Bonjourno, fellow ladybros! I know you’re all busy, out there challenging the patriarchy - and, if you’re anything like me, trying to find a decent job that will mean I can buy some new tights (there’s a chance my arse will fall out of these ones, they are honestly now so decrepit round the nether regions). But I just wanted to recount this little tale from last Saturday night before you hurry on your cyber-way. You never know; it might strike a chord.
The key players of this sorry tale: me and random bloke, having a fag outside a Northern drinking establishment. My friend and I were chilling outside and the bloke in question kept looking at us, clearly in that trying-to-catch-your-eye kind of way. I wasn’t much in the mood to suffer fools (and it soon became apparent how much of a shame that was). However, he eventually sidled over - and, I must say, rather politely, asked in a serious tone for some life advice. Here is a faithful account of what happened next.
Man: Hi, sorry to interrupt. I was just wondering, could I ask your advice on something?
Me, somewhat reluctantly: Um, OK, I suppose.
Man: So I’m out with my mates and a girl that one of them knows. And she’s wearing this skimpy top. Like, really skimpy.
Me, now with feeling of foreboding: Riiiiiiiiight...
Man: And, well, we were having this photo taken, and I pulled it down, just for a second. Was that not OK?
Now, at this stage, I was not in a great place to be doling out The Advice. Firstly, I was on the back end of a shitty week in which I had lost my job, along with a massive portion of my own self-respect. I was, by coincidence, also in the midst of the annual all-day drinking binge also known as 'My Mate Vicky’s Birthday'. This was a potentially lethal combination. I had two clear options:
- Lose my shit, and therefore give this bloke the ammunition to preach forevermore about how 'women are crazy' before shaking his head and pulling another scantily-clad woman's top down;
- Calmly try to explain exactly where he had gone wrong, in the vain hope that, in the future, he might recall this conversation, and act differently.
In a heroic effort of self-control, I chose number two.
So, here’s what happened next.
Me: OK, here’s the thing. It’s her tit. Irrespective of what she was wearing, how drunk she was, or how she was bantering, it’s her tit.
Man: But only I saw it.
Me: Doesn’t matter.
Man: But you should see this top!
Me: Doesn’t matter.
Me: Really, it doesn’t matter. It is her tit to do with what she pleases. It may have been a skimpy top, but that doesn’t mean she has handed over her free will to show her breast to some bloke she met that evening in a bar. What someone wears, how drunk she is, what she is doing - none of this would ever make it OK for someone else to pull her top down. It just doesn’t.
This conversation went on for another five minutes. I’m not sure how much it helped - God knows I’m not a natural educator. And after a while, I retreated to drown my sorrows re: job and sexism in a vat of gin and tonic and a bag of steak-flavoured McCoys. After all, a woman can't dine on her feminist credentials alone.
But the reason I'm sharing this tale with you isn’t just to lament on yet another incident in the avalanche of bullshit that women deal with as a constant aggravation in their lives. The Everyday Sexism project has done that far more convincingly than I ever could.
Instead, I bring it up to add my voice to those calling for consent, sexism and relationships to be mandatory topics in the national curriculum. The setting of my story was a pretty student-dominated bar, so there’s every chance that this guy had undergone 18 full years of education (assuming he went to pre-school aged three), and at no point had he picked up any knowledge about where he’d gone wrong and why this girl was upset. He wasn’t a caricature of chauvinism, all lad bantz and grunting at “birds” and “slags”. If anything, he was your shining paragon of absolute normality. He was genuinely puzzled about the reaction to his own behaviour. And that's downright scary.
We cannot leave it to chance that every bloke of this mindset will run into a helpful feminist outside the bar they are in. Add to the this the fact that my educational credentials are shoddy at the best of times, never mind after a solid 12 hours of necking cider and Sauv Blanc whilst watching the rugby on a hastily erected outdoor viewing station in a back yard, and you can see the unreliability of relying on such luck. What’s more, I don’t intend to be unemployed forever - so I really cannot spend my life touring bars in a bid to cut the bullshit.
The fact of the matter is that outlawing sexual harassment only does so much. A culture of normalisation supports the man who pulls the top down of his female friend whose top is a little too skimpy. And education is the only thing that can truly make sure he doesn't do it - because he recognises her as a human being, and he doesn't want to do it. What I'm saying, in eloquent terms, is that if we're stuck up Shit Creek without a paddle here, education could well be the paddle to get us nearing the shore.
And God knows, this is certainly a case where the grass really will be greener on the other side.