Indecent Exposure **content warning**

Two days ago I decided to take advantage of the warm, autumnal sunshine and take a walk along the Thames Path – the towpath that winds along the banks of the Thames river in London. I chose the south side, starting at Kew Bridge and ending at Hampton Court – a route that would be around 10 miles in length, through beautiful riverside leafiness.

It felt so good to stride out along the well-worn path, complete with dappled sunshine and smiling walkers, runners and cyclists. I came across Ham House, a 17th-century mansion owned by the National Trust, that was offering free access as part of the Open House London weekend – I decided to take a little detour and found the house and grounds enchanting. I tweeted, I Instagrammed, I Periscoped. All good.

Then about half a mile on from Ham House I became aware that I was being followed very closely behind by another walker. I didn’t look round but I knew it was a guy. After a few minutes, at 3.30pm precisely, I tweeted as I walked: “To the man walking RIGHT BEHIND ME on the Thames Path – ever thought that might be intimidating?” I figured he probably hadn’t realised so faked a photo stop on the side of the river next to a woman who was sketching. I watched him walk on – seemed like a normal guy out for a walk – and after a few minutes I carried on.

Then suddenly, there he was, flaccid cock waving in his hands, grinning at me from a spot just off the path in the woods. “Oh you f*cking dickhead,” I muttered and carried on walking, but as two guys – a father and son – cycled past me I asked them to stop. My legs had gone wobbly and I asked them to walk with me for a bit, which they did. The father was suitably horrified – not least I suppose, that this was happening in front of his son who looked about 11 – and said I should call the police immediately. “Really?” I said. I’d fully intended to carry on walking and ‘not make a fuss’ but he was insistent. “I think you should, in case this guy does it again to another woman.” He was absolutely right.

I’m still amazed at the speed and seriousness of the police response. Within fifteen minutes they were with me, further down the track, and taking a statement. They then went on to walk back along the path, using my description to track the offender. They’d offered to take me home, or at least to a station, but I was absolutely determined to carry on. I wasn’t going to let one dickhead stop me from walking freely on a public footpath.

PCs Whitaker and Lau walking ahead of me after the second call-out. Thames Path.
PCs Whitaker and Lau walking ahead of me after the second call-out. Thames Path.

About half an hour later, I saw him again. He was way up ahead, and he’d turned round to carefully check out the lone woman passing him on the path going the other way. I readied myself to join her but he turned back again, leaving her be. I called the police again and they came out immediately. Not only that, but the call-centre officer insisted I stayed on the line while I waited for them, and said that I should call the police if I EVER felt threatened by a man walking too close to me, or whatever. Blimey, I thought. If I do that, I’ll be on the phone every week…

Then came the response to the incident on my social-media feeds. One young woman talked about how being flashed at by a local offender was a ‘rite of passage’ at her school and how the girls were told to tell him to ‘put it away’ and look disdainful. Another had seen a man peeing on a beach that morning, clearly after public attention, but unlike me, it hadn’t even warranted a Facebook mention.

So many women commented that it had happened to them at least once, but it was clear that we’d all been trained not to make a fuss. I am horrified that it took a man to insist I call the police on this occasion, but I’m afraid to say my initial response was to just walk on and process it, after sharing on social media, of course.

I suppose my amazement at the police reaction was as a result of being brought up on the traditional ‘Cagney and Lacey’ response to flashers. Remember that bit in the opening credits where a guy opens up his mac and Cagney just looks so ‘is that it?’ about it? That image flashed into my head on the day, and I think it sets the scene for our cultural response to a man getting his dick out in front of us. Treat it as a joke and move on, because there are bigger issues to deal with. Typically, an old lady I spoke to as the police were scoping out the area simply said, “he was obviously born with a small one.”

Cagney & Lacey opening credits - the 'flasher'
Cagney & Lacey opening credits – the ‘flasher’

I later found out that another incident had happened in the same area, half an hour before mine, involving two girls of twelve and thirteen. The guy had followed them, too, and then revealed himself. Goodness knows how many times he’d done it that day, but I’m willing to bet that only a minority of them were reported. There is some evidence that shows these relatively ‘minor’ offences can lead to greater ‘contact’ ones, when the thrill of the shock and disgust (that’s what arouses them) needs a bigger event to trigger it. We need make sure these offenders are reported and subsequently caught, because like many seemingly ‘harmless’ events, they can often build into something bigger.

People often ask me why I complain so much about wolf-whistling or Page Three – it’s because both can sometimes lead to something so much worse, whether it’s a torrent of abuse if you don’t accept the ‘compliment’ with a smile, or a rapist whispering the name of their favourite tabloid into your ear. All of these things are set on a continuum and the more we let the ‘small’ things slide, the more likely the ‘big’ things are going to happen.

The way the police dealt with my incident that day has made me realise that they are only too aware of the continuum, and the importance of taking these issues seriously. I have received two follow-up emails and a victim care card. My advice to any woman out there who experiences this would be to phone 999. Immediately. Don’t make like Cagney and walk on. These guys are preying on our ‘don’t make a fuss’ culture and they need to be stopped.

I know that there will be some people reading this thinking I’m making a fuss – hell, even I thought I was wasting police time at the start of it all. But then I heard about those two young girls and thought about the lone woman I saw, unaware of the guy scoping her out as a potential victim, and I’m so glad that guy encouraged me to call the police.

Make the fuss, ladies. Seek the attention.

It’s the only way things are going to change.

—————————————————-

(Special thanks to PC Kate Whitaker of the Metropolitan Police).

Read an interesting piece from a police officer on the non-reporting of these crimes:

“We all need to change our attitude towards indecent exposure. This is not a cheeky chappie having a bit of fun. We need to lose this ‘harmless seaside postcard’ image of a flasher that sadly all too often still seems to prevail. We’re talking about people that may go on to commit serious sexual offences.”

Knee Jerk

When Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn appeared to be proposing women-only train carriages this morning, I reacted the same way as many women did: knee jerk. In a bid to end sexual harassment of women in public places, Corbyn had actually said that he was proposing to consult with women’s groups on the right way to raise awareness and tackle the problem. Fair enough. All good with that. Just maybe don’t even mention segregating us as we’re not the ones at fault here.

Just last week I decided to record it on Twitter every time I was harassed in public. On the first day, during a two-hour walk from north-west London to King’s Cross, I was hassled four times, the first occurring eight minutes after leaving my flat. I could see that decent chaps on my Twitter feed were a) horrified and b) surprised by the sheer regularity of it. Why don’t women talk about it, they ask? I say, because we’ve been brought up to keep it quiet. It happens mostly when we’re on our own. We’re told we’re making a fuss or attention-seeking if we mention it, and should accept it all as the most glorious compliment. It’s worth listening to Everyday Sexism‘s Laura Bates on the subject – it’s a near-universal female experience.

I think the only reason we’re talking about it now is the rise of the female voice on social media. For the past few years we’ve slowly begun to record instances of harassment and have other women say, ” that happened to me” back to us. Laura Bates’ project has aggregated that experience into a global phenomenon, with women and men of all ages, going to her website to record the things they’ve witnessed or been subject to.

Predictably the press jumped on the women-only carriage concept as a stick to beat Corbyn with, as he’s a controversial candidate and there are many who want to see him go down. But like many men, he’s principled and is trying to work out what to do about the problem whilst simultaneously not being quite able to believe how enormous it is.

I think it’s laudable to want to work closely with women’s groups on how to tackle these issues, but really, the conversation needs to start with men. They’re the ones doing the harassing, they’re the ones we’re being advised to protect ourselves from, holed up in women-only spaces. As Everyday Sexism on Twitter puts it, “this puts the responsibility to deal with harassment/assault onto the victim instead of the perpetrator where it belongs. It plays into victim-blaming culture of ‘why didn’t she keep herself safe’ rather than ‘why did he harass/assault her’.”

Immediately my mind went to what would happen if we implemented women-only carriages – some men finding it hilarious to get into one and hassling the occupants like a collie with a pen full of frightened sheep. The emergence of Platform Pests as these men realise that they can find a whole bunch of us herding together, waiting for our carriage, and surely one of us will take them up on their advances. And so on.

If you have the conversation with women only, then you’ll learn something about the experience but you’re preaching to the converted. We know what street harassment is like – most of us experience it every day of our post-puberty lives. It’s like a sidebar of commentary that we’ve learned to roll our eyes at, walk away from, look on in bemusement when a guy is gesticulating wildly at us but we are wearing headphones so can’t hear what he’s saying. (That’s actually my favourite, depending on the appropriateness of the soundtrack.)

What compounds the experience is when we’re told we should take it all as a compliment or when men (and some women) think we’re just making a fuss over nothing. They’re only hearing about isolated incidents, but we now know that this is an endemic activity. If we mentioned it every time it happened, you wouldn’t hear about anything else (even I got bored with my Twitter feed last week as I recorded the incidents).

So somewhere along the line, this conversation has to start with boys and men. It’s a conversation about a sense of entitlement to a woman’s body, personal space and attention, and about how that is not the birthright of a male. Part of me thinks there’s no hope of even starting to say anything. It’s too late. I could start to sound like generations of women before me who shrugged or laughed it off and said, “it’s just how things are.”

Or I could continue to say, “this is how things are” in a bid to bring greater awareness to my small corner of the world. To keep mentioning the unmentionable things until the stream of all the mentions becomes too big a thing to ignore or disbelieve.

So, Mr Corbyn, I’m asking that should you become a leader and consult with women on this subject, that you will at least attempt to start the conversation with boys and men. You’ll probably find that this is the biggest challenge you’ll ever face in politics, but I’d respect you for trying.

 

 

Proper Little Madam

Does anyone else remember that Clarks shoe advert from the 1970s, where a little girl exclaims, “My mum says I’m going to grow up to be a proper little madam!”? I’ve been searching for it online but the only upload of it has been deleted.

I remembered laughing with my family about it as a child. Perhaps the little girl in the advert dared to be a little bit choosy about her footwear and insisted on a particular style. Not surprising that the 1970s billed that as ‘upstart’ behaviour from a girl. I was reminded of it this morning when watching Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 Ted Talk about the lack of female leaders in the workplace, and the follow-up in 2013 after the publication of her book, Lean In.

In the second talk Sandberg brings up the subject of women who take the lead being called ‘bossy’ and how that starts at a young age. I’m sure I won’t be the only woman who remembers the word being applied to herself in school, and the words ‘proper little madam’ have stuck in my head as a by-phrase for the way women of any age are viewed for having an opinion on things.

This is something I’ve been musing on recently, as I’ve had some really unexpected ‘micro-attacks’ on having an opinion, all from other women. I expected these to come from men, especially as my very first blog post attracted the following passive-aggressive response from ‘Geraint’:

My favourite phrase (referring to the proliferation of blogs/social media) is “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should!”

As much as I admire your new adventures it’s a big like those who write blogs about being pregnant/unemployed/married etc – it’s tricky but nothing new/unique and therefore should be confined to a personal diary.

Otherwise it’s just attention seeking.

Sorry 🙂 x

I particularly loved the smiley at the end. I read this and thought, “Here we go…” preparing for the onslaught of trolls waiting to silence women like me who dared to express thoughts and opinions online. But thankfully that didn’t happen. Lovely Geraint (a fellow Welshie!) seems to have been a one-off.

No – what’s actually happened a year on is that I’ve pretty much been told to either shut up or ‘tone it down a bit’ by mainly women. I’ve been told my blog appears ‘spiky’, ‘judgemental’, ‘aggressive’, ‘bitter’, arrogant’, ‘opinionated’, ‘angry’, ‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’ by people who seem to have had nerves touched by what I’ve written. They’ve even warned me that it might put men off. (It’s actually quite a good asshole filter, truth be told). 

I’ve been told that they don’t agree with everything I write, even though I’d never expect them to, yet they never comment or respond to anything I say publicly, only one-to-one. Maybe I should be grateful for that.

All of this response seems to have been exacerbated since I wrote Awareness Is All back in May, about my take on feminism. Women, it seems, have a problem with me being feminist and would prefer it if I piped down a bit and got on with being a woman quietly, like everyone else. (Good job the suffragettes didn’t do that, eh?) I’m challenging the world they’ve bought into, perhaps even compromised themselves for, and they don’t like it. 

I have received my Women’s Equality Party Founding Member card this week with pride. It is the first time I have felt strongly about anything political and I’m determined to be part of the movement to redress the ridiculous levels of economic, political and social inequality that exist. And they do exist, whether everyone acknowledges them or not. And as the party line states, ‘equality is better for everyone’, not just women.

The upshot of this micro-barrage is simply that I am even more determined to have an opinion and express it publicly. Every time I get ‘shushed’ I want to shout even louder. I’m starting to think that the very best thing a woman can be called is ‘opinionated’ and ‘attention-seeking’.

If blogging isn’t an attention-seeking act, then what is? Everything about this is in the choice. I can seek your attention with my views but you don’t have to give it to me. If my followers happen to agree with my opinion then great, if they don’t, fine. Either tell me in a comment or not. It’s up to you. It’s just my not-so-humble opinion.

As I write, there is a Twitter conversation going on about whether or not book bloggers should be ‘critical’ of the books they review. I am aghast that this is even a question. If we can’t give an honest opinion about something in a reasoned, intelligent way, then what on earth are we doing this for? Just to be nice?

I’d rather be a Proper Little Madam any day of the week.

Go With The Flow

I’m going to talk about periods. If you’re rolling your eyes right now then maybe click or look away before I go any further.

*gives it a few seconds*

Periods are big news at the moment – firstly we had the woman who posted a picture of herself on Instagram in which you could clearly see a patch of blood. Instagram took the picture down and she reposted it. They took it down again, but later apologised for their ‘mistake’ and reinstated it. As Jessica Valenti pointed out, Instagram are only too happy to showcase bikini selfies but have banned breastfeeding shots. Similarly, women can be nearly naked, but if they dare to have body hair, they have to go.

Then just last week we had Donald Trump criticising Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, saying on CNN, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes … Blood coming out of her wherever.” It’s not new to have a man accuse a confident, vocal woman of being subject to ‘that time of the month’, especially if she’s questioning his motives, but it’s not something you usually hear from a man running for the US presidency. That comment probably lost him the race.

And yesterday we had the news that Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon in April while she had her period, but decided to run tampon-free in support of women in countries who have no access to sanitary protection. Interestingly, the incident wasn’t reported by anyone there at the time – maybe they thought she’d simply had a ‘mishap’.

And oh, the fear of that mishap. The leak. I remember the very real fear that it would happen at school. I started my periods while still at primary school and in the beginning, had to wear things (we called them ‘things’ in our house because the words ‘sanitary towels’ were just to awful to say out loud) that resembled single-sized duvets between my legs all day.

I remember my mother describing the onset of my periods as ‘something that happens to all women, even the Virgin Mary’. It wasn’t exactly a biology lesson but I was only nine and I was in a Catholic school. I remember my sister reaching her arm out of her bed to shake my hand: “Welcome to the club,” she said.

From being dropped off at school in the morning to going home at night I worried about leaking. If I sat down too long during lessons the worry would mean I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was how I could subtly spin my skirt around when I finally stood up just to check the back. At secondary school, my friends and I had a silent agreement that we’d check each other during those times. “Am I ok at the back?” I’d whisper through unmoving lips. They’d nod. I never leaked there, but I did in ballet class once, whilst wearing a light-blue leotard. I nearly died of shame when I realised later.

Managing this situation takes up a lot of time in women’s lives. If you’re a man, you won’t notice it because we are so practised at hiding it. If we think we might be in ‘danger’, we engineer a trip to the toilet; we stuff tampons up our sleeves or even down our boots if we have to, because the very worst thing we could do is let someone know that we have our period, even other women.

We manage the pain with timely painkillers and work out if we can manage an exercise class without worry. Don’t get me started on PE lessons at school and the showers. The opportunities for shame there are legion.

The worry lessens as we get older as we get more adept at managing periods and knowing what our bodies will do, or can handle, especially as our monthly cycles tend to become more regular. But those early days are fraught with unexpected or phantom start days, sudden rushes of ‘flow’ and not being near any facilities or painkillers for hours.

We even get up during the night to change our protection as eight hours is way too long to wait. We regularly ruin underwear if we don’t, which is why we have special ‘period pants’ that we don’t mind losing.

And then there are holidays. The all-important timing issue. Periods can be so erratic that you can change your holiday dates and still have to contend with the discomfort and inconvenience while you’re away. To a certain extent you can be that girl on a yacht in a Bodyform advert, but the reality is, her smile belies her ‘When will we reach a proper toilet so I can check my situation? Will this tampon last for a whole round-island trip? Did I make a mistake wearing white shorts?’ questions.

And finally, sex. There is nothing more frustrating than being ‘out of action’. Yes, there are some men who don’t mind, but there are even fewer women who think the same way (although maybe I’m wrong). Yes, there are other things you can do for entertainment, but it does rather take the shine off.

It is rather astonishing that something that affects all biological women is so gloriously taboo. The lengths we all go to avoid saying the actual word or admit that it’s happening are incredible. I’m still embarrassed buying tampons in Boots for god’s sake.

So I’m pleased that periods are finally in the news. It’s about time. At least this is blood spilt without harming anyone.

Much.

——————

Great piece on the Trump moment: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/10/menstruation-revolution-donald-trump-periods-stigma

Things I’d Tell My Daughter

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m childfree-by-choice, but as my life fills with young female friends, I find myself thinking about what I want to pass on to them – in a wise-woman way. I so enjoy their company and I love talking to them about how they navigate the world of work, relationships and, well, just being a young woman.

If I’d had a daughter when I was thirty, she would be eighteen now. So these are the things I’d like to say to her, and weirdly, lots of them are things my mother said to me, but I didn’t quite understand them at the time.

Be yourself

It sounds like a hackneyed phrase that all (good) mothers say to daughters as they walk into the world, but I mean just that. Be your own self. Your life doesn’t have to be defined by being a partner, a mother, or even having a stellar career. Just know that you have a choice in all of this. Define yourself by the life you choose to live, and by the people you choose to experience it with.

If in doubt, don’t

My mum used to say this all the time. But oh how true. If you have any doubts about a relationship you’re in, any at all, leave it. Don’t wait for ‘the day’ to come. It won’t and you’ll have lost valuable time. Never settle for something that doesn’t feel right or compromise your own sense of what is right to please a partner. Your gut will tell you that something is wrong – listen to it and take action.

Love your body

People started commenting on your body from a young age and it will be monitored by those around you (male and female) as you grow older. Look in the mirror and look into your own, makeup-free eyes before you monitor your own body. Make an agreement with yourself to see someone beautiful, strong and taking up space in the world. Never starve your body – eating properly makes you all of these things.

Look out for toxic people

Some of the people you choose to surround yourself with will make you feel good about yourself, others will do their damnedest to try and bring you down. These people are usually insecure and jealous of beautiful, strong, young women who are confident in the world. Surround yourself with the good ones, ditch the toxics. Don’t try and hold on to foul friendships – they will just bring you down. It’s ok to let friends – and family – go.

Be in the space

Take up space in the world. If you’re out walking, running or doing yoga in the park – take up the space. If you’re in the office in a meeting, let your voice take up the space. If you’re online and you feel strongly about something, let your words take up the space. Never flinch if people question why you are there, and they will – make your presence felt and your voice heard.

Be confident in your sexuality

Whatever your sexuality is, people will try and make you feel as though you have to hide it, that it is shameful, that you should not seek sexual pleasure just for its own sake. Do everything you want to do, safely and confidently. Do it and never wake up with regrets. The only regret you’ll have is that you never did it.

Compliment other women

Tell other women that they’re good at things. Things that don’t involve hair, makeup, losing weight or wearing a fab outfit. It will change their lives.

Don’t dread getting older

Don’t. Good things happen and they are unexpected. Your body and brain will have a way of coping with the transition that means you will discover each milestone isn’t as bad as you thought it would be. Older women are smart, beautiful and supportive of younger women. Don’t believe the myth that they’re not any of those things – it’s a lie constructed by society because older women are immensely powerful people.

Don’t lead a tick box life

Question everything. Never do anything just because everyone else is doing it. Feel the peer pressure and question it anyway. You can construct your own set of tick boxes that are different to other people’s. Don’t believe what others tell you about people, places or other cultures – find out for yourself.

Do things on your own

Even when you’re young, it’s important to commune with yourself, not just your friends. Do things on your own, such as going to the cinema, walking, going for coffee, even on holiday. You’ll never regret it.

Look out for controlling partners

Beware of signs that your partner is trying to control you. It can be oh so subtle, and before you know it, your life is completely in the control of another. If they make negative comments about your weight, what you’re wearing, or stop you seeing certain friends, the red flag is waving. Get out.

There are wonderful people out there

You’ll know the signs. They will be kind to you, your friends, their friends and their family. They will celebrate your successes and be there when things go wrong, without a sly smile on their faces. They will offer to connect you to people they know to help you in your career, and notably, women will help other women.

Say sorry

There will be times when you regret your behaviour, or saying something that has hurt someone else. Tell them you’re sorry and they will forgive you. If you don’t, the guilty feelings will just build inside of you and make you more likely to hurt someone again. We’re all flawed – think of apologising as a flaw release valve.

Have fun when you’re young

Don’t hide away from fun times. Work hard, play hard – get into all the corners that life is offering you. Make mistakes. If not, you will spend the rest of your life trying to make up for missed opportunities.

Ignore all of this and find out for yourself

Because I did when my mum told me.

Elizabeth Pamela Mary

It’s funny how the day that A-level results are out is the same day as my late mother’s birthday. Elizabeth Pamela Mary – ‘Pam’ – Edwards would have been 86 today.

It’s funny, because she was someone who was a teenager during the Second World War, who aced her School Certificate at the age of 14 in 1942 (it was meant to be taken at 16 and was like a set of GCSEs) but couldn’t carry on into further education because the War forced her into work.

As far as I’m aware from family lore, one of her jobs was as a telephonist in Hawker Siddeley, North Wales. Hawker was a founding member of British Aerospace and it made Hurricane and Spitfire aircraft that were instrumental in the Battle of Britain. Her telephone voice earned her the moniker ‘The Girl with the Dark-Brown Voice’. Or maybe it was just my dad that said that, I’m not sure.

Anyway, I grew up with a mother who was clever. By the time I knew her properly, she was a housewife who helped my father run his newsagents in our town, Holywell in North Wales. But my early memories of my mum include her racing through the hardest cryptic crosswords, doing my maths homework backwards to prove that the answer was right (!!!) and being annoyingly good at shouting out the answers to University Challenge or Mastermind before anyone else could.

Gah. She was good.

When it came to my O- and A-levels I struggled with the pressure. She never pushed me, never put me under any further pressure, because I put myself under enough and she could see that. I did well at O-level but fell down at A.

I don’t know what happened – I was getting good grades in coursework but tried too hard to learn everything by rote for the exams. I could practically recite Hamlet from memory, but it did me no good.

I needed to think for myself.

I then spent the next four years teaching ballet and tap in what is still an amazing dance school in North Wales – the Whitton Morris School of Dance. I forgot about academia as I plunged myself into technique and tutus, thinking I’d end up being an examiner for the British Ballet Organisation. My mum supported that path I’d decided to take, and I think she enjoyed having me at home.

But something switched in my brain in year three of that time. It seriously felt like a cog had inched round in my head, and the message was loud and clear – Go To University. I found a dance course at Roehampton, which I paired with English Lit because you had to choose something, and that was it.

But that wasn’t the whole story. I started to do much better than I thought I would in English essays. I remember phoning my mum from the halls of residence telling her that I’d got an A* for my first essay. Then another one. And another. She was so delighted, and I felt delighted that I could do what she hadn’t been able to do.

Back when I’d done dismally in my A-levels, my mum had told me that ‘there is always a time in your life that is right for studying, and it’s not necessarily when you’re at school’. How right she was. And when I got my first-class degree, majoring in English, I was on the phone to her straight away, and she was joyous.

And my career in publishing started back then when I started the Roehampton Arts Review magazine with a couple of friends. I caught the bug and never looked back.

I only ever look back at Elizabeth Pamela Mary and say, Mum – it’s all for you and it always will be.

Happy birthday.