CN: contains a brief description of sexual harassment, and Nazis.
I’m struggling to find a way to parse my thoughts this week. It’s been a busy few days after all. I know this is a cycling blog, but to be honest after yesterday I need this platform to put words to some thoughts.
Yesterday, I found myself being made to feel so unsafe by men that I changed my route and travel to minimise contact with them on two separate occasions. The first was a man on the bus, asking if I was “taken”, telling me I was beautiful, asking where I lived and then asking me to sneak him onto the train platform. The second was a man dressed in a German WW2 uniform at the Very Vintage Day Out event, right down to an iron cross medal and pin badge with the eagle and swastika. We didn’t speak, but nonetheless I felt compelled to avoid him on my way out the event and crossed busy traffic rather than see him again.
Each incident involved someone using subtle threats to exert their will over someone else. The guy on the bus might not have a conscious strategy, but by sexualising the conversation from the start, by the time he’s asking me for a favour the threat is implicit. It says “I view you sexually. I want something from you. If you say no, I might sexually assault you.” Did the guy on the bus threaten me? No. Was there a threat? Yes. And I’m sure there are very few women/NB folk out there who haven’t felt that tight feeling when they’ve been threatened in this way, the raised heart rate, the quick evaluation of any possible allies, of escape and alternative routes.
The guy dressed as a Nazi (and I have zero time for any more armchair military historians explaining the finer points of WW2 German army uniforms. Go away) to attend a family event is exerting similar power. Swastikas and iron crosses are potent symbols of fascism and violence, and to wear them is to make a statement of intent. It tells the world “I am comfortable with what these symbols represent. I feel safe enough to wear this in public, and given the violence carried out under this banner who’d dare to step up against me?” Did the guy in the Nazi uniform, having his photo taken with smiling women as part of a photography competition (yes, really) threaten me directly? No. But the threat was there. I cannot imagine how it would have felt to be Jewish, and/or a person of colour, and be confronted by such an obvious display of fascism on what’s meant to be a fun day out, but I can imagine the symptoms of that distress.
That tight feeling happens every time someone yells a sexual obscenity at me from a passing car on my ride home. It happens every time some dude in a ute deliberately cuts too close to me on the road, or stands too close behind me in an elevator. It happens far too often, and in too many places, and to too many people. The need by people with social privilege to exert their dominance in this way, to claim every space, is exhausting to live with.
I don’t have any sweeping conclusion to draw here, no “and here’s how we fix this”. People need to make space for others, need to address their own behaviour and that of their peers. Expecting the people being threatened to be the ones to have to make the changes in society is a cop-out, and a dangerous one at that. I’m tired of being made to feel intimidated, tired of the need others have to dominate space that should be for everyone. Groups like Women In Urbanism Aotearoa are working to address the inequities in infrastructure that make spaces unsafe, but to be honest this should be everyone’s job. I don’t want sympathy, I don’t want men telling me they’re sorry I felt threatened, I want to not be threatened in the first place. I want to be able to ride home, safely, without sexual harassment. I want to be able to take a damn bus without having to make a risk assessment first.