Space Invaders

Recently, I’ve noticed a phenomenon when I’m out running on the streets of London, or just walking to work. I’ll be on a pavement or a path that is over two meters wide and I’m walking along with virtually no one else around me. I’ll spot a man ahead of me, usually middle-aged or older, and as we pass each other, with acres of room to spare, he’ll suddenly wave me through, as though he is creating space for me next to him. It’s usually a kind of Walter Raleigh gesture, involving an imaginary cape, and accompanied with a slight bow. What is this strange behaviour?

The first time it happened, I found myself auto-smiling in return, as though I was grateful for the gesture. Then I thought about it. Why am I saying thank you for taking up space I’m already in? Since then, I’ve always anticipated the move and powered on past, leaving the hand flourish behind me.

The Walter Raleigh move has variations – one of my *favourites* is the Comedy Jump. I can be running along, minding my own business, when I come up to a couple or a guy walking on his own. He’ll hear me coming up behind them/him and suddenly perform a clownish leap onto an adjoining path, accompanied with a loud, mock-afraid exclamation of some sort. Like I’m some sort of unexpected oncoming train. The last one actually jumped into someone’s garden. I am a normal-sized woman.

I’ve thought long and hard about why all of this happens and I’ve concluded two things. The first is about guys who are desperately trying to get a woman’s attention. Men who do a Walter Raleigh on me are invariably over fifty, and seem to love using ‘gentlemanly’ gestures to initiate a smile and maybe a conversation. They are the men who adopt that half-smile, ‘humble’ face that is designed to get women to smile back at them. It does actually take a lot of effort not to smile back, but once you’ve realised their faces are set that way ALL DAY it gets easier. They are usually the guys who love to say, ‘Give me a smile, love!’ and tell you that you look prettier when you do so. My stock response is that I’m a person, not a Christmas decoration.

These guys are cousins of the men who play little games with you to extract the same smile/conversation combo. I was at an airport recently where no fewer than three officials tried to withhold items that I owned or had just bought, just ‘for fun’. And why wouldn’t I smile? Because you’re withholding my passport and expecting me to keep putting my hand out only for you to pull the passport away in a comedy routine. When you did it again with my boarding pass and a cheese and ham baguette the joke had seriously worn off.

My second conclusion is that men do actually think I’m taking up more space than I really am. The Geena Davis Institute conducted some research which showed that if there was 17% of women in a group, the men in the group thought it was 50%. And if it was 33%, the men thought there were more women in the room than men. I wonder if, when they see me running or walking towards them, these guys see my 50% of the pavement as 75% and feel they have to leap out of the way? There has to be some sort of explanation for it.

It’s funny how, when you’re in a pub or club, the whole space-allowance thing goes out the window and *some* men use a packed venue as an excuse to touch you up. Suddenly you find the man you’re with has his arm around your waist, presumably because there’s no room for it at his side. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I thought about just casually removing his arm as I cringed under his grip but didn’t. He was the kind of guy who ushers women through doorways with a ‘helping’ hand on the waist or small of the back. Next time I’ll be ready and insist he goes first. Maybe I’ll give him a little encouraging pat on the bum. I often wonder if straight men touch each other as they make their way through a crowded bar – a quick pec fondle or buttock tweak might go unnoticed as they squeeze past each other. At least they’d be able to check out the competition.

An ex of mine sometimes complained about women who felt him up on the train. He did have a tight, muscled body and he reported being ‘accidentally’ fondled on his busy commuter train. He really didn’t enjoy it (who would?!) but I did think, ‘you have no idea, baby’. For most women, that sort of thing comes with a normal working day.