Published on Huffington Post UK 24th October 2012
It’s a challenging time for British women.
We’ve learned that hundreds – maybe thousands – of people stood by and allowed Jimmy Savile to abuse vulnerable women with impunity. With that rather bitter taste in our mouths, we now wait for men like Jeremy Hunt and David Cameron decide what degree of control we can have over our own bodies when pregnant. (Oh, hang on, that’s incorrect. According to Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hasan, an unborn baby is not part of a woman. Beyond her remit. Sorry, my mistake.)
In more positive news, however, a group of Lambeth women and Movement for Change activists have just launched the first ever Women’s Safety Charter, which aims to protect women from unwelcome molestation in Lambeth’s bars and clubs – although the hope is that it will reach far beyond the borough’s borders. The campaigners spent several months in discussion with women in Lambeth to compile evidence as plentiful as it is appalling about the routine groping to which females are subjected when they go out drinking.
The charter is a small step but an important one; reading about their efforts I felt encouraged.
And then I smacked my head with my hand.
Because, while following these stories – and without even thinking what I was doing – I had written ablog about this very matter just last week. About how I’d been mauled by various drunken pigs on a recent night out (in Lambeth, actually) and how it had been very distasteful but – well, funny. Because that’s just what happens, right? Men are gross! Can’t leave us alone! Ha ha!
I feel deeply ashamed as I write this. It’s not bloody funny.
The tweets and messages I received after writing the blog were uniform. ‘God, that sounds just like a night out in my town,’ or ‘Wow! We had identical nights out!’ or ‘So funny, so true!’ Most telling of all was a tweet that just said ‘Men.’
What I heard – from myself and from my readers – was resignation. A collective shrug.
And this is the real problem. Our collective acquiescence to the persistent infringement of our basic rights. Because is it not a basic right to enjoy oneself without the threat of molestation? Most women never speak up. The braver among us might tell gropers to f*ck off but we’re unlikely to get the offender thrown out of the bar. Or punch him in the face like most heterosexual men would if they received the unsolicited gropes of another man. We roll our eyes. Make a joke. Do nothing.
How is this different to saying nothing when a TV presenter makes regular visits to the defenceless girls in your school? It’s the same acceptance of the same despicable status quo. ‘Those who knew of Jimmy Savile and did nothing, men and women, were scared of what exactly?’ asked Suzanne Moore last week.
I can trace my own laissez-faire attitude back to the age of 13. I had a part-time job in a local pub; I wore a short-ish skirt. I was groped by a regular. I knew with absolute certainty that this was not OK but already felt like it would be a bad move to complain to my boss. I eventually complained anyway and was sent to scour a chip pan by way of punishment. I was paid £1.50 per hour for this privilege.
I went clubbing at the age of 15 and was surprised to find myself the object of pelvic thrusts on the dance floor. The first time I repelled one of these romantic gestures I was called a slag. It happened again and again until I learned not to say anything. By the age of 18, I’d become so impervious to it that I began to feel quite put out if I wasn’t groped. ‘Maybe if I lose some weight, someone will grind up against my bottom,’ I hoped.
Those women truly willing to stand up for themselves are, sadly, few and far between. The apathetic majority (myself included) are scared of being further abused and even more scared of someone using the F-word at us. (Feminist = anger, hairiness, sexlessness. As American Feminist Roxanne Gay wrote recently, it is a label rarely offered in kindness.)
Look. I’m not blaming women for being abused. Far from it. I’ve been as scared as anyone else to face up to the gropers. But I do think it’s time we rolled our eyes less and did more. Took some responsibility for our bodies and boundaries. We are country leaders; members of the workforce; contributing members of society at every level. We are not medieval tavern wenches there for the groping.
My body has only me as its protector. So next time someone takes it upon themselves to partake in it, I might actually do my body a favour and speak up.
Not everyone has a campaign in them. But an end to the shrugging would be a good start.