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.