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On your power

I am not a weak person. I am a loud, angry, Siberian tiger of a woman who will tear you into a thousand rhetorical pieces if you even think of implying that I am incapable.

But people have power over me: men have power over me. Most of the time the power of men is used for good – men I love make me tremble and cry and beg with passion. Unfortunately, some men have the power to make me weak with fear by simply saying hello.

Men – do you know you have this power? I suspect a lot of you don’t. I suspect this because I have good friends, who would never knowingly terrify someone, who occasionally do things that they shouldn’t: loudly chat up girls at bus stops at 2 am. Push things a bit too far in a pub, and speak loudly and crudely to women who are shying away. Insist on hugs from women they barely know, who wince at the touch of an over-familiar stranger.

The other day a man said ‘hello darling’ to me on a night bus, and it became apparent that I am not the sabre-toothed bitch that I’d like to believe. The rational part of my brain was telling me that he was a perfectly nice, friendly guy. He didn’t mean me any harm. He was just being sociable, and I should be flattered by his attention. Then he got off the bus at my stop, and my heart beat faster. I put on my cold face and picked up the pace. He didn’t follow me – he’d never intended to. He wasn’t a rapist or a bastard – he was just a friendly guy who did not understand that by approaching me in the middle of the night he was wielding a certain power.

A long time ago…

When I was 16 I had a job at a corner shop. I’d spend Saturday evenings selling lottery tickets to drunk men, sweets to children, and cigarettes to any teenager with enough swagger to persuade me they didn’t need ID. At 8:30 we’d shut up shop and I’d head to the bus stop, and home.

The bus left at 8:55, but it didn’t usually feel like a long wait. In the winter it was cold and dark, but I was never afraid – I’d sit huddled in my denim jacket reading books and watching people go by. Occasionally, drunk youths would run past, taunting each other and shattering cheap bottles of alcopops on the pavement.

But I was never afraid.

One night a man came to join me at the bus stop. He was old – perhaps 40, perhaps 50, I’m not sure – all grown-ups seem ancient to a teenager. He sat at the opposite end of the bus stop bench and said hello. It was 8:35.

I said ‘hi’, and went back to reading my book. At around 8:40 he tried again. ‘So, what are you doing here by yourself?’

‘I’ve just finished work.’

‘You seem too young to be working.’

‘It’s just a part time job, in that newsagents on the high street.’

‘Oh, that’s good. Do you enjoy it?’

We chatted. It was fine. He was a friendly, lonely guy making conversation at the bus stop. I was polite. I put my book away so as not to seem rude, and we continued chatting. I checked my watch and it was 8:45. I wasn’t afraid.

I asked him where he was off to and he said he was visiting his son. His son had just had a baby, and he was going to see it. He paused. He shuffled a bit closer to me on the bench.

‘You’re very pretty.’

And all it took was that one short sentence, those three words, and suddenly I was afraid. I didn’t want this man to think I was pretty, I didn’t want him to talk to me like that. I didn’t want him to say things that I couldn’t respond to politely. I didn’t know how to not respond politely. So I said ‘thanks.’

At that, he shuffled further along the bench, so he was sat within about a foot of me. He slid his hand along the plastic seat and he touched my hand with his little finger. Just a slight touch, then a stroke. He was smiling. It was 8:50.

‘You’re very pretty to be on your own.’

In time honoured tradition, I told him I was off to my boyfriend’s house. He slid his hand on top of mine, and kept stroking. My hand itched and burned and I wanted to pull it away. I wanted him to stop touching me, but I didn’t want to be rude. I told myself it didn’t matter – it was only my hand, for crying out loud: not my tits or my arse. He hadn’t said anything sexual.

Maybe he was just confused, maybe he was just friendly.

Maybe I should just let him keep stroking my hand and then the bus would come and everything would be OK and he wouldn’t touch me anywhere else and oh God I was wearing shorts and I didn’t want him to touch my legs and I just wanted the bus to come.

It was 8:55.

‘The bus will be here soon.’ I choked a bit on the sentence and shifted away from him slightly – like I was making myself comfortable – I didn’t want him to think I was being rude. Above all – more than the fear of being touched – I didn’t want him to know that I was disgusted by him. He moved a bit closer – the side of his hand touched my thigh and I leapt up from the bench.

Never in my life have I been so pleased to see a bus.

I paid for my ticket and got on, sitting near the front in the well-lit section by the driver. The bus was my sanctuary and my safety, the driver had mirrors to look out for me behind him, and nothing bad could happen to me now that the bus was here. I breathed a ragged sigh of relief in that moment – I thought I was safe.

But then the man came and sat next to me.

He’d obviously misunderstood the point of the bus – for him it wasn’t a sanctuary, but an escalation – an opportunity for him to sit even closer. He touched my legs, he stroked the exposed upper part of my arms. He whispered in my ear that I was beautiful, and he kissed my shoulder. I, in the seat between him and the window, trapped in silence by my own misguided sense of politeness and shock that no one on the bus realised this was wrong, cried.

I sat there, mute. I let him touch me and kiss me and I cried.

You’ve got the power

Why did I write this? This blog is supposed to be sexy, ranty, and occasionally vaguely amusing, not an outlet for ancient, emotional stories that I should have got out of my system years ago.

But I wrote it because it’s clearly not out of my system. As I said at the beginning, a man said ‘hi’ to me on a night bus recently. Friendly, smilingly, he asked me how I was and where I was off to. And when I said ‘home’ he said ‘where’s that?’ and my stomach froze inside.

I’m old enough now to have learnt how to brush someone off, or where to run to if someone follows me. Most importantly I’m old enough to know men – I’ve known hundreds, I’ve fucked a fair few, and I’ve loved a couple too. And I know that the vast majority of them are good, and kind, and sweet. No man I know would ever deliberately give anyone that fear.

But the world isn’t divided into good men and bastards. There are the good guys, the bad guys, and then all of the real people somewhere in between. And as surely as I know that the original bus guy was a bastard – not just a bastard, a criminal – I know that there are men who say ‘hi’ on the night bus and mean no more than that.

I’m confident that the man the other night meant no harm – he was drunk, and keen, and friendly, and when I brushed him off he backed away. He got off the bus at my stop not because he was stalking me but because that was where he lived. He walked in the opposite direction, not knowing that I was looking over my shoulder every ten seconds to make sure he wasn’t on my tail.

Don’t be that guy

I don’t want to shame all the men in the world for the mistakes of the many and the evil of the few. I refuse to believe that a significant number of people are sexual predators – deliberately and carefully setting out to make women feel the way I felt on that bus.

But I have known men who, despite wanting to place themselves firmly at the ‘good guy’ end of the spectrum have, unthinkingly, done similar things. Pushed things a bit too far, approached women when it was late at night or when they were vulnerable. Insisted on a touch when they’re too pissed to notice that the girl is grimacing.

You have a certain kind of power, and you need to be aware of what that means for you: if you don’t listen, if you don’t look, if you don’t try to understand how the person you’re approaching feels, you have the power to turn into that guy. That creepy one.

It’s hard for me to admit that people have this power over me. If you corner me in the pub and ask whether I’d put up with being groped on a bus I’d laugh and tell you I can handle myself – I’d scream, or fight, or call the police. I’d invoke a tidal wave of righteous anger to sweep away any man who fucked with me.

But in reality I don’t know if I could. Because whenever men say hello to me on a night bus it’s 8:55 on Saturday and I’m sixteen again. I’m sitting stock-still under fluorescent lights while a man kisses my shoulder. I’m cold and alone and scared and mute, shuddering with silent sobs and waiting for someone to save me.

21 Comments

  • Karen says:

    You would sweep them away, for the very fact that you remember that night. I’m willing to bet most of us have had a similar experience, and, like you, we’ve learned from it. Dear God, I even let myself be shagged by someone cos I was too polite to stop him. But in my day that was not assault (I am absolutely sure he knew I didn’t want sex), it was a lack of judgment, and I’m perfectly content with that – because after dwelling on it afterwards, I knew that I would never, NEVER let that happen to me again. And I never have. It didn’t kill us, so it made us stronger. And yes, it was just one of those things that gradually brought me to believe that men cannot be trusted. But hey, we are always being told ‘don’t dress like this, don’t act like that, or you are asking to be raped’. So excuse me if I assume that every man is a danger until he proves otherwise.

  • yank says:

    very moving
    thanks for writing it

  • I still have this politeness factor that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t believe that I would let it get too far, but I would allow myself the discomfort. Knowing this about me, I have simply been very honest with lovers and friends that I have this weakness, that I freeze instead of say no until it gets to the point of severe discomfort, and that knowing me – I don’t put myself in situations where it can occur (hence always with friends or lovers in situations where it could occur, to give me a safer buffer).

  • Dm7 says:

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. I reckon anyone who is read as female can identify with being put in this position.

    I am strongly against the idea that teaching girls to firmly, assertively say ‘No’ to unwanted behaviour is impolite, unjust and unfairly accusatory. Right now we live in a culture that expects everything to be either confirmed or denied by invisible signals – which many of us get wrong. Whilst I do expect men to be able to read my body language (thus, my level of comfort), I am also fully aware that they might misinterpret it (particularly since there is also this idea floating about that a woman might be purposefully cold, aloof and unresponsive to play ‘hard to get’ Ick.).

    I have found that, if a guy touches me in a way I am not comfortable with and I say ‘Please stop doing that’, the ones who have made an interpretive mistake will genuinely be embarrassed and apologetic. To them, I respond with an ‘it’s ok’ and carry on talking to them. So far, none of them have *ever* repeat their mistake, and some have gone on to be good friends.

    However, the guys who become huffy, indignant, accusatory, say I’m over-reacting and generally try to make me feel bad for not caving in to their sense of entitlement basically make their arseholishness very apparent, and I then feel no guilt what so ever to remove myself from their company.

  • ShantaFabulous says:

    This happened to me on a Greyhound bus, but I was 19. I got lucky that someone noticed I was uncomfortable and was able to move. I still remember it and it sucks.

  • Tachae says:

    This rang true on so many levels for me. Everyday I ride to and from school/work, and on certain days I arrive home when it’s dark. Unfortunately, even though I do not like affirming outsiders shitty overhype of how “dangerous” my “hood” is, there is an imminent threat of provocation by a guy or group of guys who may be genuine or looking for a cheap thrill. It’s unsettling to never know which mindset they approach me with, so instinctively, I just panic.

  • A Lurker in the States says:

    I am not sure if politeness or fear of embarrassment is the real culprit here, but I do sense a continuing theme.

    I was not raised to be a shrinking violet, and by the time I left for college I had decided that I would willingly run out into traffic to avoid someone trying to drag me into a dark alley. I was also very careful about dating — who, where, when — and stayed with groups until I knew a boy very well. After that, someone always knew where I was and with whom. Still…

    I was 20, and it was the summer before my senior year in a city university. I was a Resident Assistant for a summer program, and I had taken my girls downtown to see the city’s Fourth of July fireworks. We had to wait almost an hour to get a bus back across town, and when we finally on the bus we were split up and packed in like sardines. I was in the front, about five feet from the bus driver, standing next to an older man, about 50, who had politely said hello and had made some other benign comments when we got on the bus. I live in a friendly city — one where you can learn your seat mate’s life history on a trip downtown — so that was not unusual.

    As the bus started its way back, we jostled along. The man was standing behind me, occasionally bumping into me. It took me a while to realize that this was not accidental. Yes, I thought I had street smarts, but the idea that a man would be deliberately grinding his erection into my backside on public transportation in full view of 70 other people would never have crossed my mind. I tried to shift out of the way, but there was really no place to go. He shifted with me, enough that I knew he was enjoying my discomfort, but at that point, we were only a few blocks from campus. I was almost home, so I just continued to let it happen. I could endure it for a few more minutes, and then I’d be free of him. Still, I felt nauseous. The bus stopped and I got out. Then I noticed that the man followed me out of the bus. I felt like my blood ran cold. There was no conceivable reason why this man was on a college campus at 1:30 in the morning. Luckily, some of the girls from my floor exited the back doors of the bus and I rushed over to them.. The man turned and walked the other way. I spent the night shaken and in tears.

    The best part? I was a member of a campus organization that taught rape and sexual assault awareness! I was so ashamed of myself. I regularly gave presentations on safety, and I said words like penis and vagina in front of dozens of fraternity boys who really didn’t want to be there. Still, when push came to shove, I wouldn’t force myself to face potential embarrassment by shaming the man who was sexually assaulting me. I could have told the bus driver, who was within earshot if I’d raised my voice. The police would have been called, and the man could not have escaped, he could only have denied my allegations. I could have turned and said in a loud voice, “Would you please stop rubbing your dick against my ass!” (or some variant). After all, I was surrounded by women who most likely would have empathized and turned on him as well. But I just couldn’t bring myself to face, publicly, the embarrassment of what was happening. Instead, I just did nothing.

    The mix of rage against that man and self-loathing for having done nothing (Did he go on to rape someone because he never was stopped by someone like me?) is still there inside me, in spite of the fact that this happened in 1995. It is still a visceral enough feeling to draw me out of lurking on your blog (no mean feat) and to cause me to ignore my four young children while I hide in another room and type. While this incident didn’t change my opinion of men in general (I had always had predominantly male friends and still do), it did shake me to the core. I now have a healthy awareness that any man can be a potential threat, in much the same way that a police officer or a soldier might always be aware of a potential threat from the civilians around him. But men, it’s not a fun way to live.

    Oh, and your earlier post on hugging? Please men, don’t hug me. Ever. I really can’t tell what you are getting out of it. You can blame that on the creep from the bus.

  • Kriss says:

    I was attacked on the way home once, when I was 18. I knew from the sound of his footsteps running up behind me exactly what he was going to do, yet somehow carried on walking and pretending nothing was wrong. Even when he grabbed me and started to drag me into a dark alley, I remember thinking that I couldn’t scream as it was 1am and it would wake people up.

    He hit me – I screamed – he ran away. Thank god. I’ve often wondered if there were women who weren’t so lucky – the utter casual brass neck of someone spotting a girl walking home on her own and thinking, I’ll have a bit of that: it’s obvious he will have done it before or again. To avoid trouble I didn’t tell anyone except a friend, who then told me how she’d been raped when she ran away from home and went to London on her own.

    Just how much do you have to want to obliterate someone’s sense of self that their immediate reaction to being assaulted is to worry about who might be angry if they make a noise or make a fuss.

  • Brit says:

    Thank you for writing this, it sums up perfectly how it can feel to be a woman sometimes.
    I’ve had very few bad experiences compared to most people I know, yet my heart still stops for a second when I’m traveling alone at night and the stranger walking behind me picks up his pace, or when somebody walking on the opposite side of the road crosses the road towards me. That heart-stopping, nauseating feeling of fear and helplessness reaches new heights if the person in question turns out to be male and starts talking to me and making advances while I’m alone or in a vulnerable position.
    9 times out of 10 these men are probably harmless, I’m sure. I do hate that being alone and vulnerable makes me suspect bad things of men who are probably good people, just like those I know and love. But it would help if they realised exactly how scared they can make a woman, if they approach her when she’s travelling home alone late at night!

  • Girl on the net says:

    Wow – thank you all for your stories. I think the embarrassment/politeness thing is clearly a real problem. I know other people who have said that the fear of coming across as rude was a reason for avoiding saying anything in situations where they felt uncomfortable. Thank you for contributing – it means a lot that people are willing to share, and some of your stories made me shiver with discomfort.

    I was picked up on Twitter yesterday for this article, with a few people saying that it’s unreasonable to expect men to change their behaviour because I’m irrationally afraid of them. This worried me quite a bit because essentially that’s not really what I’m saying, and I think some of the stories above bear it out. Especially Brit, when you say:

    “I do hate that being alone and vulnerable makes me suspect bad things of men who are probably good people”

    That’s exactly what I’m trying to get at, I think. I don’t think that men need to change their behaviour or tiptoe around us like we’re fragile and delicate and ready to shatter at any moment, I just want them to be aware of the context – that many of us will have had experiences with guys who pushed things too far. In being more aware of these contexts, I expect that the majority of guys who are genuinely good people will avoid doing things that echo this unacceptable over-familiar behaviour.

    Lurker in the States – your story was really moving, and I think you’ve summed up the embarrassment really well – it’s not just the shame of being touched, but also the shame of having to have that conversation, having to break the wall of commuter silence and effectively ask for help.

    • P says:

      Love your site GOTN, me and my beautiful lady often visite to read, learn and catch up with your adventure’s.

      From a man’s point of view……

      A girl on the street walking towards me crying, and what do I do …… I stop and ask her if she’s ok ! I want to help her and find out if there is any thing I can do, I just want her to feel better and to stop crying and for her to smile,,,, I have that deep sickly feeling inside me looking at another human in pain and I hate it! I reach out to her and tell her she is going to be all right and what ever is wrong if you talk about it then it wont feel as bad and we can probably get it sorted. I hold her head to my chest with one arm as my hand reaches a tissue from my pocket with the other bringing it to her face to dry her eyes. In that second she stop crying. For a second she feels like somebody cares,,, sombody is worried for her well being and the world doesnt seem so big and empty!!!!!!

      But I dont……. I look at her sad tear streamed face and look to the floor… I have that sick feeling deep inside like I feel her pain in me and want to help but I dont!
      My heart is saying help her reach out to her she needs somebody,,, But I dont. I don’t cos I’m a coward. I’m don’t because I’m scared!
      Am I scared of her? Scared of what terrible problem she may have and share with me????

      NO! I’m scrred of being tagged a weirdo, a sex pest, a pervert, a rapist!

      Why? Because of the weirdos! Because of the sex pests! Because of the perverts and the rapists! The small minority that fuck it up for the rest of us so even an act of kindness could be look apon as being suspisous and misconceived as something sorded and wrong .

      So I’m sorry girl on the street who walked towards me crying…… I’m sorry I wasn’t brave enough to ask you…… I’m sorry I didn’t stop to see if you needed my help. And I’m sorry I walked on by with my head down I just wasn’t man enough!

      • Girl on the net says:

        Wow – that’s a tough situation, and horrible. And I’m with you – I hate the fact that we judge people by the worst examples, and I hate the fact that this pushes us further apart and makes it harder for us to help each other in situations where we might need it.

        But I don’t think you should feel bad for not helping – seeing someone cry is tricky because I understand the natural instinct to reach out and try to calm someone down or cheer them up. But you may well have judged it right in that she could have been intimidated, or just confused (really depends on her reasons for crying and whether she wanted help). I think in that situation I’d have done the same and walked past, and I don’t think you’re less of a man for not stopping. But that’s probably partly coloured by my own view that if I were crying the last thing I’d want is to talk to a stranger about it.

        Now, if someone’s in obvious danger, of course, that’s a different issue altogether.

        Being tagged a weirdo, sex pest, etc, is clearly an awful thing to happen if you’re just trying to help. But I don’t think it’s as difficult to avoid this as many people seem to think. You don’t have to go out of your way not to talk to women, not to approach them, not to smile or chat: you just have to be really aware of the context in which you’re doing them. As I have to be aware when I do some of the obnoxious things I do and occasionally hurt or intimidate people, I need to learn better how to be diplomatic, how to read other people’s reactions, etc.

        I’m not sure this is a good enough response to your comment, but the tl;dr version: I understand, and I don’t think you should feel bad. You’re obviously an empathetic person, and that’s a good thing to be.

        • p says:

          Its more than a good enough response and not tl;dr. I should have put more thought into what I had written but it was straight from the heart you could say. Should have titled it
          ‘The power I never wanted!’ any hoo thank you for getting it and your kind response. x

  • Lynn says:

    I would suspect most women have got similar tales.

    Two incidents stand out in my memory:

    About 20 yrs ago I was walking my two dogs in the local park. Most of it is fairly open but there is a wooded bit that takes about 5 minutes brisk walk to get through.

    Anyway I was ambling along, throwing the ball for the dogs when I realised this guy was following me and he didn’t walk past when I slowed down to get the ball, he just stayed behind me about 8 foot away, so I started freaking out, thinking “Oh my god!’. So I speeded up a bit and so did he, but I didn’t actually run because that would have been ‘making an exhibition of myself!’.

    After another minute I was so fucking terrified that I had to do something, anything even if it did get me killed! So I threw the ball into the trees on the left and bolted after it. I then turned to see where the dogs were and watched him glance in my direction and then saunter past without a care in the world.

    My fear turned instantly to anger and how I stopped myself running up to him, slugging him across the face and shouting “You fucking stupid bastard! Have you got any idea of how scary it is to be followed down a quiet woodland path?” I really don’t know. Fear of embarrassment I think.

    I thought afterwards that maybe the reason he didn’t go past when I slowed was because he was scared of dogs, but to this day I don’t know why I froze and didn’t just run.

    The second incident wasn’t scary just horribly embarrassing and I hated myself for being so pathetic as to allow it to happen!

    A few years ago my man used to have a friend that would call round on a Sunday afternoon once or twice a month without bothering to call first. I wasn’t greatly keen on him but I tolerated him. Anyway, one Sunday he knocked and the man was out but he invited himself in anyway as I was too polite to turn him away.

    So after about 10 minutes we are chatting and drinking tea and he says my shoulders look tense. So I said yeah I had a stiff neck (fatal mistake on my part!). Of course he was a sports masseur so he moves from his couch to mine and starts massaging my neck. I was appalled but didn’t say anything.

    Then after what seemed like an eternity but was about a minute he said he couldn’t work with me sitting up and to lie face down on the couch, which I DID! Even as I’m typing it I’m thinking OMG WTF were you thinking?

    So I lay there thinking “Tell him to stop! No I can’t! For god’s sake woman tell him to stop! No I can’t!” and I didn’t say a word, except “Ow!” cos it bloody hurt!

    I still don’t know why I let him do it I’m quiet but not usually a doormat. When I was 8 months pregnant I almost decked a guy who was a foot taller than me and probably weighed twice as much because he tried to cut in front of me in a queue for cinema tickets and then when I confronted him made some muttered comment which ended with the word bitch!

    Lynn

  • SBM says:

    Thank you for writing this, and being so honest. I’m a mouthy bitch, and won’t take shit from anyone. But a “normal” looking guy, in an estate car reduced me to tears when he told me to get into his car. I was alone at a bus stop early in the morning, on my way to work. The fear and confusion as a car reversed along the bus shelter meant I didn’t see it straight away and was caught off-guard.
    He wasn’t drunk, simply trying his luck with a young woman on her own at a weekend. The whole thing only lasted a minute or so, and it was terrifying.
    Did I look willing? Did I invite him somehow? No, but he misunderstood the power he had.

  • I have crossed the street, sat on the bus waaay past my stop, sat as far away as possible while waiting for taxis/in cafes, adopted less dominant or even meek postures just to (hopefully) ensure a lone girl doesn’t feel intimidated.

    I don’t say this to sound heroic. I understand all too well how much power I have in certain situations. I hate it. I hate having to take these precautions. But I will do it, every time.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I think it’s weird, and a horrible shame that we live in a society where people have to take these precautions. I got a bit of a kicking when I wrote this for saying that guys should consider these things. But in all honesty I think it’s good when they do, and when people can share an awareness for things that might be worrying to others. Although obviously, when we are in an ideal world no one will have to do it because there will be no danger of people being twats.

      • Care and consideration of others should be one of the main priorities in life. And I think it’s a damn shame you receive a kicking for speaking up. :/

      • pounamu says:

        Thank you for writing this! Just reading about it, my heartbeat sped up in sympathy… I’ve been there many times myself, and so have most women I know.

        Just a comment about you getting push-back on how you can’t expect men to change: yes, you can and you should expect them to change. We as women are told constantly how to adapt ourselves to the men around us; how to dress, talk, think, act. And yet, when you say something so profoundly sensible and obvious, the internet tries to put you in your place. Like most women I know, I grew up incredibly polite and considerate, brainwashed into thinking that standing up for myself was a cardinal sin. God forbid you inconvenience some asshole who has no concept of boundaries! Oh no, you’re making a scene! Shut up, be quiet, be polite, be nice. You know what? Fuck nice. Know your boundaries and stick to them. Don’t be afraid to repeal, in ANY way you can, anyone who attempts to violate those boundaries. If this means being firm, be firm. If this means walking away, asking for help, whatever – do what it takes. Your safety and sanity are more precious than anyone’s embarrassment or inconvenience.

        I

  • Lee says:

    Dear GOTN, read your tale and thought “damn, If only I’d been there to ask if you were okay and make him stop doing that to you”.

    It makes me cringe to think that he got away with being so awful.

    Please be assured that most guys would be angry with a man who acts like that. I know I would.

    Hope this makes you feel a bit better, too.

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