Today as I was walking to the supermarket I happened to pass a group of young men. It was as I was about to walk up a set of steps, and four were sitting on the rails at the base of the steps, and another was sat on the rail at the top of the steps.
These are shallow steps, and running alongside them is a ramp for wheelchairs and prams and suchlike. It was late afternoon. The sky was overcast.
It should further be noted that when I describe these as ‘young men’, I mean they were probably – oh, I don’t know – 13 to 15 years old.
As I passed them heading up the steps a woman was walking down the steps. As she walked past him, the one sat perched on the rail at the top of the steps shouted down to his mates:
Oi Danny! I’d say that was at least a eight out of ten!
Or words to that affect.
In case the context isn’t clear, he was passing comment on the woman’s appearance and shouting his opinion of same down to one of his companions, while she was still very much within earshot.
As I passed the 14 (?) year old boy I considered pushing him slightly so that he fell off the railing. I then admonished myself for even considering such a thing. If I had done so he could easily have fallen onto the tarmac and split his skull. I then admonished myself for not telling him not to harass women in public.
In all honesty, I was never any more likely to give him a Good Talking To than I was to push him off the railing.
Then I went to the supermarket and bought my groceries, and thought no more about it until now.
What made me think of this again was reading this tweet by Laurie Penny:
I'm going to propose a radical solution: maybe people should just fucking stop harassing other people + step in when they see it happening.
— Laurie Penny (@PennyRed) October 19, 2014
I’ve seen enough instances of harassment of women by men to know that this must be a severe and ubiquitous problem. The fact that I – a man – have happened to witness this sort of thing going on several times must mean that it goes on all the time.
Cowardice and selfishness will always prevent me from “stepping in” when I see harassment happening*. I know how groups of stupid men act when they can claim to themselves they have been attacked by other men. I also know how individual men act in such circumstances. This is especially true of the kind of men who verbally harass women in the street.
Obviously this demonstrates that I am a terrible and inadequate person; I knew that anyway. But it also demonstrates something else.
What made me remember that particular incident was how young these lads were. I say 14 to 15, but they could have been even younger for all I know. A few years ago they probably thought girls were icky. And now they’ve learnt to treat women as objects in public.
Perhaps this particular chap will grow up and develop impulse control and spend less time hanging around on streetcorners with his mates. Perhaps he’ll learn to behave decently. Perhaps. But there’s a good chance he won’t. But he learnt to behave like this so quickly. It only took a couple of years to transform an innocent kid into a misogynistic gobshite.
This is patriarchy, I guess. Or an aspect of it.
I genuinely don’t know how to solve this problem. I suspect if it ever gets solved it will be through an endlessly frustrating, grindingly difficult process of teaching boys to be better men, and letting the bad men die off slowly.
* Excepting instances of out-and-out violence, where it’s obvious I’m the only person present able to do anything to stop the woman getting severely injured.