Unwanted attention, unhelpful advice and why winter is no season to be a woman
This is something I wrote back in winter 2015 on a now-defunct blog. Republishing here, unedited, because it’s all too relevant. Fun fact: I thought I’d written this blog about a different incident. It had merged into all the others.
A few weeks ago I was walking home from the station after work when a man started shouting something at me. Maybe it was hello, maybe it was an insult, or maybe it was a ‘compliment’, but because it was just shouted at me as I walked past I did what I normally do in this situation: ignored him and carried on walking. Unfortunately he was having none of this and decided to follow me the rest of my way home. I did my usual mental calculations and deliberations; how fast do I go to lose him without making it obvious I’m fleeing? Can I make it home without him realising where I live? If I run past home will I be able to get to the other entrance before he catches up with me, or will I just have trapped myself in a quieter spot? I settled on a brisk walk to the first gate, but was horrified to see it didn’t lock behind me. The man approached the gate, so I ran as fast as I could to my front door, praying my keys weren’t buried at the bottom of my bag. Hands shaking, I found them, ran up the stairs and made it home. I’d planned on changing then going out for a run but couldn’t face leaving the house, so I poured myself a glass of wine to settle my nerves instead.
The scariest thing about the whole thing? It was 6.45pm on a weekday, and it was in broad daylight.
By the time I’d finished my wine I was completely fine, but more scared about what was on the way.
There are many reasons I don’t love winter. It’s cold. The pavements get icy. You have to choose between freezing on the way to the station and roasting on the tube. I don’t really like Christmas. But by the far the worst thing about winter is the dark.
Suddenly even your journey home from work has an extra edge. Stay out for a drink or two and you’ll miss the crush on public transport, but you’ll also miss out on the protective crowd in the dark.
Last week I went to a book club, where I had a couple of drinks (just one was alcoholic, in case you were wondering) and headed home. I got off the tube and went my usual route home, turning into a road which is very lively during the day but at 9pm is quite dark and generally deserted. It was at this point that I heard a man’s voice just behind me. ‘Hello. Hello? Hello?’ At the third ‘Hello’ I turned around and replied with a short but polite ‘Hi’ and carried on walking. He then told me his name and asked for mine. I gave it. I didn’t want to continue the conversation, but I also didn’t want to risk the ‘I’m only being friendly, you bitch’ that has followed other attempts to disengage from unwanted conversations in the past. After a stilted exchange — in which he told me he had wanted to talk to me after seeing me on the tube — he asked me if I was shy. I merely said I was just tired and keen to get home, but the truth was I was working out what to say to keep myself safe. Too chatty and I’m encouraging him. Too short and I risk antagonizing him. I couldn’t help wondering, if he had first wanted to talk to me on the tube, why he had followed me off the tube and along the main road before approaching me while I was alone on a dark deserted street. In the end our whole conversation probably only lasted a few minutes, and when he turned left I turned right with a polite goodbye. He didn’t try to follow me, he wasn’t rude or aggressive and he hadn’t said anything particularly suggestive during the whole exchange. I’m fairly certain he was a polite guy trying to be friendly who just hadn’t really thought through the context of the situation. But that’s the thing — you never know until it’s too late. The next day I read about the series of sex attacks on women in south-west London. I live in south-west London. If I had seen it before my conversation in the dark street I would have been absolutely terrified.
I’m not really sure why I’m writing this, given the fact plenty of other women have written more eloquently about the subject elsewhere. I think I’m just angry. Fuming, actually.
After the recent attacks, a senior police officer had this to say: “We have increased police patrols in Clapham and Brixton Hill and urge women to think of their personal safety.”
WE URGE WOMEN TO THINK OF THEIR PERSONAL SAFETY.
Most women think of their personal safety 24/7. During my three years at university in Cardiff I was relatively reckless, walking home from nights out to save money. I packed a pair of flats more for comfort than for safety. I paid for it though — I was followed home twice, and once someone followed me, crept up behind me, lifted up my skirt and grabbed me. I cried the rest of the way home, but afterwards I was mainly just grateful nothing worse had happened.
After that I couldn’t help but think of personal safety whenever I left the house. Now if I wear heels I am constantly wondering how fast I can run in them. I’ll often leave a night out earlier or later than I’d really like just to make sure I have someone to catch the tube or night bus with. Once I’m off the tube or train I will turn my music off so I will be able to hear approaching footsteps. If a stranger starts talking to me I spend the whole time wondering what to say that won’t antagonise them. Sometimes if they don’t get my polite hints I snap and tell them to f*ck off, but only if I feel confident I can outrun them. I love running outside but I’m about to join a gym. I probably wouldn’t be bothering if I actually felt safe running in the dark three times a week.
I know I’m not alone in this. Women already ‘think of their personal safety’ constantly and that still isn’t enough to stay safe. The earliest of the latest attacks happened at 5.40pm. Quite a few of the weekday attacks happened at the time most people are coming home from work. What more can we seriously do? Refuse to go out unaccompanied after dusk?