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I once went on a date with a very tall solicitor.
Because of his profession (and yeah, maybe a bit because of his height), I felt with him I was in a ‘safe pair of hands’.
I wasn’t worried about anything bad happening because he was a man who represented the law for a living: this wasn’t one of those evenings where I’d have to keep my hand over the top of my drink or scurry home with my keys clutched tightly between my knuckles, weaponised in case of possible threat.
The evening involved dinner, drinks, and after a couple of hours a small kiss – it was a Saturday night date and we’d had a pleasant evening, so why not – and as time ticked towards midnight I said it was time to go home. He eagerly agreed, starting towards the taxi rank with a spring in his step.
I stopped him, saying I’d had a lovely evening but I was going home alone, making a nervous joke about having to complete my tax return the next morning so I couldn’t possibly be up all night.
He got aggressive: his face dropped and he told me I was a prick tease, saying if he didn’t come home with me he’d end up with blue balls (just go home and have a wank like most men, dude). He told me that by kissing him I’d led him on, told me it was now expected we’d go to bed together.
I felt bad that I’d made him upset so shared a taxi back to our respective homes from the city centre, assuaging my guilt by giving him twice as much as the fiver needed to cover my leg of the journey. The night ended with him hot-footing it out the taxi to my front door uninvited, causing me to employ some impressive body blocking skills to stop him forcing his way into my house. The next morning he berated me via text not only for the aforementioned balls but also for the fact he’d had to walk home in the cold wearing only a thin jacket.
I told him what a shit he was and said never to contact me again: I got my revenge by writing a full account of the horrendous experience in my book.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. It’s true that many experiences of what could be described as toxic masculinity where men have removed some of my power or comfort have not been as notable, but these instances happen far more than is appropriate.
This happening once is more than is appropriate.
As a woman these tiny little experiences chip away at you, eroding your self confidence until you start to see the compromising of your comfort as something to expect.
I saw it in the man who chased me down a tube platform to tell me he’d been following me because he liked the way I smelled. The bloke who made me feel so uncomfortable under his unrelating gaze that I got off the train a stop early and walked. The friend of a friend who wouldn’t take no for an answer, even when I explicitly told him his touch was unwanted and inappropriate. The broadcaster who DM’d me on Twitter to tell me he’d read one of my posts about dating as a single mum and hoped I’d “got the poke I was after”. The unsolicited intimate photographs – the dick pics – that just. Keep. Coming.
It’s difficult not to question your own reactions in all this toxic masculinity. Take my pervy Solicitor for example: he told me I was at fault for encouraging him with a kiss so I believed him. I felt bad I’d allowed him to see me home in a taxi, believing this meant I’d ‘asked for it’ when it came to him physically trying to force his way into my house (and, one assumes, up to my bedroom). Until a couple of days later and a stern self-talking to I’d even felt guilty that I’d ‘made’ him walk home in the cold with only his blue balls for company.
And the man on the train: had I encouraged him by making eye contact? Should I have worn my sunglasses so he didn’t see my eyes? By not averting my gaze did I encourage his leeriness?
The DM from the broadcaster: had I brought that on myself for being open enough to write about my dating life online? Should I just keep quite, stay small, so nobody notices me?
“It’s not my job to minimise myself so someone else can feel their maximum”
Recently I went out of my way, I changed the way I lived my life, to avoid someone who had acted inappropriately towards me. I stayed away from places I knew he’d be, making sure if he was there I’d have a friend close by, ready to act as something of a human security blanket. I was made to feel uncomfortable – and, incidentally, called a liar – for expressing upset when my boundaries were breached.
The thing is, it’s not my job to minimise myself so someone else can feel their maximum. It’s not up to me to alter or remove the pleasure I take from life so another person gets more of it from theirs. There’s quite enough happiness to go around, and anyone who acts like such a mood hoover does not have the right to be in my – or in your – life.
Last month I saw a post on Instagram that has stayed with me ever since. I’m paraphrasing, but it was a call-out for women to stop shrinking out of the way of men when they’re walking down a busy street. It was an announcement that we should alter our default of stepping out of the way of males ploughing towards us on the pavement, a statement that if they don’t feel the need to adapt for us, why should we shift ourselves for them?
“My boundaries are the most powerful asset I have and the only occasion they’ll be breached is when I allow it… I have simply stopped giving away my power, my essence, to those who don’t deserve it”.
It’s something that’s really resonated with me: when in London for work this week I strode down Tottenham Court Road with the same balls as any of the men around me, and yes, I confused a few of them by not ducking and diving out of their way. I raised an eyebrow at the man who was staring at me on the train, letting him know his attention was unwanted. I spent my half term visiting the places I want to visit and occupying the space I want to occupy because why the damn hell shouldn’t I?
Nobody has the right to make me feel uncomfortable – nobody. My boundaries are the most powerful asset I have and the only occasion they’ll be breached is when I allow it. So I have simply stopped giving away my power, my essence, to those who don’t deserve it.
I have learned in the last couple of years that, particularly but not limited to men, we have our allies and we have those who will simply take what they can get because it is available.
And we really need to learn not to give it to those who don’t deserve it.
If you see any of them whinging about their blue balls? Run far, far away.