Tea, Crumpets and Sexual Harassment: a London Memoire

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Story time with Marryl.

If you follow my (obnoxious) Instagram, you’ll know that I spent the last week and a half in the United Kingdom. I was in need of a vacation, and my friend Sarah, who is studying law in London, generously offered me a free place to stay and travel buddy. In this case, Instagram did parallel reality and I had an incredible time.

Up until the very end.

I spent my final night in London out with another friend from the city. At the end of the night we were heading home in opposite directions, so we parted ways around midnight, however at this point in my trip I had conquered the underground and felt more than confident in my ability to get home alone. After all, Sarah lives only a 5 minute walk from a tube stop, up a well-lit street.

But a minute or so into my walk, I saw two men in my peripherals coming up to the main road from a side street. They were loud and boisterous, possibly drunk, so while I kept my gaze ahead, I could hear that they turned to walk in the same direction as me, about 10 or 15 metres back. But I continued along my way, mostly unfazed.

Until they started talking to me.

They both called out, trying to get my attention. Things like, “hey girl, hey black leggings.” There were definitely a few “sweethearts” thrown in there. I can’t remember anything more specific because my heart was pumping all the way up to my ears, but the were not kind words at all. And they certainly were not happy that I didn’t turn around.

Still a ways from the apartment, the fear really started to creep in. I called my friend who I had just been with, and when he picked up and asked how I was, I said loudly into the phone, “yeah I’m fine, babe. Almost home,” and then whispered to him that I was being followed. I was hoping that maybe these men would back off if they thought I was on the phone with my boyfriend. Or maybe they wouldn’t do anything if they knew someone was listening.

My friend lost service and the phone call cut out. I was alone again. I was approaching the apartment, the door of which is down a short, dark path with a broken outdoor light. I wasn’t confident with using the keys to unlock it, so I started to panic that this brief moment of trying to enter the building would give them an opportunity. I tried calling Sarah, hoping maybe she could meet me outside, however she was (as to be expected) asleep. I was shaking, and started breathing faster. I was alone, outnumbered, in a foreign country, with no idea what to do or how this would end. The world started spinning.

Then seemingly out of no where an older man walked past me, headed in the opposite direction. My heart and mind racing, instinct kicked in and I stopped and turned and asked this man, “excuse me, could you do me a favour? Could you please stand right here while I go into my apartment?” He looked confused, but obliged, and stood near the gate as I walked up to the door. I didn’t take the time to explain, because I didn’t have the time. As this happened, then two men caught up to me, and though I kept my focus to the door, I could hear them continuing to shout at me, and at the man helping. But I managed to unlock the door, slip inside, and hear the loud, relieving click of the door locking behind me, their voices still burning my ears.

And then I broke down crying.

It all caught up to me. I was so scared. I don’t remember the last time I experienced such blind fear like that. I won’t dwell too much on the “could have” of it all, because the important thing is whatever could have happened, didn’t. All things considered, I’m fine. And incredibly lucky and thankful.

Once I stopped shaking and the fear subsided, it was quickly replaced with anger. And I’m still so angry. Angry that these strangers could ruin a perfect night. Angry that they got to me. That the next morning, I almost cried again walking back up that street, but this time in broad daylight. Angry that the next time I have to go anywhere alone at night, I know I’ll automatically be afraid. Or maybe I’ll change my plans or not go out or feel the need to only travel in groups. And that just not fucking fair. None of this is my fault. Not the time of night. Not being alone. Not what I was wearing. It is 100% the fault of these two men who actively chose to harass a stranger on the street. And yet they get off scot-free, and I will be reliving that moment for a long time.

I don’t really know what my goal is in writing this. Channeling my emotions, I suppose. Because I know that my audience (aka my Facebook and Instagram friends who click the link I shared) hold similar progressive views as I do, so I’m not exactly teaching anyone anything. The men in my life are not at all the type to harass a stranger, so they don’t need to be preached to. And the women in my life certainly don’t need yet another cautionary tale to tell them what they already know.

Then again, I think we can always learn, regardless of how forward-thinking we think we are. In fact, I find that sometimes  “liberals” are so focused on fighting the good fight against bigots and assholes that they can lose sight of their own need to be educating themselves, because they think they know better. This isn’t entirely a gender issue, but as an example I’ll say that I have been in countless situations of telling stories to my male friends of times I’ve been harassed in public, and watched their jaws drop at the idea that it could be a daily occurrence. Even my guy friends who identify as feminists are so surprised that the women in their lives are sexually harassed on a regular basis. Even last night, my friend was pretty shook that this had happened to me, and I replied that I am almost always anticipating it. Which is terribly sad but also terribly true.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that when you think you know it all, you don’t. When you think we are taking a step forward, know that someone, somewhere, is taking four steps back. And while you might not be the harasser on the street, or the harassed, that doesn’t mean it does not happen. Don’t let your open-mindedness and good-natured optimism blind you to the sad realities of the world we still live in. Remind yourself that we can all do better. And don’t get lost in the idea of being the hero to fix it all. Just listen. Sometimes it’s best to just shut up, sit down, and listen to the victims. You don’t have to understand, but you do have to be aware.

As for the “what now,” I am going to do my best to keep going as I normally do. I’ll continue to take steps to be safe and protect myself, but I won’t let fear shape my behaviour and stop me from living my fullest life.

Because those fuckers think they won. But they didn’t. And they never will.

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Sexual harassment is never your fault

Yesterday, while I was waiting to cross at an intersection on my walk to school, a car that was turning the corner slowed right down, rolled down the passenger-side window, and a man in the passenger seat shouted, “Hey, Sexy.”

Good morning to you too, sir.

Naturally, I turned the other way and ignored him, holding my breath until the car drove away. I learned a long time ago that diffusing sexual harassment with silence is much easier, and much safer, than responding with the aggression I feel.

But this post isn’t about diffusing. This post isn’t about how scary it is to be sexually harassed. This post is about something much more serious.

As the light changed and I began to cross the street, I looked down and thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t wear knee socks with a skirt when my winter coat it so long. It looks a little scandalous.”

And then I proceeded to mentally slap myself for thinking such a thing.

Here’s a lesson that the world is trying to learn but is nevertheless learning very slowly: sexual harassment is never your fault. What you are wearing, where you are walking, what time of day it is, whether you’re out alone, does not matter. There is absolutely no condition that could lead you to blaming yourself for being sexually harassed. None. You are always the victim and you are never responsible. Please don’t forget that.

Victim blaming has been a hot topic in the news lately, particularly through the Jian Ghomeshi trial, and Kesha’s legal battles with Sony. There are a lot of articles and opinions flying around the internet and everything can seem very complicated. But the important thing to remember is that when a person opens up about a traumatic experience and we say they’re wrong because they, in some way, put themselves in the situation, we are threatening to silence all victims of sexual assault and harassment by making them feel they can’t come forward without being blamed.

The day I walk to school with a big sign on my backpack saying, “Please shout sexual profanities at me from your car,” is the day I may claim responsibility for being harassed. But until then, I am not asking for it.