassment at work, 1 in 5 women aged 16-59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16, and 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual assault or abuse at University. This means that while it’s true that not all men sexually assault, there are plenty who do. Even if you have never partaken in actions that dehumanise, ridicule or objectify women (from using slurs, laughing at a sexist joke or mansplaining to harassment, groping or assault), then it is very likely that someone you know has.
In a nutshell, the point of me recounting this experience is to show that something doesn’t need to be obvious sexual assault for it to be uncomfortable for the woman involved. Even while I was confronting the guy, there were multiple other men in the carriage. Only one checked to see if I was ok afterwards, and nobody got involved. This sort of complacency is a small scale version of what is happening in our society, and shows why rape culture has been allowed to prevail for so long. So yes, it’s true that not all men. But, all men need to do better. And fast. Because we can’t succeed without their help.