Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Pervy plumbers and the low hum of inaction

A putting the world to rights session recently with my dear friend Sargles made me reflect on how and whether I personally experience sexism in my everyday life. We were musing on equality of opportunity over doughnuts, and I mentioned this video, where Leah Green acts out stories taken from the Everyday Sexism blog, but turns the tables by inflicting street harassment women have reported experiencing on men, such as shouting “Alright sexy” out of a white van, or staring unerringly at a bystander. Whatever you think of the approach (two wrongs don’t make a right?), the bewildered reactions of the innocent men in the film do make it a humorous way of thinking about the pervasiveness of this behaviour and the preposterousness of our mild acceptance of it. As if to illustrate this point, I then belatedly realised that I had that very day experienced some similar behaviour. Having all but forgotten it already, we started to ponder the mechanics of it, how I reacted to it (or not) and why.

The incident came about because of a very boring series of problems with my bog. The loo in the ensuite needs a Saniflow pump to whoosh our stinky effluence out of the house and into the drains where it belongs. Said pump was broken, and needed a series of increasingly incompetent engineers and plumbers to come and fix bits of it, blame each other for the fact that it still didn’t work, and make lots of sharp intakes of breath at considerable inconvenience. However much I accept that I might have to work from home for a few afternoons to facilitate all this, I never expected for that home-alone experience to become discomfiting.

But that it did, when cock-a-hoop Brummie engineer Dean decided to make an appearance. It wasn’t the first time I’d met Dean – he’d been round in the early Saniflow fixing attempt days, and made a few flirty comments about going into a girl’s bedroom and making a mess on her floor. I just laughed nervously then went back to a client phone call I had to make, forcing him to be professional. The second time didn’t hold anything much more sinister, but I was struck by the barrage of innuendo that pervaded pretty much every raised-eyebrow-style comment he made. “You’re looking nice today” “Ooh yes I’ll have a cuppa if you’ll bring it up and serve it to me” “So where’s your fella today then? Will he mind me being in your bedroom?” “I bet you’re just staying up here so you can check out my cheeks as I bend down” “I bet your plumber isn’t as good looking as me” “So you’re on your own today then?” “Let me just show off my muscles as I pull myself up into this attic” “Bet you got an eyeful there love” ad nauseam. Disarmed, increasingly aware of being on my own, and moving rapidly from nervous laughter to sweaty shuffling away, why did I let myself feel threatened by this inane, faintly aggressive pervy verbal diarrhoea? Why not instead feel angry and revolted? Why nervous shuffling and not an immediate phone call to his bosses to complain? Why was I LETTING some random ignorant womaniser make me feel uncomfortable in my own home?

Perhaps it’s because Leah Green is right. For women, being spoken to this way is part of ordinary life. For men, it’s shocking or worrying or bewildering. But are women just quietly accepting of this low hum of sexist threat in their everyday?

I thought about other times I’ve felt threatened more overtly. The time I was bending over a pool table in the West End Working Men’s Club aged 16 and got tapped on the arse by a 70-year-old snooker player. The time in Jordan when Lucy and I were pursued down a back alley by the handsiest letch ever, who responded to our swearing, indignant responses with a shrug. The time I was walking home alone down a Paris street and got called a fucking whore because I overtook a man on the pavement. The time I was walking home alone down a Paris street and got curb-crawled by two blokes in a car, and couldn’t hold myself back from giving them the bras d’honneur when they eventually got bored and drove away, resulting in them swerving back towards me, leaping out and berating me for ten minutes, calling me a slut because I was walking alone outside in the dark. The time I got followed from the metro in Paris because I accidentally made eye contact with a man in the window reflection. The time all my male Parisian friends told me these experiences were my fault because I looked English and wore tight clothes.

Why do we shy away and avoid eye contact or confrontation? Do the men doing this know it’s because we fear being raped by them?

This stuff is real, but we don’t hear proportionate reports of it. A recent report found that 77 women were killed by their partners in a 12-month period between 2012 and 2013. Why don’t I remember hearing about that in the news? Is it really just a low hum in the background of other, more glamorous tragedies?

This is when I think things seem to be getting worse in terms of equality, not better. Women are judged on how they look not what they do, and bound by hackneyed stereotypes that make both sexes look stupid. We’re told that how we dress affects how well we’ll do in the workplace (the person that peddled this pile of misogynist crap needs castrating, regardless of gender). Girls have to have pink everything and all they are encouraged to be is a fucking useless unemployed ‘princess’.

So I’m deciding to amplify the low hum in my life. I won’t accept being poked up the arse with a snooker cue or cat-called by a curb crawler. Instead of forgetting those things have happened during my day, I will indignantly broadcast them. I’m going to capitalise on my abilities and achieve what I want. And I’m emailing the Saniflow people about Dean right now.

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