There is this long standing joke, in the UK at least, that at family functions women often find themselves hiding from the infamous creepy uncle; one that puts his hand on your bum and makes jokes about your sex life whilst pretending that he is a) part of the family or b) saying it all in jest. We laugh along because we are a) not sure if he is joking and b) because we are polite and don't want to make a fuss. Anyone looking for an example of this needs only to watch Bridget Jones's Diary.
Now luckily for me, I don't have a weird uncle and thankfully I don't have any family friends who have insisted that I call them that while they play footsie with me under the table. But I have, unfortunately, been the focus of many a 'joke' made by a much older man who feels that he can get away with whatever he wants, simply because of his age.
This happened most recently to me a couple of weeks ago in the shop that I work in a three days a week.
So anyone that has a dog will already know that when you are with them in the public, you will, whether you like it or not, end up in countless conversations with people who either want to tell you how cute she is, or who you need to ask politely to stop their dog from humping yours.
And on this particular morning she lead me in the direction of a little old man with a little old dog. He came up to me as I was unlocking the shop and said "oh I nearly smacked you on the bum there", I span around, pretty pissed off if I'm honest, to see who had made the comment but as I saw his age, I mentally assessed the threat and decided to smile politely as he carried on in this way, making a few comments here and there before leaving me to get on with my day.
A little bit later, around lunch time my friend Frankie came over to pay me a visit and as we were having a quick catch up the door opened and my friend from that morning stepped in. I stood up to greet him, as I would with any customer and he proceeded to chat me up... if you can even call it that.
I thought that Franks was going to piss herself she was laughing so hard, particularly when he gave me his address (4 doors down from the shop) and told me that I must come over for a drink and that I shouldn't bring my boyfriend... *wink*.
It was funny at the time, even when I called my mum who was actually less amused and suggested that I tell my boss, I still found myself giggling, not least of all at Frankie's impersonation of him.
To me though it just wasn't a massive deal and I honestly didn't think any more about it and haven't given him a moments thought since that day. But then yesterday morning on the walk into work, I saw the old codger and damn Bua drew his attention to me. I kept my head down, made it very clear that I had headphones in and cursed under my breath, like they do in the films.
I proceeded to spend the rest of the day nervous that he would come in to "visit" me, as he had promised that he would and I was very conscious of the fact that without Frankie there to piss herself laughing, the situation would not even be a little bit funny. Yes, the chances of him being able to physically attack me at his age were fairly slim, but that didn't stop me from feeling afraid of him.
So often sexual harassment in whatever capacity is laughed off, ignored, or seen as an overreaction. Being wolf-whistled by a guy in a white van is supposedly a compliment, having a stranger grope your ass is just a bit of light-hearted fun and being hit on by a man very able to be your great grandfather? Well that's nothing. he's lonely, he's bored, he's sweet. He's no real threat, right?
Wrong. You find me a woman out there who is genuinely, actually, properly okay with old men being absolutely filthy, I'll take it back, but I am confident that you won't because, in reality, it is inappropriate and it is uncomfortable.
So what age do men need to get to before we start making excuses for them? Is it when they need to turn to a trusty blue pill for a bit of fun? Or when they can no longer walk unaided and need a stick to help them get around? Is it because they can no longer physically attack us that we let them off?
But if that is the case, then perhaps the the police should stop cracking down on the internet trolls who express an interest in 'raping' celebrities or making totally unfunny sexual assault based jokes? Because they, like the old men, are not an imminent, physical threat?
Now I know that the two things differ, but at the end of the day, sexual harassment is sexual harassment and there cannot be excuses for it in any capacity.
Generally speaking I don't "mind" being wolf-whistled by men in vans, in a bizarre way is is sort of flattering and I, in the past, have been very accepting of this 'lad culture' as just something that happens. But this afternoon I have been talking to a couple of girl friends about the fact that I was going to publish this piece and both of them launched into stories of the time 'I nearly got snatched', the time 'I got followed home', that time yesterday when 'two men shouted at me as I tried to get through my front door' and I realised that this is a real problem.
Because I do hear the argument that says that the police have better things to do than chase down every white van man who just tried to pay a girl a compliment, and I hear that one that says that on a night out when a fella comes up to a group of you to chat you up that he genuinely doesn't mean any harm and but I have come to realise that by hearing those arguments and by accepting this as 'lad culture', I am to a degree, throwing fuel on the flames.
By accepting a 'dabble' of sexual harassment here and there, we are opening the doors to sexual harassment everywhere. If we teach our daughters not to make a fuss when a builder asks her to give him her pants or smile politely when she's heckled at a nightclub, how is she going to know what to do when an actual threat presents itself? How can we be sure she'll even know about it until it's too late?
It is estimated that 3 million women and girls across the UK experience rape, domestic violence and stalking each year. Almost 1 in 3 girls have experienced un-wanted sexual 'touching' in school. In a Stop Street Harassment Survey in 2014 it found that in the USA 65% of all women have experienced street harassment. 23% have been sexually touched. 20% have been followed. 9% have been made to do something sexual. Cosmopolitan found that 1 in 3 women between 18-34 have been sexually harassed at work and of those only 29% have reported it. RAINN found that every 2 minutes an American is sexually assaulted. Every 8 minutes that victim is a child. Meanwhile, only 6 out of every 1000 perpetrators will end up in prison.
So what do we think?
Do we still think it's okay to laugh off the behaviour of some 'dirty old man' simply because he doesn't 'look' like a threat? Or by doing that are we actually setting a precedent for acceptable behaviour towards all women?
Because sitting in the shop all day yesterday hoping against hope that my dirty old man wouldn't come in when I was on my own and 'vulnerable', I realised that this just isn't funny. This behaviour is not acceptable and that where we can, we need to start speaking up.