This post is off topic for Georgian London, so I totally understand if you don’t read on from here!
The recent abuse suffered on Twitter by feminist Caroline Criado-Perez is abhorrent. Disgusting, vile, wrong. But I won’t be taking the #trolliday on August 4th, or campaigning for Twitter (the business, not the users) to ‘behave’ better, or boycotting the service. I’m not in favour of women being abused, obviously. But it’s just not as simple as that, is it. There’s too much shouting on Twitter about things like this at the moment, by women who want to be seen as feminist icons and men who want to cement their ‘liberal’ status. And the outragemongers.
This seems to come from a fundamental missing of the point that stupid and/or socially inadequate men are frightened by intelligent and therefore (in the land of these new, free, internet platforms) powerful women. Or about the fact that even more allegedly competent men such as certain American politicians currently in the news have some very peculiar ideas about what constitutes a normal way to address women online. Do people really imagine that these men, or groups of men are going to think, ‘Oh, an online petition shows that xx thousand people don’t like that I said I wanted to rape and sodomise a stupid bitch and show her who’s boss, so I’ll stop that now and never look at extreme porn or leer at a woman in the street again’. I don’t think so.
This is a post about men and women. As much as we want to believe we’re all people, until we admit the differences, we can’t address them and make them work for all of us. I’ve tried to work out what I think about the whole situation, and I remembered something that happened a long time ago. It’s a nice story with a good ending. A reason to be cheerful. So I thought, maybe you’d like to hear it too.
When I was sixteen I had a boyfriend. No really, I did. He was and is, lovely. Then he went off to university and I had to get the train halfway across the country to see him. I know, young love. You wouldn’t know it now, but I was exceptionally shy. On the train, at night, somewhere in Middle England, a man in a black poloneck (*obvious villain klaxon*) sat down opposite me and starting asking if I understood about what God wanted a woman to do with her life, and if I wanted a Coke and where was I getting off and who was meeting me. I knew this was a Very. Bad. Thing. Total Stranger Danger. And I’d seen those videos, a lot (remember The 90s). But I was too politely-brought-up, and too afraid to do anything. I was so afraid that I was still sitting there like a rabbit in the headlights, when the train divided and I was in the front end, the wrong end, and not stopping at the station where my boyfriend was waiting in his Ford Fiesta. But far, far worse, I was with a man who had sat there and talked me into it happening. Without a doubt, he knew exactly what he was doing.
What did I do? Was I some sort of teenage ninja? Did I ask for help from the people walking through the night-time carriage? No, obviously not. I wanted to. A couple of times I almost did. But I didn’t. And these were the days before mobile phones, Twitter and certainly before modern journalists were empowering teenage girls.
So I sat there, with tears leaking from my face, looking out of the window as this man continued to speak to me about God. And the importance of ‘special relationships’. He had a black blazer in his lap with one of those fish badges on it. But he wasn’t a Christian. Christians don’t talk to lone girls about what ‘God’ wants from them. They don’t reach out and try to touch their hands across the table. He was an unpleasant, opportunistic creep at best. At worst, I was in a lot of trouble.
ENTER STAGE LEFT (from the next carriage): Our Hero. He was probably in his early twenties, with brown hair, a bit squinty with tired, wearing a navy t-shirt, board shorts (it was the 90s, people) and carrying a vast rucksack. He stopped, exactly at the end of the table, where so many others had walked by in the previous forty minutes.
‘Are you okay?’
Poloneck: ‘She’s fine.’
Long pause. ‘I wasn’t asking you.’
Poloneck: ‘I told you, she’s fine.’
‘And I said I wasn’t asking you.’
Like your true modern feminist, I started to sob. How on earth could I say I didn’t know this man at all and that I had missed my change and was incoherent with fear?
Our Hero dumped his bag against the table and sat down next to me, smiling.
Poloneck: We were having a conversation.
Our Hero: Don’t let me stop you.
Poloneck: It was a private conversation.
Our Hero: I don’t mind.
After ten very silent minutes, (it may have been two or one and a half; it felt like a lifetime) of staring amongst them and me sniffing, The Poloneck got up and went to sit a few rows away, glowering.
Our Hero’s name was Peter. He was on his way back home after backpacking, somewhere. I don’t remember where. I told him I’d missed my connection. He jumped up and found the conductor. Remember those? I sat, petrified in the half a minute Peter was gone, The Poloneck being no more than a few yards away. Peter came back with an extremely tall Sikh in a plum-coloured turban with the big grey machine strapped around his neck like a cinema ice-cream girl. He had already passed me twice. He’d checked my ticket while tears ran down my face.
But now, because of one young, self-assured man, everything was going to be okay. They had a plan.
Peter had brought back with him a very cold Coke (yes, really, but remember it was the 90s), and did that cool thing with the ring pull and a straw. Then we shared it because he thought I was frightened about it being drugged and this whole thing being some sort of plot. That hadn’t crossed my mind. I can’t remember what we talked about and the Coke made my head ache. A few minutes later, he jumped up and grabbed my bag, and we went to the door. The conductor stood there, waiting. The train slowed, then stopped, at a tiny station. The platform was completely empty apart from a red geranium and an orange overhead light.
The conductor smiled. ‘Your train will be along in a couple of minutes. Stand in this spot and get on quickly. They are stopping it just for you.’ I didn’t register until a long time later that they were stopping not one, but two Intercity trains for me. He opened the doors and Peter jumped out, put my bag on the ground, and got back onto the train. They both waved, through the glass. It pulled away.
As it charged off into the night, I remembered I’d forgotten to say thank you. Or goodbye. Or, in fact, anything. And I’m sorry about that.
A few anxious minutes later, there were the headlights of another train in the distance. It careered to a halt on the platform, the doors opened and I stepped out of the night air and into the carriage. There was no one there, no one to thank. Soon after that, I was climbing into the passenger seat of a Ford Fiesta, only a little late. My boyfriend leant across me to check that the cranky door was shut. ‘Are you okay?’ he said, ‘you look as if you’ve been crying.’
What happened to me that night? Nothing. I had a crap train journey, an indifferent pizza and slept in a single bed with a young man who suffered from the worst hayfever I’ve ever encountered. But what might have happened?
And that’s my point. Being well-meaning in a tweet or an online signature isn’t enough. And all the loud online posturing in the world is not going to take the place of that one good deed. The one moment where we should act in real life, and don’t. And then that moment changes someone else’s life. After all, bad men don’t have to be yelling rape abuse.
Twenty years on, I’m not a frightened little girl any more. I’ve lived in London for most of that time, and I’ve been jostled, pushed, spat on and called all the choicest names for female genitalia by men I don’t know. (If you’re interested in this, you don’t have to go to specialist clubs and pay or anything, just travel by Tube or bus for a month. Or cycling. That really brings out the best in some men. Every journey a joy.) But I try to stick up for myself out there in the world, and for anyone else, man, woman or animal, if I think they need it. Yes, it’s not always that simple. Sometimes it’s frightening. Assistance isn’t always welcome. You have to pick your fights and you can’t always get it right: taking on the mob at Gatwick Wetherspoons at 0630 over a small matter of etiquette probably wasn’t my finest call. What I have learned in those years is that there are a lot of good men out there, and it just takes one of them to see a woman in distress and change the outcome of that situation. There are also lots of not so nice men, but not one, not ten online campaigns are going to take the place of the person on the street, at a party, on the train, or in the office who steps in and says, ‘This is not okay’.
I don’t remember the many people who walked past a tearful teenage girl in the train carriage that night. But I remember the one who didn’t.