I wanted to share this with you.
I’ve just spent the day listening to Germaine Greer lectures. Not a bad way to spend a Monday! She has just as many dangerous ideas, her facility with words is as dexterous, her arguments as persuasive as ever. The woman is 76. She is remarkable and brilliant. I know that some of her pronouncements on identity, gender and sex are controversial, but fuck I love the fact that she is a ferociously intelligent old woman who refuses to go away and become invisible.
She got me thinking.
So this post is about something she said that’s stuck with me. During her talk at the Cambridge Union in 2015, she told an anecdote about a girl who froze when she was felt up on the tube. The anecdote originated from the Everyday Sexism Project. Greer has a particular dislike of said project, mainly because she ascribes a passivity to it. That is, she takes issue with the fact that the project merely records sexist outrages but then doesn’t take or encourage any action in response. Also, she dislikes the term sexism, preferring the term misogyny. Shrug on that.
Now, I don’t agree with her characterisation of the Everyday Sexism Project. Rather, I think airing this shit leads to a certain elevation of consciousness in the mainstream and helps bring about a kind of tipping point that leads to change. Furthermore, it’s empowering for women- especially for younger women- to know they’re not alone when they’re treated this way. I also think the Everyday Sexism Project is the kind of irrefutable 1st person historical record that matters to media, historians and academia and it’s valuable. BUT I digress.
Women be conditioned, y’all.
Greer was irritated that the girl who was being felt up on the tube froze. Basically, she was annoyed that this girl didn’t turn around and call out the man who was harassing her. Listen, I don’t judge! The poor girl probably couldn’t believe it was actually happening, no doubt she was shoved in that tube like the proverbial sardine and couldn’t move away. I’m sure it all happened very quickly and she was embarrassed. I feel like Greer took issue with the embarrassment being felt. Greer was annoyed by the fact that we as women are so conditioned to be nice, to consider everyone’s feelings, that even when we’re being victimised we absorb the embarrassment and shame of the situation. And I do agree with her on that- it shouldn’t be the girl being violated who’s embarrassed. It should be the creepy rubber.
Let me share something.
In the spirit of solidarity and catharsis and to show any women reading this blog that it just does not have to go down like that, allow me to share a story.
I was 18 and travelling from Jerusalem to Haifa in Israel by bus. It’s a fairly long journey, about 2 and 1/2 hours or so. A long enough journey that when I began to feel a tingling sensation in my seat I initially put it down to pins and needles; the kind you get when you’ve been sitting for too long. But the sensation persisted and sure enough, when I turned around, there he was. He was crouched down with his hand wedged through the gap in the seats, and his coat placed over his arm to hide what he was doing. Which was having a proper, squeezy, grope.
I did not feel embarrassed.
What I felt in that moment of discovery was scalding fury, but also, if I’m honest, pity.
Because I knew I was going to make that creepy rubber wish he had never been born.
I looked at him and took in what he was doing while he crouched back in fear. My eyes narrowed, I took a deep breath, and I started yelling. Yelling. On a quiet bus. REALLY YELLING.
“What the fuck do you think you’re up to? Get your fucking hand out of there you disgusting piece of shit. How dare you? HOW DARE YOU!” etc etc etc. I mean, I really went him and he could not get off that bus fast enough. He was mortified. Especially relevant: I felt no shame. Not. One. Bit.
You do not always have to be nice.
To reiterate, I don’t judge you if this has happened to you and you’ve reacted differently. However, I do want to stress again and again in this blog: we women often suffer the tyranny of having to be nice. Nice is meek, nice is polite and nice is submissive. And look, a certain amount of nice is good; it oils the wheels of social interaction. Being nice is good when everyone is more considerate and we all cooperate more as a result. However, nice is not good when the onus is always on women to behave this way and not on men. When someone is sexually harassing you or rubbing up against you or groping you, you are officially free of the obligation to consider their embarrassment or shame.
From Germaine Greer:
“Women live lives of continual apology. They are born and raised to take the blame for other people’s behavior. If they are treated without respect, they tell themselves that they have failed to earn respect…”
If someone is touching you without your permission, you do not have to be nice. Nice is not good when it leads to injustice; even the small injustice of feeling like you can’t say anything when someone is groping you. There are times when you are colluding in your own oppression by being nice. Hear me now sisters: you do not always have to be nice!