Are there any two words on the internet more sinister than ‘Hello dear’? I made the mistake on Twitter of following this very attractive young man purporting to be from New York, whose Twitter description actually said ‘I’m a really nice guy’. Now usually, in my limited experience of social media, you follow somebody and you never hear from them again. They may show their appreciation of your wit and wisdom occasionally by liking what you write. They may take issue with you on some point or other. But when this guy just contacted me with ‘Hello dear’ followed by ‘Are you there, hun?’ it really gave me the willies. My Twitter handle @Chiswick_Bridge didn’t give him my name but if he’s really from New York he’s not going to want tickets to Jazz at George IV or my opinion on CS9 so the open-ended ‘Hello dear … are you there hun?’ was nothing short of sinister. I showed my son, whose derisive snort confirmed my worst suspicions that this guy had seen my photo and pegged me as a vulnerable middle aged woman ripe for exploitation.
I’ve had the experience twice, once in Brixton and once in Paris, of having a bloke sidle up to me when I was on my own walking in the street at night and say menacingly sotto voce “you’re on your own, aren’t you?” That did the job as well; I was suitably freaked out. You may be thinking ‘this woman’s paranoid’ and it is fair to say that I have an active imagination and watch too many crime dramas. Taggart’s doleful refrain “Therre’s been another murrderr” comes to mind far too easily. But life experience has taught me that men are predatory.
It’s hard to reconcile with the behaviour of the men you know and like, but what is obvious from the current outpouring of women’s experiences of sexual harassment is just how common it is. So common that women don’t usually bother talking about it. In fact every woman can relate tales across the range from catcalling and sexist remarks to groping and a depressingly large number have also experienced serious sexual assault and rape. I think my generation have been ground down to tacit acceptance that ‘tis the nature of the beast. From the joyous blooming of radical feminism when I was a teenager, to the level of hate fuelled comments levelled at Hillary Clinton during the presidential election campaign that were purely gender based, it’s clear that although significant battles have been won, the war goes on.
“The asymmentry of power relations cements a culture of control”
Rupa Huq MP reported this weekend that she’d been groped by an MEP when she was in her ‘20s. “I didn’t come forward at the time for the reason many women don’t. The asymmetry of power relations cements a culture of control, with the young and powerless fearful that it will be career-ending for them”. I had a similar experience from a journalist colleague in local radio. I did report it to the (male) station manager, who just dismissed it. I also applied for a producer job on Radio 4 for which I was more than qualified and when I asked the editor why I hadn’t even got an interview was told “I’ve got enough little girls who can do research”. I felt exactly the same as Rupa – that it would have done me more harm than him to report such blatant sexism.
So I salute all the women who are coming forward now. This could have happened in any era, but it is the power of social media which enables the sheer volume of voices to be heard. What must happen now though is that instead of organisations like the UK Parliament paying lip service to equality and life just continuing as normal, this has to be translated into a new normality in which sexist behaviour is not tolerated.
“It (sexism) wears you down”
I watched have I Got News For You on Friday and it was clear that the four male panellists were a bit baffled by this apparent storm in a teacup over a man touching a woman’s knee. It took the token right winger Quentin Letts to declare “this is not a sex scandal”, “this is Jane Austen” and Ian Hislop to turn it into a joke with “Grope and Gropability”, but as four perfectly nice blokes what they failed to realise is that, trivial as it may seem to them, it is the avalanche of low level crap that young women especially receive on a day to day basis that is so demoralising. It took chair Jo Brand to explain (to huge applause from the audience) “It doesn’t have to be high-level for women to feel under siege in somewhere like the House of Commons … for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down”.
And it’s up to all of us, men and women to call out unfair and unpleasant, demeaning behaviour when we see it, not just duck the issue.