I arrived back in St Andrews on the 1st of September, and that night I went out with my flatmates to grab some bits and pieces from Tesco. As we were walking down Market Street, two men whistled in our direction and asked if we could show them back to their hotel. That’s how my first night back as a 3rd year honours student started–with two twenty something year old men making us walk that little bit faster.
Everyday sexism is not uncommon in St Andrews and certainly is not uncommon elsewhere. I’ve been at this University for two years, and unfortunately this type of encounter has happened many times before. Sadly, most women experience these kinds of insults to our dignity and personal space long before we ever arrive for our first year of University. While I was at home, I reconnected with a friend from school and we spoke about how even from 12 years old girls in our year experienced boys at school sending pictures and sharing opinions of our bodies. How do you think this behaviour effects a young girl’s self-image? How can a young girl separate how she see herself from the ignorant and crude comments made about her body by the boy who sits behind her in class?
One of the worst experiences I’ve recalled happened when two boys in school went through all the girls in a group chat one by one, ranking them and deciding whether they would sleep with them or not. The boys only spared the girl who had a boyfriend, from their moronic and cruel list, because ‘She was Jack’s and he had morals’. It’s good to know that while being publicly sexualised and objectified it’s also okay to treat me as your mate’s property as well. If it weren’t bad enough that these egotistical and unprepossessing boys thought they had the right to make such claims about other people’s bodies, they also thought that it was completely fine first to rank women based on their looks but then have the audacity to assume those girls would want to sleep with them in the first place. Why am I supposed to feel honoured?
However, we can’t just blame a young age group and hope that as men get older they stop this everyday sexism. This is not a habit that these uninformed and cowardly men grow out of–rather it’s built into all part of society. I’ve been a waitress since I was 14, and if I had a penny for every time a middle-aged man has commented on my looks or has said something inappropriate, I would have collected a pretty decent sum. I once made small talk with a man while serving him at the till and he preceded to call me ‘a treat’. After I laughed it off, he began discussing how he was meant to do some shopping in the afternoon and proceeded to call it women’s work that was beneath him. In the same breath he objectified me, as a young woman less than half his age, and made clear he thought I, and all women, were lesser than him. It riles me up now even to think about it.
It isn’t a compliment to be cat-called. It doesn’t make me blush to be wolf whistled at while walking down a public street. It isn’t flattering to have a man make comments about your breasts or your legs. It’s sexual harassment, simple as that. How am I supposed to feel? Admired? Appreciated? It’s not just demeaning, its manipulative–it’s an archaic and hurtful tool men use in a sorry attempt to make clear their self-assumed dominance. I’ve heard some people say it’s difficult to see where this behaviour crosses the line of simply being flirty. Well, I’m going to tell you that contrary to some people’s belief it’s actually a very easy distinction to make. Flirting is equal, it’s fun and it’s built on a little thing called respect. Being sexually harassed is objectifying and offensive.
This sort of thing happens all the time. Whilst researching for this article, I asked around and almost everyone I spoke to sadly had similar and regular experiences of being harassed. Some instances even seemed quite manageable in relation to blatant inappropriate behaviour such as having a man look at you in the street and say to your face “yeah I would sleep with you”. The Feminist society has recently started a page called ‘Everyday Sexism St Andrews’ which is an initiative where anybody can anonymously share their experiences and feelings no matter the scale. It’s a great place to have your voices heard as well as offering links and resources to platforms which offer support. They aim to collect data and find the best way to tackle sexism in our community in order to “Bring about a more equal society”. I suppose that’s really all we can hope for. Then, maybe someday I won’t feel the need to walk home with my keys in my hand.