I didn't know.
At times, as anyone who really knows me is all too well aware, I give in to my worst instincts. I've never been shall we say convinced by some of the motives behind the Everyday Sexism project, which to me has at times come alarmingly close to suggesting there are no circumstances in which it is ever OK to give someone a compliment, at least without it being misconstrued or taken as evidence of that person's latent misogyny. Reading Lindy West's column in the Graun last week, in which she related how twice women sitting near to her in a coffee shop were approached by creepy older men trying desperately if obliquely to get into their pants, I felt the bile rising. I had never experienced anything like she was describing happen. It's true I've also never patronised a Starbucks in my life, but I would have noticed if it went on in similar places and situations.
So I asked an American guy I've talked to on IRC for over a decade now whether it could be this is more of an American thing. Yeah, it's a real problem, he said. His girlfriend worried about going out alone as some men were so creepy, and he linked me to this piece on Jezebel, written by a woman told to her face by the man harassing her it was her fault for being pretty. Her fault for having the nerve to be attractive in a public place. A man, who, for whatever reason (perhaps he'd had a terrible day; perhaps he'd tried the same "what are you reading" approach before and it had either worked or rather, had never worked and so released all his pent-up anger and self-pity in this almost empty train against this woman who dared to tell him to leave her alone; or perhaps, and this is the most likely explanation, he was just an entitled prick of the highest order used to getting what he wants), took it upon himself to terrify someone he had just met simply because she wanted to read her book in peace.
Except it obviously isn't just an American problem. When someone captures over 100 examples of harassment, from sustained, aggressive following and invasion of personal space to less troubling but still unwanted remarks in just 10 hours of filming, as Shoshana B Roberts did just walking around New York, somehow resisting the urge to tell these man children exactly what they could do, it touches a nerve. It touched mine. I honestly didn't know. I really didn't. No, I don't suppose it's this bad universally; on a couple of occasions I have seen women being harassed in a similar fashion, and once I did check if the victim was OK, telling her how those who'd catcalled and then insulted her were arseholes, as if she didn't know.
It poses a whole number of questions. Do these men really not know any better? Are some of them, while undoubtedly frightening, otherwise harmless, as the guy asking whether he's "too ugly" might be, apparently oblivious to how it's what he's doing rather than his looks that make him unattractive? Moreover, is it really so difficult to look, as men (and women) always will, without passing comment or going out of their way to make that person feel uncomfortable? I don't doubt some long-term relationships have begun due to chance encounters, an especially flattering compliment or just chatting someone they meet on the street up on the off chance; there's a way of going about it though, and let's not pretend the vast majority want any more out of it than the (extremely remote) possibility of a quick fuck.
Just as pertinent is how it puts or should put silliness like this into sharp relief. We are once again in the season of gesture poppytics, when almost everyone put in front of a TV camera has to be wearing one, regardless of whether they want to or not. Little things like how this completely dilutes the meaning of remembrance are cast aside, lest the Daily Mail start whining again or what used to be the red ink brigade start complaining about lack of respect. Perhaps both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband really are feminists, but is David Cameron, despite what he's said in the past? I'm not a feminist and wouldn't pretend to be, regardless of how my politics overlap with most of those who identify as such, mainly down to how modern identity politics seems more concerned with arguments over privilege and who's the most oppressed than with doing something about it. This kind of hashtag style activism is at best false and at worst encourages further cynicism about people's motives, and also seems meant to catch those already deemed to be the enemy out, as the Sun has previously with Ed Miliband failing to pose with a Help for Heroes wristband.
As couldn't be made clearer by Hollaback's video, we really do need feminism. We also need men, and yes women, who know friends who've acted similarly to those in New York to make clear just how upsetting such behaviour can be. By contrast, what we could really do without are the sweeping generalisations of some of those who really ought to know better.