I suppose it’s quite a disgusting statement to say that harassment has been a constant in my adult life. By adult life, I mean as soon as I started to look like a woman, and not a child; as soon as I developed boobs, really. And it’s even more disgusting to know that most of the women reading this will be nodding in agreement. When I say harassment, most people will already have that gut instinct for what I mean. To put it in words, harassment is making someone feel intimidated, is taking away their dignity, is behaving towards someone in a way they did not consent to.
Getting followed in the dark, despite crossing the road and doubling back; having voice messages left on your Facebook from a man you’ve never met; someone asking to walk you home, only for them to get aggressive and stalky when you politely say no; having to initiate ‘Operation Fake Laugh’ on the phone to avoid alerting the man three steps behind you; getting groped by a friend as you walk them home, them being so drunk they can barely stand by themselves. These are just some of the ways I’ve encountered harassment in the past few years, a cherry-pick of the shit moments, if you will. Not including, of course, the oh-so-common variants of getting shouted at in the high street, getting groped in tiny clubs, and the fear of opening blocked messages on social media. I’ve only been harassed by men, but I certainly know not all men are as foul as to harass or intimidate anyone in these ways.
Obviously, it’s incredibly sad that I’ve come to prepare and accept that this will happen, as I know other people of all genders have – we have our keys between our hands, our fingers ready to press send, memorising the roads with the most streetlights. But the reason why this has all come springing to the forefront of my mind, is because of what happened during my April Bank Holiday.
I had six glorious days off, and I was determined to make the most of it. I took myself and my laptop to my local Starbucks, ready to work on my blog, and to ingest lots of tea and overpriced paninis. Starbucks was generally quiet that day; it was blissfully warm for the middle of April so people were mainly outside. I positioned myself at a table, and set up, ready to work. To the right of me was a big glass window, lined with bar style seating; empty, of course. To the left of me, a row of dark brown tables, the nearest person at least six tables away. The rest were empty, of course. A few couples and students filtered in and out, grabbing seats at the back of the cafe or against the wall, but I had the front of the cafe to myself. Perfect for writing and relaxing.
I sat and worked for about two hours, peacefully and wonderfully. Then a man came and sat on my table, opposite me. I instantly looked up, expecting to see a friend, but I didn’t know this man. He was sat directly across from me, looking at me, looking right at my face. No smile, no recognition. He had a mug of hot water, and an unopened tea bag. I expected him to say something, to notify me of something, or ask for my seat (despite being in a rather empty cafe). But, nothing.
I felt that oh-so familiar, sickening feeling. It started off small, and grew as I realised he wasn’t moving. My throat went dry, my muscles tensed. I clenched my jaw, and moved my eyes back to my laptop. I felt scared. Why was he sat here? Why didn’t he sit anywhere else in the cafe? What does he want? He stayed staring. He was positioned directly next to my bag, so I kept looking from my laptop to my bag, ensuring he wasn’t going to touch it. Why else would he sit opposite me, in an almost empty cafe, if not to try and steal my bag? And yet, he stayed staring. In hindsight, I should have asked him to move then and there. But I didn’t. Do you know why? Because I was scared. I’ve been in too many similar situations and I know of too many others who have been in this situation to know the variety of outcomes this can have. We sat like this for ten minutes. Him, only moving his head to see who was coming in the door, and then to return back to staring at me. Me, tensing my whole body, feeling the sickening burn of fight or flight, holding back angry tears, too scared to breathe. The cafe, quiet; tables and chairs empty to the left of me, bar stools empty to the right.
I felt violated, intimidated, scared, and angry all at once. In one swift movement, he got up from his seat and moved. All of my tense muscles released, I felt like I could breathe again; I exhaled quickly, thankful he was going. He walked to the window to the right of me, where I expected him to just sit and relax with his tea, finally. But he didn’t. He took the chair closest to me, put his mug and tea bag down, slouched, and stared directly at me again. I went straight back to being on edge. I could have thrown up, I could have cried, I could have run; fight or flight had hit and was pushing my body to leave. My mind was saying this situation is not normal, get out of there. At this rate, all hope of work was gone, I was just typing messages to my partner about the situation, focusing on controlling my breathing, and watching this stranger out of the corner of my eye.
Five minutes went by, him looking only at the door and me. His hot water must have been cold by now. The anxiety that was running through my body built up to an extreme and I simply had to leave. With every movement I made, I was aware of his eyes on me. I felt sick at the thought of turning my back on him, but I had to collect my things and get out of there. With a flurry of movement, I shoved everything into my bag, and bolted. I heard the bell behind me as I rushed out of the cafe, and passed the window. His mug and tea bag were there, but he wasn’t. I heard the bell chime, turned around, and saw him leave the shop, walking towards me.
Thank God it was a market day. I dipped behind a stall and ran. I ran between the tents and the tourists, muttering a rushed ‘sorry’ to the people I bumped into along the way. I only stopped as I reached a crowded point between shops. I waited, panting and wheezing. I waited for him to come around the corner. This was not the first time someone had followed me, after all. My phone kept buzzing with messages from my boyfriend – ‘Rosie, have you left?’ ‘Is he following you?’ I took a breath, tapped out my answer, and walked home, constantly looking over my shoulder, the blood pulsing quickly through my veins.
As the hours went by after this experience, I started to question myself. Why didn’t I say anything to him? Why didn’t I talk to the staff? Why didn’t I just leave? For the rest of that day, my brain was in a fog, so no answers were to be had. But I now know why. It’s like that time I told a stranger that I didn’t need help walking home, and he got aggressive. It’s like when I told my friend I didn’t want to go home with him, and he got aggressive. It’s like that time I told a man to stop bothering my friend, and he got aggressive. To me, he was all of those men, and more; he was the stranger who followed me in the dark, he’s the man who crossed the road behind me, he’s part of the crowd who touch you in a busy bar. I was scared. It was that simple. That’s why I didn’t do anything. This stranger, this man I didn’t know, had scared me.
When I got home, my house was full of friends, and I took my partner to one side. I told him everything that happened, and I cried, I cried tears of a girl who was scared and angry. He said to me ‘what are you going to do now?’ I said ‘I’ll just do what I usually do when this happens’.
I’ll just do what I usually do when this happens.
I am so used to this intimidation and harassment, that a have a post-harassment routine. A step-by-step routine that I do to help calm me down, to help distract my mind. Something I can remember as easily as my facial care routine, or how to make my go-to pasta bake. At the time, I didn’t realise how disconcerting this statement is. I simply slipped into those trusty steps, and tried to forget.
Step One: I talked to someone about it, I explained every inch of the situation. I validated that this happened, and had validation that this was not right.
Step Two: I ran a hot bath, so hot that my skin was red when I left. I needed to start to relax, I needed to feel something other than my tense muscles and that sick feeling in my stomach. I let the hot water rush over me, the smell of orange and lavender from cheap body washes masquerading as bubble bath helping to soothe my mind.
Step Three: I tried to wash away the feeling of my skin crawling. I scrubbed my skin, lathered bubbles to try and wash away the memory of what happened.
Step Four: The outfit I was wearing went straight in the washing pile, ready to undergo the same treatment my body had. I slipped on the cosiest and most comfortable house clothes I could find; I didn’t care how it looked, I just needed to feel at home.
Step Five: My body was tired. It had experienced the spikes and falls of fight or flight, all the adrenaline that had surged through my body was gone. I didn’t feel like eating, I still felt sick, but it was important that I ate. One cup of sweet builder’s tea and two slices of warm buttery toast later, and I was beginning to feel like myself.
Step Six: Distraction. For the rest of the day, I needed to constantly do. I flitted between watching movies with my friends, trawling through social media, reading a book, listening to music, filling in my bullet journal. Every time I let my mind wander, I would find myself glued to that chair, eyes wide as I try to take in my screen, my bag, and this stranger. It was hard to get to sleep that night.
It’s nearing a month since this incident happened, and I’m still thinking about it. I guess to some people, everything I have spoken could seem an over-exaggeration. All that happened was someone came and sat opposite me. Some people are probably reading this and thinking ‘this is not harassment’. Let me speak loudly and clearly here; this was harassment. Someone went out of their way to make me physically and emotionally uncomfortable. In the whole of an almost-empty cafe, they came and sat on my table, opposite me. They stared, they were creepy, they were invasive. They did this for fifteen minutes, it was not a simple accident. Yes, it’s not the worst form of harassment I have experienced. Yes, I wasn’t physically hurt. Yes, it wasn’t a sexual assault. But it was certainly another incident I can add to my ever growing list.
Where can I and other women feel safe? Definitely not a street at night, nor at a bar. Not around drunk people who we think we know. Not on our own, or in a group. It seems not even in a cafe. So, where does the problem lie? Is it my fault, for wanting to sit in public, or walk somewhere, for wanting to exist? Is it the women of the world who dare to have the audacity to live their lives the way they want to? Or does the problem lie elsewhere? I know where it lies. It lies in a small group of people who are taught that they can do what they want. They are taught that women need saving, they are taught that we welcome attention, they are taught that making a woman feel uncomfortable is normal.
When will this bullshit end? Because I’m getting pretty sick and tired of leaving my house, wondering how I’ll be harassed this time.
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