Unwanted approaches: An example of everyday sexism in my social network

I was having a conversation with a man on social media the other day, when he said to me that women “don’t really experience unwanted approaches on the street”, and that if they do they are “mainly lighthearted and easily deterred”. He didn’t believe me when I said that for almost every woman, unwanted approaches are a common experience, not just in social settings like pubs and clubs, or even in the evening, but when going about our normal business in the daytime, like walking to the shop, catching a bus or train, in our workplace or educational establishment. I said I thought most women would be able to recall a recent unwanted approach, and an example in which the man became antagonistic when he was ignored or rebuffed. He was incredulous and felt this was an exceptionally rare event.

So I asked my network on twitter whether any women aged between 18 and 40 would answer a few quick questions on the topic. I phrased the questions as neutrally as possible:

  • Can you think of a time that a male stranger whistled at you, commented on your appearance or made another form of unsolicited approach to you in public?

  • If so, how long ago was this?
  • How did you respond?
  • What was the man’s reaction to your response?
  • How often have you experienced a negative response to rejecting or ignoring unwanted approaches or comments from strangers?

  • If you want to make any more comments, or state your age, or tells us any more about the situation feel free to do so here.

It wasn’t a research study, and I had been explicit about the topic when asking the question amongst my network, but none-the-less I felt that it might bring up some negative memories for people, so I tried to signpost people what to do with that at the end.

  • If this survey has brought up any bad feelings or memories, please seek appropriate support from your friends, family, GP or a listening and advice service such as supportline (who can be contacted by phone on 01708 765200 or by email at info@supportline.org.uk)

Before you read the results, if you want to add your responses to my survey, feel free: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/VWLKQS5

So, what were the responses?

To date I have received 97 responses from women aged 22 to 37, and the results were depressing if not surprising.

Fewer than 4% of respondents said they couldn’t immediately recall an example of an unwanted approach in public from a male stranger. 79% of the women said that they have experienced “numerous” examples of unwanted approaches, most of them overtly sexual.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 22.27.21More than 42% can recall examples within the last month, and 72% within the last year.screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-01-11-3580% ignored the approach, 19% gave some kind of negative response. screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-01-11-49But here is the key part – whilst 59% of the time the guy then backed off and 10% of the time he was friendly or accepted the person was not interested, more than 31% of the time he was “negative, unpleasant or threatening”. screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-01-11-57Only 13% of women surveyed couldn’t remember a getting a negative response from a man after being ignored or told they were not interested. More than 50% had experienced negative, aggressive or unpleasant responses on several occasions with 9.5% of women saying this happened to them “often”.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 22.31.53

Thirty six women gave examples of unpleasant responses they could remember from the past year. These included:

“When you ignore them, they’ll usually say something about the fact you’re ignoring them e.g. call you stuck up”
“Shouted something along the lines of me being miserable because I didn’t respond”.
Typical responses are along the lines of “fuck off then”, “stuck up bitch”, “you think you’re too nice” or “you’re not that nice anyway”
“When I ignored him he grabbed my arm and pulled me towards him.”
“Called me a whore”
“It was along time ago but I remember being called a stuck up bitch but then nothing else”
“In groups, men will continue to shout and on occasion follow me down the street.”
“Started swearing at me, said I was ugly anyway”
[in relation to men offering money for sex from their car] “when i ignored them they shouted that i was a stuck up rich bitch”.
“I was followed home by a man who started walking beside me. I stated he was making me uncomfortable and that he should leave me alone. He wouldn’t leave stating that he just “wanted a hug”. When i refused he became quite hostile and his body language was aggressive but he eventually left.”
[when I told him to go away] “he got very up close to my face and then finally left”

“Continually returned to talk to me, vaguely threatening, called me a lesbian”.

“Laughed in response to my negative reaction, saying that what he had done (touched my bottom) was what men do in his country (Ireland)”

“He scowled and they walked off without further comment”.

“Verbally abused and insulted. Groped.”

[Told me] “You’ve got a black heart” comments that I’m a “snob” or “stuck up”

“He kept trying to talk to me and come into my personal space (within arms length), even after I explicitly told him several times that I didn’t want to talk to him and that I just wanted to go home so please leave me alone, and physically backed away from him several times.”

“Yesterday walking home from work, when I ignored his first calls and whistles, he continued and followed behind a safe distance [I kept walking past my home] until he got bored of no response”.

“Yelled who do you think you are etc, then made negative comments about my physical appearance”

[I ignore them now] “In the past when I’ve said something back [the response has been negative] examples have included laughing at me”.

“He swore at me and said something aggressive”

“Derogatory comments”

“More comments about being rude or stuck up. Its just a joke. Even more comments”

“Male strangers often act offended or aggrieved if you do not react the way they would like you to. You are told that you are uptight/rude etc”

“Usually it’s mocking behaviour. Worse if they have been drinking alcohol”

“swearing, name calling- normally whenever I don’t just choose to ignore the behaviour”

“sometimes they might make themselves as big as possible (as if reminding you they can physically over power you), some might follow for a bit”

“Being touched anyway (occasionally), verbal abuse (occasionally), more generally just a refusal to go away meaning that I have to continue to deal with them.”

“when I said I had a boyfriend, he aggressively said I shouldn’t have wasted his time”

“when asking men to let go of my arm/ stop pulling me towards them in a night club or bar, the most common response is for them to laugh. Very often (about) 1-2 times a month): men instruct me to “smile” or “cheer up” when seeing me in the street. If I meet this instruction with a negative reaction, almost always the man tells me to lighten up or not be so serious (or something to that effect) as he was just being friendly (as though attempting to make me feel guilty about my response)”

“People being rude swearing, trying to touch you or calling you arrogant.”

“Being told I was a bitch, ugly, or worse (if I ignored them); being told to shut up or receiving more sexualised comments (if I confronted them).”

“start laughing at me”

“He carried on as before with the harassment”

“Called me something along the lines of an uptight bitch.”

“They have commented negatively or have laughed when I have ignored them or told them to leave me alone.”

“Insisting, pushing, coming in my personal space. Not often, but particularly when the man was drunk.”

“You’re ugly anyway, are you a lesbian, why are all women so up themselves I could go on…”

“It was along time ago but I remember being called a stuck up bitch but then nothing else”

“They’ve insulted me if I’ve ignored them or asked them to go away, usually the insult is about my appearance”

“I’ve been called a ‘fat slut’ when rejecting an advance, as well as ‘stuck up bitch’.”

“You must be f**king up yourself to turn this down!”

Sometimes misogynistic comments were coupled with racist ones:

A guy once asked for my number, when I said “sorry, I have a boyfriend” he proceeded to call me a nigger…which was particularly interesting considering he had JUST asked for my number but as I declined he quickly decided that actually my black self isn’t worthy… I still think about this often and as you can imagine it infuriated me and still does.

Remember, the majority of these incidents took place in the street or on public transport during the day, rather than during nights out socialising in pubs and clubs.

Other respondents recalled annoying but not as aggressive things like:

“A guy continuing to ask/plead to come into my home after I’d repeatedly, politely said no”
“Grinning and doing it again”
“He kept going with the analysis of my facial expressions until I left, and suggested that I get some more rest as I looked tired.”
“There was some kinda of “aw why not, love” type response”
Recoil/shocked [that I’d respond negatively]
“All right love I’m only joking, whatever.”
“Generally they look pissed off and then walk away”
“He moved on to another woman on the bus”
“It was a group in a car, they laughed and drive off”
Often males getting defensive or annoyed that I do not appreciate their approach.

Some gave specific examples or reflections:

I would estimate that I experience negative responses after ignoring unwanted approaches around 20% of the time. This can range from a particularly intense stare, the person making a clearly audible comment about me (but not directly to me), or being told directly that I’m ‘stuck up’, a ‘bitch’ or them retracting their ‘compliment’ to then tell me I am in fact ‘ugly’.
[I remember a] Group of teenagers (mostly male) blocking my path in park on way home. Several leered, one asked if he could “lick my pussy”. I blamed myself for walking that way at night and never repeated the journey.
I remember I was in a packed pub at age 22 said excuse me and went to make my way past a group of men. One rubbed his erect penis against me (through jeans) as I squeezed past.
I was wolf whistled at by a van driver last week then shouted abuse because I didn’t respond. My mother told me I should be flattered by the wolf whistling.
I remember a bad experience for me once when I was at college. I walked up the stairs at the train station and there was a group of lads from the college who were training to be footballers running down the stairs and one of them slapped my bum really hard on the way down. That was humiliating.
I’m 29, I feel that this kind of experience and way of approaching and interacting with women, viewing them as objects has been the norm and socially acceptable. It was only when I met my bf (now hubby) at 24 that I understood what acceptable behaviour (inc sexual) was and realised I’d been sexually assaulted by my previous 2 partners.
I was sitting on a train station bench, drinking from a straw, and three male passers-by asked me to give them a blow job. At first I ignored them, but they kept hassling me, and one said, “We’ll pay.” They were very persistent and only stopped to get on their train.
I get unwanted attention from men almost every day – it’s animalistic.
I am 24 and have experienced the above for several years. I can recall it happening since my early teens.

So that’s the reality of what women experience, and is probably familiar to most women reading this. Worse still it is normalised by the most powerful man in the world, who has attempted to brush off and justify repeated examples of sexual assault, walking in on women whilst they are changing, sexually harassing employees and those he deals with in business, and criticising the appearance of fellow politicians. He has even attempted to excuse “locker room talk” about women, such as discussing teenage girls and his own daughters in sexual terms and normalising sexual assault on women by saying that he can “grab them by the pussy”. We are in dark times indeed. A Polish MEP felt emboldened enough to say in a debate about the gender pay gap today that women deserve to earn less because they are smaller, weaker and less intelligent than men.

Most of the men I know are feminists and would be appalled to read the results of this survey, let alone by what the neanderthal MEP said. In the general population however, there is probably more diversity. I think some men are aware of the issue, but others are probably not. So feel free to share the evidence of what is happening, in 2017, to ordinary women going about their business in the daytime.

Of course many other groups experience harassment, and in some cases this is much worse than that women experience. For example, I am sure that the recent spike in xenophobia means that many people of colour, or whose religion is apparent from their dress or appearance are on the receiving end of much more aggressive and intrusive unwanted approaches, as the videos from public transport that have been shared on youtube over the last few months demonstrate. I am sure that gay people receive both harassment and unwanted sexual approaches, and I know that trans people are disproportionately targeted for harassment and sexual assault (in fact, I recently read figures that suggest that half to two thirds of transgender individuals have experienced a sexual assault). I am not saying that there are not some examples of men being targeted for unwanted sexual approaches by women. There are multiple factors which intersect, and multiple reasons for individuals being vulnerable to be targeted in this way. However, I simply surveyed the example with which I am most familiar and the example that was the topic of my conversation.

The incidence of sex crimes and is an embarrassment that we need to address, and too often blamed on the victim. We all need to be responsible for our own behaviour, and for gaining consent before we touch anybody else or engage anyone in any sexual activity – that is so basic that I shouldn’t even need to spell it out, and it should be taught to every primary school child as part of PSHE. No harassment is acceptable, and unsolicited sexual approaches to strangers in public outside of the context of a social setting should really be a thing of the past, no matter who they target.

Note: Minor edits to quotations have been made for clarity and anonymity, but never to change the nature or severity of the incident.

Hiding in plain sight: On Louis Theroux and Jimmy Savile

I watched the Louis Theroux documentary on Jimmy Savile tonight, and I wondered why it wasn’t obvious to Louis how slimy and two-faced Jimmy was. It stood out for me from the original documentary, let alone from the rushes shown in the update, how clear it was that he was inappropriate about personal space and made a number of particular types of comments – normalising sexual content, implying connections to power and influence, and schmoozing/bestowing favour – that I associate with people who sexually abuse children that I have met through work. He also behaved differently when he wasn’t on show, and was with someone he didn’t perceive as having influence, in the unguarded footage shot by the producer late at night. I’ve learnt to take note of that too, from bitter experience.

It reminded me that my initial gut reaction to the original documentary was “ugh, my sense of him being creepy as a kid was right – it appears he has a sexual interest in children, and from the way he talks about enjoying his time with her body it seems likely he had sex with his mother’s corpse”. Yet that response at the time was unspeakable, except to my husband. After all, you can’t just say someone is a criminal, a necrophiliac, an abuser and a risk to children without proof and based purely on second hand information. That would be inappropriate, and potentially defamatory, particularly for a professional.

But Louis was there with Savile and heard his entirely unsatisfactory responses to questions, his jokes and inappropriate behaviour, saw his invasion of people’s personal space, heard him made threats to sue and name drop his connections to both establishment and underworld power. Yet, despite being an intelligent guy with suspicions about Savile, Theroux’s reaction wasn’t one of repulsion and scepticism. He was won over by Savile’s charm, and carried along by the fiction Savile had created that he was some odd relic of the 70s with his own rules not quite being in sync with the present overly PC world, and being inappropriate was harmless and par for the course. He probably felt flattered by the attention, and tantalisingly close to being the confidant that would get the big scoop when Jimmy was ready to tell his story. But he stopped being a critical observer and started to consider him a friend, and was present when he continued to behave in inappropriate ways and failed to remark on it. And that shows how easily it is done.

Because if it is your mate, and they just go one step further than you are comfortable about as if that is perfectly normal, then perhaps that is just the way that they are, and you can start thinking that maybe they are too old and odd to have to conform to social norms. And once you start to think that, your own boundaries shift and you become complicit. Something you would instantly baulk at from a stranger, is somehow normalised. You turn a blind eye without realising you have done so. Louis said that he didn’t feel he had been groomed, but I think he was wrong. Sure, he hadn’t been targeted as a potential victim of Savile’s sexual advances, but he had been drip-fed the self-crafted story of the harmless oddball doing so many wonderful things for charity. And he had been slowly habituated to be complicit in accepting the small infringements into the unacceptable, the misogyny, the recurrent sexualised content of his interactions, the invasions of personal space. And he tolerated the evasion, the flattery, the name-dropping, the sinister undertones as part of the special relationship they had developed. And that, to me, is grooming.

I’m not implying Louis is to blame for that. He has shown his intelligence, empathy and insight in other documentaries, so my expectations are high. But it is easy to be groomed. By definition, recurrent sexual abusers who have not been caught are devious and effective in fooling those around them. Plus Savile had a lifetime of practise and an enormous reputation and network to carry him. Nonetheless, I can see why Louis has been looking back and wondering what he should have noticed. I’ve been there and done that.

The first child sex abuser that fooled me (that I know of) was more than 15 years ago now*. He shook my hand, spoke politely, seemed to have a benevolent interest in the wellbeing of the children in the family and always agreed with what the professionals said. He was well educated, middle class, and married with adult children. He was the one who reported concerns about the grandchild who was referred, and was critical of the parents. The child was developmentally delayed, but also underweight and unkempt, with no sense of personal space. In retrospect, I can see that this idealised grandfather was remarkably unsympathetic to his daughter, whose lifestyle of alcoholism and domestic violence punctuated with inpatient stays after self-harm didn’t match up with the facade of happy families he portrayed. But at the time he seemed very concerned about the wellbeing of the child. The receptionist took me aside to mention that he spoke to his wife “like a dog” in the waiting room, but turned on the charm in the presence of clinicians. I didn’t even make a note in the file. I only remembered the comment 6 months later when the social worker said to a case conference that just prior to proceedings to move the child to the residence of these grandparents, the mother had disclosed childhood sexual abuse from her father, along with sadistic punishments like having her hands held against the hot oven door if she didn’t do as she was told quickly enough. This had then been corroborated by another family member, and her records showed the school had reported the burns to her hands. The child was placed in foster care instead.

I remember how stupid I felt. The clues were right there in front of me. The child was vulnerable to abuse, and the developmental delay and unusual behaviour with no sign of organic cause showed that something was going wrong in their life. But it was too easy to attribute it all to the ‘bad’ parents and not the ‘good’ grandparents, falling into the polarised thinking of the family, despite normally having more nuanced formulations. The mother’s story didn’t match the grandparents, and her lifestyle didn’t fit with their descriptions of her upbringing, but she had been branded an unreliable reporter. So why did someone from such a happy middle class home get into such a mess? The answer was given to me on a plate – she had fallen into a bad crowd as a teenager, and ended up drinking and in a destructive relationship – so I didn’t look at other contributory factors. It wasn’t my job to pry, I was just doing a developmental assessment of the child. Yet I know that severely troubled adults have rarely had idyllic childhoods, and have often experienced multiple adverse childhood events, and that attachment styles are often carried through the generations. Likewise I know that trying to charm professionals can be a warning sign, but nonetheless numerous small compliments on your insight, empathy and skill as a clinician can flatter your ego without being so excessive as to raise a red flag. And the receptionist’s comments were given outside of the clinic room, and whilst I didn’t have the file open to take notes. Plus she wasn’t a clinician and may not have heard the full context of the comment, so the team didn’t give it much credence.

Thankfully, the disclosure came in time to protect the child from being placed with someone with a history of abusing children, but it wasn’t thanks to my skill as a clinician. Sure, I was quite early in my career and still quite naive, but I suspect most clinicians think we have uniquely sensitive radar to pick up on abuse and abusers. Sadly, we don’t. Whilst we might not rely on the stereotypes that the public are fed, of dirty old men in trench coats exposing themselves at the park, or strangers trying to tempt children into their car with sweets or puppies, I do think we have some internal stereotypes. The abusers that are easily caught are often socially gauche, lower in intellectual ability and/or socioeconomic status, and we tend to think of men who are unsuccessful in adult relationships and are prolific and opportunistic in their offending, but abusers are a highly heterogeneous group. Few have overt mental health problems, some may appear to be morally upstanding citizens, some are female, they come from all walks of life, cultures and religions, they may have functional adult relationships, and most are known to the child. about a quarter of perpetrators are under the age of 18. The majority of abusers have a single victim or a small number within their immediate network. A tiny minority with a primary inclination towards children are prolific abusers like Savile, but the damage is so wide ranging and the cases more newsworthy and memorable, which is why people are more aware of them. So there is no clear alarm bell, apart from the inappropriate interest in or behaviour towards children itself, the presence of child pornography, or sexualised behaviour or disclosures from the child.

In hindsight, it is easy to recognise signs you may have missed, and if you know there is a history of sexual offences against children certain behaviours show in a different light. And I have learnt to be both more observant and more wary. Those flirtatious comments to the receptionist, or the attempts to find common ground with or flatter the assessing clinician stand out, just like the cringe-inducing examples of Savile’s behaviour we saw in the edited highlights from the rushes that Theroux had of his time with Savile. We can only hope that we learn from experience and aren’t so easily fooled next time.

*all case details have been suitably anonymised

Rape culture and blame

I blogged a couple of months ago about the Brock Turner sexual assault case, and intended to write this post then, but I left it as a draft for some time – perhaps out of discomfort for the personal disclosure involved, or a sense of distance from the incident that made me want to post about my own experience. But it has never really gone away, because it is so prevalent, both in the tip of the iceberg of individual rape cases, and the massive underlying mass of the pervasive cultural acceptance of male sexual coercion of women (eg the horrifying statistics about misogynic beliefs and rape myth acceptance amongst male college students, particularly those involved in sports that I shared in a previous blog). It seems that just as racial tension has come to a head in America over police shootings, rape has come to a head with the Brock Turner case – with 1.3 million signatures on the petition calling for the judge to be sanctioned for his decision to go for a sentence well below the ordained minimum. And this week debate about whether the olympic diver proposal was romantic or inappropriate*. It seems that themes of sexuality and gender have become fault lines, showing wider problems in society.

Of course there have been many other cases making headlines since my previous blog on the topic, and rape and sexual assault are rarely out of the news. A woman who was raped in Qatar was found guilty of the crime of having sex outside marriage and given a suspended prison sentence and fined (I suppose we should be grateful that she didn’t get the 140 lashes that her rapist got, given they were nominally convicted of the same crime), whilst a woman in Argentina was convicted of murder for possibly having a miscarriage (though the only proven miscarriage in the case was the miscarriage of justice). Here a photographer lured young men to his home for photoshoots where he drugged and raped them. Another victim of campus rapists from athletics teams. This man used a woman’s desire to protect her children as leverage to stop her resisting his rape. This 7 month pregnant woman was raped at gunpoint. The list goes on and on and on. And there is evidence of systemic problems in how US police handle rape cases. Meanwhile lots of people have been brave about talking about their own experiences of “rape culture”. For example, this one, and this one.

I thought I might share some of my own experiences, to talk about both what it says about the culture, and the blurry line around consent. To give this some context, I’m not an extraordinary woman. Nowadays I’m a middle-aged mum. Non-smoking, rarely drinking, overweight and a bit of a workaholic, with that boring but comfortable lifestyle that many families fall into of school and work and supermarket shopping and homework and swimming and weekend outings to parks and historic places, with the occasional family visit or trip to the cinema. I’ve been happily married for 19 years this month, and I lived with my husband for 3 years before that. But even before that, I wasn’t extraordinary in appearance or behaviour, and I wasn’t reckless.

So when I say there were two occasions in my life when I felt I was at significant risk of rape, I’m pretty sure that other people have had similar experiences.

The first was when I was sixteen and had just started at sixth form. I would go out drinking with a particular group of friends from school most weekends, but I usually just had two or three single shot drinks with a mixer to make them last longer (vodka collins was a favourite, and much like a Smirnoff Mule now). One night I was with a group of friends outside a pub and one of the lads bought a bottle of “Thunderbird” fortified wine from a shop. He was pretending to drink himself and with nothing more than encouragement and peer pressure, he effectively persuaded me to drink more than I wanted to. I was a very innocent 16 and when he walked me away from the group and down the dock road out of sight I hadn’t expected more than a snog and a fumble.

However I suddenly became aware of my own vulnerability once we were away from the group. I was wobbly on my feet and nearly fell over, and in an amazing demonstration of both his strength and sobriety he practically picked me up and walked me firmly down the street. A minute later he put me on some concrete ground up a few steps from the road, hidden from sight by a lorry. It was then it became apparent that he was very determined to have sex and started taking my clothes off. I was putting them back on as best I could, but I didn’t know him well and didn’t want to risk him becoming violent (he was a foot taller than me, and I was too drunk to run away) so from his point of view I didn’t give a clear ‘no’. I was still kissing him to buy time to pull my clothes back up and trying to figure out whether anything else would appease him or whether there was a means to escape. But there was nobody in sight, and he was bigger and stronger than me, and this was in the days before mobile phones, so I felt completely on my own. Thankfully after half an hour or so he gave up and walked off. He left me dishevelled and alone, down the dock road of a town that was closed up for the night, having missed my lift home. But even as I stumbled back to the phone box, called my parents for a lift and made excuses about being drunk, I was feeling relieved that things hadn’t gone much worse. I look back and feel it was a lucky escape as no form of penetration occurred.

It was a frightening but in retrospect enlightening experience. Firstly, I learnt never to be drunk enough to lose my ability to run away or plan an escape with my full faculties. Secondly, I realised that from his perspective he was just trying to persuade me to do with him what another guy had lied and said we’d done at a party. He thought that it was just a matter of persuasion and persistence, which are socially acceptable aspects of the interplay between potential sexual partners – and importantly I never said no. Maybe if I’d have said “look Chris, I don’t want to have sex, stop it” he would have. However, maybe he’d have been angry that I was leading him on. I have no way of knowing. If we’d have been interrupted or I’d escaped and I hadn’t experienced him leaving without sex, I think I would have felt it was a near miss. I don’t know if I’d have ended up reporting an attempted rape, but I certainly felt that repeatedly pulling my clothes back on was a pretty clear indication of lack of consent that he should have respected but didn’t.

Finally, I learnt that within that group of mutual friends he had done nothing wrong. They saw me leave willingly with his arm around me, and therefore everything that followed was presumed consensual. When I tried to steer clear of him they wanted me to make up with him as he was part of the group, despite the fact that I found his behaviour pretty sinister. However, for a teenage boy, plying a girl with drink, getting her to go somewhere private, trying to take her clothes off and ignoring the signals that she did not want to participate seemed a legitimate strategy, both to him and our mutual friends. He wasn’t a stranger, or someone menacing. He was an ordinary guy who was above average in appearance and intelligence. He now manages IT services for a bank.

The second time, was after the tragic abduction and murder of toddler Jamie Bulger. A friend of a friend at university came to my door and said he was from Bootle and really distressed about it and wanted to talk. Although it was clear he had been drinking, in light of his distress I let him in, and we went up to my room as other people were in the sitting room of my student house. We later heard them leave, and after that the conversation changed to how, despite having a girlfriend, he wanted to have sex with me. He tried to kiss me, but it was unpleasant and unwanted so I moved away. He started to undress, and try to grab at me. I realised I was cornered in the attic room of a house by a drunk man of substantial build with nobody else within shouting distance. However, this time I was sober and a bit more streetwise, so the balance of power was different. I told him that I wasn’t interested and wouldn’t be taking any of my clothes off. I suggested he get dressed and go back home, and I kept myself out of reach until he acquiesced. He knocked at the door the next day to nominally apologise in order to ask me not to tell his girlfriend.

Again, when I told my friends (and this time they were my friends, as opposed to mutual friends) they didn’t really see it as a big deal. I’d guess they didn’t see as having any bigger emotional connotations than “Drunk guy embarrassed himself. Assertive girl put him in his place”. But it’s never quite as simple as that. Because even if it is only for one moment, the awareness that somebody else in your social network could force you to have sex against your will is a pretty stark realisation, even for an extraverted assertive girl. And however you think about it, it has an impact.

Whether by coincidence or subconscious drive, I put on weight after those two events, adding 40% to my bodyweight over a four year period that has stayed with me ever since. I thought it might be due to the contraceptive pill, or a less active lifestyle at university. But it seems more likely looking back that I just didn’t want unwanted sexual attention, and a fat suit is quite good at narrowing your appeal and not conforming to the socially accepted norms for attractiveness.

But it does feel like the psychological equivalent of wearing anti-rape pants. That sucks because anti-rape pants are a terrible idea that I object to in the strongest terms**, because they place the responsibility for not being raped onto the individual women. Rather than stopping a few men being rapists and a heck of a lot of men feeling so entitled that they act like overcoming the woman’s resistance is a normal and acceptable part of the process of dating, it makes women take the responsibility for not being raped. Why should it be that we need special pants to indicate we are not accessible for non-consensual sex, rather than the default position? And why should I feel that being a more attractive version of myself would make me more vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances?

I should perhaps state the obvious here. I’m not a man hater, and I’m not tarring all men with the same brush. I don’t think of men as Schrodinger’s Rapist or at least, I don’t want to, because the vast majority of men I know are lovely human beings who care about other people. But yet, our survival instinct is a powerful thing. One fall down the stairs 20 years ago, and I am still careful about stairs and escalators. Two situations in which I felt vulnerable to sexual assault (and a fair few clinical cases in which I have heard stories of rape, sexual abuse and/or domestic violence) have made me see risk in men that I don’t know well, and to view being perceived as sexually attractive to those outside my trusted circle as a potential vulnerability. It is a troubling conclusion, and one I don’t know how to resolve.

*We’ve got men today saying it is ridiculous that people have questioned the romantic gesture of the Chinese diver proposal, even when the recipient of that proposal looks uncomfortable about it. They’ve been led to believe every woman wants to get married and is just desperate for her long-term bf to propose, rather than that deciding to get married and how to tell everyone about is should be a mutual agreement, or recognising that there could be duress involved. For me, the seed of doubt is in the body language and facial expressions when I watched the video. Of course, it might be a cultural difference, or the amount of adrenaline and anxiety about being in the spotlight with cameras all around her, but her face doesn’t suggest delight. It suggests hesitation and uncertainty. Quite the opposite of the rugby player and stadium manager involved in the proposal the previous day. From the silver medal diver’s reaction you could imagine the subtitles of the whisper in her ear, or the sentence after holding up the ring being “I don’t want it to be over, please say yes, don’t shame me in front of all these people” just as easily as you could imagine it being “I love you so much I want everyone in the world to know it, please forgive me for doing this in public”. And her response involved no grins, no kisses, no seeking physical closeness, just discomfort, tears, a delayed nod and then acceptance of his actions. Whilst we may never know the answers about the specific example, the themes have echoes in how gender roles are perceived across the world. So I believe the discussion is worthwhile and should not be shut down.
**I should also add that there is no evidence that these pants are effective. Instead it seems likely that a man motivated to remove the underwear of a non-consenting woman would play out in other forms of sexual assault or violence if he was thwarted by her pants. They also add to victim blaming of anyone who doesn’t use the product; “but if you didn’t want to get raped why didn’t you wear safer pants?” Similarly, a rapist might threaten the woman to get her to remove the pants, and this might then be twisted by defence lawyers to imply consent. I think this product shows a profound mis-reading of the problem. Most rape is by someone known and trusted by victim, not the kind of opportunistic attack by a stranger that will be thwarted by her wearing lock up knickers. Some thought about who will buy them, and how they will change behaviour suggests problems too. It seems to me that their main customer base will be women who are anxious about being raped who probably won’t put themselves in a position where stranger rape is possible, whilst women who buy these pants to mitigate a risky lifestyle might have false faith in their ability to prevent negative outcomes (eg if they wear them so that they can drink to unconsciousness they probably aren’t addressing why they are making themselves so vulnerable, or the risk to physical, emotional and financial well-being that this might lead to). It made me wonder about when you would wear the pants? Every day to reinforce helplessness and anxiety or just when you feel likely to be raped? If the pants are a means to say no to a partner when sex is not wanted that says something very disturbing about relationships that needs to be addressed in more than just her choice of underwear. Finally, would another person such as a partner or controlling relative ever make the woman wear the pants like a chastity belt?

Is empathy finite? Part Two: Brock Turner

This is the second of two blogs about recent sex offences that have made the news, and is about Brock Turner. The prior blog was about prolific child abuser, Richard Huckle and can be found here. In that case, my ability to have any empathy for the perpetrator was severely tested. In this case, it isn’t my empathy that is under question (because I don’t have the same discomfort in trying to understand the position of all the different parties in this case), but that within our whole culture.

I’m sure you will all have read the story about how Brock Turner sexually assaulted an unconscious woman outside a frat party and her eloquent response to his six month sentence.

What was notable was that the case polarised the world into two camps. Either this was the fault of one individual who did something awful, or he was just the unfortunate example that got punished of a problematic culture of drinking and promiscuity amongst young adults at American universities. Here is how the two alternative stories are framed:

1) Everyone was drunk at the party and coupling off with strangers for casual sex, and that was part of what is expected at frat parties, everyone knows that. The guy was very drunk and paired off with the girl by mutual agreement. They were kissing and she consented to go back to his dorm, but they fell over and were kissing and fumbling on the ground mutually enjoying the sexual activity and he didn’t notice that she lost consciousness at some point before vigilantes interfered. He was a promising scholar and sportsman who has lost a prestigious place at Stanford and will serve six months in jail and be on the sex offenders register for life. He has been an unfortunate example of taking accepted culture one step too far and the poor guy will be paying for that for his whole life in the change in his career trajectory.

Or

2) The victim was really really drunk whilst the perpetrator was just a bit drunk, and he had a pattern of being sexually aggressive to women in similar circumstances. He had made sexual approaches towards the victim’s sister and was knocked back, so he tried it on with her and realised she was too drunk to resist (despite having a long term boyfriend she was committed to) so he led her off and she fell down unconscious by some bins on the way out. Instead of calling for help for her he sexually assaulted her injuring her genitals and would have raped her if not for the intervention of two passing cyclists who noticed her being obviously unconscious. She regained consciousness three hours later with no memory of what had happened, injured and bleeding in a hospital where she then had to be forensically examined for evidence of rape, whilst he expressed no concern for her during several hours of being questioned by police, claimed she gave consent and denied she was unconscious. She then had a year of stress building up to the trial, where she was cross examined and blamed for what happened to her. She has been traumatised for life, and this sentence sets a precedent of rape culture on college campuses being not such a big deal.

I think the evidence best supports the latter version, and the conviction suggests that the court agreed. But I think there is some truth in both stories, because as I have often said before, behaviour almost always reflects the person’s experience and the context as well as the choice that they made. There is a massive problem in modern western culture, particularly amongst young adults, in which sexual coercion is normalised and blamed on alcohol, which is consumed to excess. It is also scarily prevalent. You might call it a rape culture. About 20 million out of 112 million women (18.0%) in the United States have been raped during their lifetime. Only 16% of all rapes were reported to law enforcement. In 2006 alone, 300,000 college women (5.2%) were raped. Among college women, about 12% of rapes were reported to law enforcement. There are similar figures for the UK. And it makes me wonder – why do we not have basic empathy and respect for each other, even when we are intoxicated and disinhibited?

The culture of deifying talented sportsmen in American universities and the tendency for athletic teams to spend a lot of time together and sometimes live together also appears to have contributed to the answer. A recent study shows that male intercollegiate athletes accounted for 19% of all sexual violence cases reported but only comprised 3% of the student populations. Amongst these groups, attitudes to women are problematic. The researchers found many more “beliefs and situational definitions that excuse rape or define assaultive situations as something other than rape” in athletes. Amongst sportsmen there were also distinctive narratives. The researchers reported that amongst athletes “hypermasculine discourse includes war-like, misogynistic, and sexually violent analogies” and that this was directly related to the difference in attitudes towards sexual coercion. 29.5% of college men in the study sample had insisted on having sex when their partner did not want to, and 5% have used force and 5% have used threats to get a partner to submit to sexual activity. Attitudes toward women were less progressive and rape myth acceptance was more prevalent amongst athletes. You can see echoes of this in the letter from Turner’s father, which blames a culture of drinking and promiscuity rather than his son’s actions and displays no empathy for the victim. Likewise the same theme is present in Turner’s testimony, and in the (repugnant) letter sent to the judge by a childhood friend of Turner who claimed that the accusations levied against him were down to “political correctness”.

The truth is that whilst we can take actions to help reduce the availability and vulnerability of potential victims by helping to educate teens and young adults about the dangers of binge drinking, the main problem is in the attitudes and actions of those who use coercive sexual behaviour. In the words of an infographic from facebook, the causes of rape are 0% slutty clothes, 0% alcohol, 0% college culture and 100% rapists. And in the words of another infographic:

“She was drunk, what did she expect?” “A hangover, that’s what she expected.” Drinking isn’t a crime, rape is. Stop victim blaming.

Whatever else contributed to Brock Turner being in that position, let me quote the letter from the survivor of this incident, “we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error”. We need to teach every child about privacy and consent from when they are very small to when they are adults. Here is how I explain it to young children: If somebody wants to touch a part of you that is covered by your swimming costume or to put anything in your mouth, then they need to ask you and not do it unless you say it is okay. And if you want to touch any part of another person that is covered by their swimming costume or put anything in their mouth then you need to ask them, and only do it if they say it is okay. You should only say yes to someone doing that if it is someone who needs to touch you to help with an illness or injury and Mummy or Daddy are with you and say it is okay. If anyone does something like that when you don’t want them to or it doesn’t feel right, you should always talk to me about it or someone else that you trust”. Here is how I explain it to a teenager “Don’t ever pressure anyone else or let anyone pressure you to do things that don’t feel right or comfortable to you. If you aren’t sure, you can always talk to me about it. That includes anything about sex or relationships”.

Whilst the mythology of false allegations implies otherwise, and real life is always more ambiguous than it appears in theory, consent is actually pretty simple. If somebody is in a fit state of mind to make decisions and actively says yes and reciprocates, then they consent. If that isn’t the case then they don’t. When this video came out I wondered why they needed to spell out that if a person is unconscious they can’t consent. Now we know why. It is only a basic level of empathy that is required. The golden rule of do as you would be done by. But it involved placing yourself in the other person’s perspective and understanding that the person you really want to have sex with might not really want to have sex with you, and if they did they might want to do so after a gradual progression of the relationship and without intoxication that would impair their judgement.

On the other hand, one bit of empathy is transparently clear from this case. The judge, a former Stanford athlete himself, appears to have had too much empathy for the impact of the sentence on the life of Brock Turner, perhaps because of over-identification. Whilst I respect that he was a prosecutor of sexual offences, and may also be comparing this assault (which was interrupted, and thus never progressed to what we in the UK would define as rape) to other cases from his career that involved violence or threats, and whilst it may well be that Turner has now learned his lesson and will be very clear about obtaining consent in the future, I was not persuaded by anything I have read that Turner accepts responsibility for his actions. In fact, it appears he only accepts responsibility for drinking, and not for any sexual offence. He pleaded not guilty, and amazingly, he is going to appeal even this remarkably light sentence. On that basis I believe it is important that the sentence reflects the gravity of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, and his lack of genuine insight or remorse, as well as setting an important precedent to show that college culture or use of alcohol is not an excuse for sexual assault.

In my next blog I may talk about my own experiences of unwanted sexual contact. But for now I want to finish by remembering that two students noticed what was happening and intervened. Many people would ride right on by, and it may be that their Swedish rather than American/British norms were part of what protected this woman from being raped, but in this instance two people saw what was happening was wrong and they did something about that. And the victim has not only become a survivor, she has found her voice and used it amazingly articulately to become an advocate for all women who have experienced unwanted or coercive sexual interactions. I think that is a salient reminder that no matter how skew the norms can get within certain small pockets of society, the rest of us can still recognise right and wrong, and protect each other. However dark the world is, we are not entirely powerless. We can prevent some people from being harmed, and can help others to recover from these experiences. We might not be able to change the world immediately, but we are making slow steady progress over time, and at an individual level and at a societal level, things can be better if the rest of us play our part. No matter how overwhelming the rape culture might feel, we can all be part of the solution.

Edit: I have since read that Brock Turner may have photographed the breasts of the victim whilst she was unconscious, and another stranger may have seen him do so, then checked she was still breathing and put her into the recovery position prior to the sexual assault. If this is true, then any pretence that Turner was unaware of her being unconscious is thrown out the window. It would also appear that he had a history of drinking and using drugs prior to attending Stanford, so the attribution of the cause to the culture of drinking and promiscuity at the college seems like even more of a red herring than it did before.