Just a joke, love

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I blame Strictly Come Dancing. Autumn last year my son and I are settling down to watch our regular two hour marathon of sequins and emotion when he pipes up that he fancies a Chinese takeaway. Doting Mum, off I trot down the high street to fulfill my youngest’s whim. It is not even 7pm in a sleepy market town and stepping out into the evening holds no fears. But as I pass the Crown Hotel and then the Baker’s Arms my path is blocked by two young men. The shorter one is almost face to face with me and as I side step him he side steps too, blocks my path again and blows smoke in my face. Having enjoyed my discomfort for a few seconds off they go giggling into the evening.

The cemetery down the road a few weeks ago. Broad daylight. I am at one end of the cemetery -three teenagers at the other. I have caught their attention and they clearly have not yet clocked that I am old enough to be their mum (ye Gods, their grandma even). As they come towards me one of them starts: “Are you going to say hello to us? Are you going to say hello to us? Are you going to..” He becomes more sheepish when he gets closer and realises my seniority but he does not want to back down in front of his mates and keeps on at me, tailing off as his mates snigger and I swerve onto another path. I am all too conscious that that path leads me deeper into the churchyard with no means of escape if things escalate. They wonder off, doubtless to continue studying for their A’Levels at the sixth form college down the road and then home to Mum.

A month ago. A new low. This time I am accompanied. A late evening walk with my son and husband. We are just going past my son’s old school.  My son is on his bike and freewheels on ahead followed closely by my husband. I fall back a few metres and have noticed a couple of lads hanging around. I turn round to look as they don’t seem altogether benign. I am greeted with: “You’ve got a big butt.” (technically not inaccurate but a somewhat unnecessary observation to a complete stranger).”I said you’ve got a big butt.” I offer them a cheery expletive (feeling safe to risk antagonising them because my husband is not that far away) and receive a rapid stream of f-words. 

Yet I am grateful. Why? Because in middle age these incidents, though just as humiliating, are few and far between. In my late teens and twenties (until I “disappeared” behind a pushchair in mid 30s motherhood) this street harassment and the comments were a constant: “Marry me”, “There she goes”, “Don’t I know you”, “it’s the lady in red” and that perennial favourite: “Cheer up love!” It was always worse in London. Perhaps the very worst, four years ago as an advice worker, on a tough estate when I was greeted in a car park with: “Hello sexy lady, why aren’t you at home looking after my mother f*****g children” and as he continued in that vein I had to throw all inhibition to the winds and attach myself to two total strangers to get away.

With all the current revelations from tinsel town this stuff might seem pretty minor – “just a joke love”. Does it qualify for # MeToo? Maybe, maybe not. What is miserably sad for me and millions of mothers is that just as some of the “banter” dies down in middle age for us we have to teach our teenage daughters  how to cope with it.  Misquoting Ecclesiastes 3 we have to teach them:

“The time to answer back.

The time to remain silent.

The time to stand your ground.

The time to plan your escape route.”

It is a painful training none of us want to have to give.

* Ruth Bright has been a councillor in Southwark and Parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East

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9 Comments

  • *hug*

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Oct '17 - 1:00pm

    A very measured and , indeed , too, heartfelt piece from Ruth.

    We are the same age ,Ruth, but and , when he was a couple of decades or so older, my father at seventy plus, said he felt invisible. Age , whether young middle age or older , brings change. It is a sad thing to think you disappeared behind a pushchair in your very young, thirties!

    It is the reverse of this too, which concerns us though today. I personally think if more approached it with the attitude expressed here, we would see more humanity in the interaction between the sexes.

    I am gregarious and well mannered . I pay compliments, meant , never forced, paid to compliment and praise , not foe effect or reward ! ” Hi, your,e looking lovely !” “You look gorgeous !” “Isn,t your hair a beautiful colour !” These were , and , I am happy to say , from me and those like me , decent , friendly , warm , in motive , and manner, very well received as very well meant.

    Yet now , we here campaigns like , Everyday sexism, that some contribute to, saying anything that is about anything exterior should remain interior as a thought and unspoken !

    Older women a generation older than me , as with those younger , a generation below, have , until very recently seemed to beam when a very lovely thing is said in a very lovely way. Especially if it is said by someone who pays intellectual and political compliments too and often , if in response to a very sensible comment or view. How many or probably few, times, have you heard, “well done !” ” Excellent point !” “Quite right !”

    As a director of a play, or now , low budget film, as leader of seminars or creative industries adviser to unemployed clients , my raison d’etre is to encourage not cajole.I deliver confidence building classes , not , confidence destroying classes ! But, in verbal usage though, is not butt ! The secret of all interaction , as with good sound political judgement, is knowing the limits of anything.

    In this , black and white is not grey.

    Harvey Weinstein and those of his ilk are more than a wretched problem for women, they are for all human beings, for humanity is debased !

  • Yeovil Yokel 23rd Oct '17 - 2:28pm

    Is the harassment of women a particularly bad problem in parts of the UK? I’ve never observed this when visiting Europe or S E Asia, but there again (1) I’m not a woman & (2) I’ve never spent long in those places. When I lived in London for 4 years in the 80’s I was regularly hassled on the Tube and when cycling, and was glad to move away.

  • Ruth Bright 23rd Oct '17 - 3:17pm

    A hug from Jennie is definitely worth a thousand comments from anyone else!

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Oct '17 - 5:43pm

    Can I offer two thousandths?
    An obituary in the Daily Telegraph recently of Robert Vaughn (the man from U.N.C.L.E.)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Vaughn was his discovery that an actress had hold of what was described as ‘the crown jewels’. More surprisingly the actress was Greta Garbo. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_Garbo.
    The Times reported on a book by Marilyn Monroe, in which she described the early part of her career as needing to listen to lots of boring men who all claimed to have access to powerful men in the movie industry.
    The Times is, of course, nowadays owned by Rupert Murdoch’s companies, as is the Sun. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Monroe
    When Lynne Featherstone was appointed a minister in the Home Office she circulated some information about herself, including the fact that she had been propositioned by her line manager in a previous employment She refused and he sacked her. (Obviously not in the civil service).
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynne_Featherstone

  • The reality is that this behaviour is a result of years of tolerance of “low level ” abuse of women, teachers, gay people etc

    I left teaching 20 years ago because of the Head teachers tolerance of constant low level abuse and backchat in a secondary school and failing to set standards that made this unacceptable . Far from our society being more tolerant in many cases bullying, misogyny and selfishness have got worse and yet if you say this you are portrayed as a old fashioned right winger!..I have come to the conclusion that it wont change as nobady has the guts to really confront it in schools and online where it starts.

  • Ruth Bright 25th Oct '17 - 1:54pm

    So sorry to hear of your experience Peter.

  • This is another piece with this odd perception. How is this gendered?

    Example 1: A group blocks your way and blows smoke in your face.
    Example 2: A group engaging you in a way that is intended to be a bit menacing.
    Example 3: A group shouts insults at you in the street.

    All are examples of behaviour which appears intended to harass people with low level (probably) criminal behaviour.

    All these things will also be done to: young (similar aged); old men; and weaker looking men from the rest of the population when they are just going about their business. In fact the only group of men unlikely to be bothered by these types are those who they think pose a risk of giving them an immediate problem.

    The normal reaction to my observation above is to suggest that I am “playing down” the issue. But in reality I have just explained that these nuance criminals actually have far more victims (probably more than double based upon street violence stats) than Ruth appears to assume. When it comes to solving this issue it is having a record of as many incidents of the nuances that they cause that will make taking action easier.

    Ruth I’ve found that you are normally are looking for solution, not to whine. So it may be worth thinking if the way you perceive this problem gets you to where you want to be. If you were to raise this issue as a problem locally and also encourage those you appear to have not registered as also likely victims of this behaviour to also raise it you may find that you have a greater chance of changing the behaviour of the troublesome minority.

    Perhaps those who behave like this after 10/20/30 incidents can be identified may warrant a visit form the police to make a point, perhaps local pubs may decide after hearing that these people are causing a problem may want to refuse them access to the premises for a set period of time. Giving them real world consequences (or in the case of the law notification of possible future serious real world consequences) may be the most effective solution.

  • Oh dear my spell check seems to have corrected my spelling to nuance rather than nuisance, assume where I said nuance I intended nuisance in the above post.

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