The fear

The other day, we were getting some furniture delivered (thrilling start to a story, I know). I have the freedom to work from home to fit these sort of life chores in and, as nobody else  could do that quite so easily, had volunteered to be there. After all, leaving work at lunchtime, letting a couple of guys in, and ‘overseeing’ them negotiate a three-seater sofa up the world’s smallest corridor wasn’t exactly hard work (well, not for me anyway).

Turns out that something as inconspicuous as organising a new sofa can say a whole lot about what it’s like to be female sometimes. Here’s what a simple task like organising some furniture delivery actually involved:

  1. Screening every ranking website for signs that they weren’t legitimate. And yes, we found some pretty convincing evidence…IMG_0423.JPG
  2. Screening the few remaining companies for ratings, testimonials and any sign that the people coming into our home had had checks done. This is London, not some small family-owned business: for all we know it’s a massive franchise that anyone capable of signing a few forms could become a part of
  3. Wondering if points 1 and 2 made us out to be a little paranoid…
  4. Feeling a little embarrassed about that
  5. Wishing even so that we weren’t stuck to a “midday, week day” delivery time slot, when at the weekends more people would be around and could be in at the same time
  6. Settling for the least dodgy-looking service
  7. Insisting that my boyfriend, and my housemate, knew the exact times of the delivery and would be ‘around’ (virtually speaking) if I messaged or called

So what I was scared of? Nothing in particular – and that’s the truth. Contrary to the impression the list above might give, I don’t go about life looking to see the worst in people, strangers included; I make a conscious effort to quieten down that “worst-case-scenario” voice we all have inside of us, because nine times out of ten, it proves more worry than it’s worth. No, scared isn’t the word – to be scared typically describes something active, it’s that fight or flight response. Aware is the word here: I was aware that I would be alone, with two (older, presumably pretty hefty) guys in my flat. And I was aware of stories that start like that, and turn out badly. This is The Fear; a passive, ambiguous state that feels both looming and unending.

As the arrival time approached I changed out of my work clothes, into sweats and I took off my make up, not least because – and this is worthy of it’s own post – we’ve all seen instances where appearing attractive has invited people to suggest a girl had her harassment coming. I put trainers on. I had my keys in my pocket. And I opened most of our windows.

Written like that, it might sound neurotic – but I assure you these things are second nature. How you choose to interpret that is quite important, by the way, if not the crux of the issue – because to think I’m neurotic puts all this on me, whereas to appreciate something as second nature, you’re recognising that there are conditions which could evoke this kind of behaviour from someone who (I’m told, by people who know me) is by all accounts quite sensible. Here, those conditions are about unwanted attention, boundaries – or lack of, and yes, a little bit of sexism.

So what happened the day our sofa was delivered? Oh, nothing of note. Nothing I could really complain about. I mean, how would this look on paper – “I just had this feeling…”

Well, I did just have a feeling. Of the two guys, one was fine – polite, in fact. The other? Staring. No talking, just staring. THE WHOLE TIME. Now, being someone who trusts feelings, I avoided most eye contact and kept chat to a minimum. Read that line again. I changed my usual personality to fit this situation.

After what felt like an age, when the work was done, I opened the door that leads from my flat to the corridor and took a not-insignicant step back from it. Polite Man nipped down to get his receipt book. Staring Man lingered for a few uncomfortable seconds and then, as he followed his colleague, leant in to stroke my arm goodbye.

Get the fuck out of my flat, Staring Man.

Maybe now you’re thinking: Vikki, did you just write an entire post about a guy that touched your arm? Yes, I did. And if you’re still reading it, I hope you know why I’ve done it: because it’s not insignificant. It’s not totally harmless. It may not have had any serious ill intentions behind it, but I doubt he’d have done the same to a 25-year-old guy (who, I’d hazard a guess, also wouldn’t have gone through the same stressful build-up to this seemingly inevitable moment).

These are the moments that build a girl’s barriers up, and let the rest of the good guys down: catcalls from the scaffolding, words hanging out of the White Van window while it’s rolling along beside you, the eyes on you when you run past in your gym kit, the sizing up of your appearance as you cross paths on the street, and the “cheer up, love” or far worse jeers that you get when you ignore it.

From experience, few of these things happen when a girl isn’t outnumbered – it’s really hard to argue against “lad culture” when you see so much evidence that numbers alone bring out the pricks in people. Perhaps that’s why it appears harmless to them, because they’re backed up by a group that know they’re a good guy, and it’s “only a laugh”. To them, sure, maybe it is. To us, it’s not that far removed from the feeling we’ll get about the guy who’s stood a little too close to us on a crowded tube, or following us home.

I hope my ego hasn’t occurred to you in all this. Because it’s nothing to do with how I look (or think I look), act, or speak – it’s not something invited or encouraged, and it’s not taken as a compliment. It’s not to be reduced to a bias of personal experience, either. There’s no huge hideous incident in my past that has “made” me like this – I’ve been lucky there. Ask any female friend, the chances are they know another who hasn’t been.

Staring Man might not describe himself as being sexist, but his actions, and in fact his entire presence that afternoon, reeked of it. He was out of order and – apparently – above social cues.

In a different context, under different circumstances, there wouldn’t have been anything wrong with this single, inconspicuous gesture. On a first date with a great guy, it might be the very move that gives you butterflies.

But this wasn’t like that, and accumulatively it’s wearing. It’s saddening – at best. It gives us the rage. And believe us, it is a problem, because each of these jeers and gestures are tiny iterations of the attitude that says “I could, if I wanted to” – and the truth is, that’s never anyone else’s decision to make.


Notes

I’ve taken the title for this post from point 6 in Caitlin Moran’s brilliant essay for Esquire, entitled: 12 Things About Being a Woman That Women Won’t Tell You. If my piece spoke to you, or you’re still unsure why I wrote it, I really recommend you give hers a read.

Finally, a little disclaimer: Obviously, in a first-person piece, I can only write from my experience as a 25-year-old female. That said, I’m sure it’s not just women who are on the receiving end of this, and fully acknowledge here that overstepping boundaries, being sexist, or being a prick, are traits of a few individual characters – they’re not gender-specific.

 

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