In December 2007 I wrote a post about an experience I had on the London underground. I was followed by a man at King’s Cross station, and although he did not physically or verbally attack me, he stalked and glared. We were surrounded by other commuters and it was the middle of the day, but he looked at me with such intensity that I was intimidated and scared.At first I dismissed the incident. Women get stared at everyday, it was not a big deal. I thought I’d go home and forget about it, accepted it as nothing more than part of being a woman, and hoped that I wouldn’t feel discouraged from using the Tube alone again or at night. I didn’t plan to tell anyone else, thinking that no-one would care; if anything, I thought, they’d think I was over-reacting. Did this anonymous man reflect on his behaviour? It’s doubtful, why would he? He didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. I was too nervous to tell him. If he had, would he have been so confident? It was then I realised that whether this is considered a common part of social interactions or not, it’s not right, and it needs to stop. There are a lot of issues affecting women in modern society, and although this may not be the most significant we need to realise that any form of intimidation is wrong, and however trivial we may feel a situation is, we should still feel able to speak out, and be taken seriously. This was why I chose to write about it.I received an overwhelming response to my post from other women in the UK and abroad, sharing their experiences of harassment in the public forum, be that on transport, in the professional environment or when walking home.
I like the idea of a forum for discussing these experiences. Among other things, it could be a very useful resource for both thinking about and teaching about sexual harassment. There are really difficult issues to be had here. ‘Staring’ and ‘looking’ are really problematic terms to write into a sexual harassment code. Whether or not a look is a harassing one seems a deeply subjective thing. That leads one to think it’s crazy to try to regulate it. And yet most of us know from first-hand experience what it feels like to get the sort of look in question, and when we reflect on that it seems clear we’ve got to take it really seriously, and recognise its potential for intimidation. Anyway, excellent food for thought.