I am 20. I am walking along the King’s Road in Chelsea in London. It is the 1980s. Three men are coming towards me; they are clearly together, though the foot traffic on the pavement requires each to walk a half pace behind the other. They are white, dressed in tight jeans and cap-sleeve T-shirts. The first man, as he passes, looks me in the eye and says: “You’re a pretty girl.” The second one smirks, but says nothing. The third one leans into my face and breathes: “Nigger!”
My final year at university and I had a part-time job working for an American foreign correspondent. One of my tasks was to pick up the broadsheets each morning, and in those pre-Internet days I would leaf through them and clip and file any articles on the stories he was covering. That day was a Saturday in summer. I generally came in later on the weekend and the street was already busy with people. I was on my way to his house with my haul of newspapers when I passed the three men.
You’re a pretty girl. Nigger.
The first remark did not seem designed to offend. You’re a pretty girl. It intruded on my thoughts, got my attention. Then came the complicity of the second man. Then, “Nigger!” What happened afterwards? Do you imagine that the first man berated the third man? Do you think they argued? And whose side did the second man take? None of that happened. I know it didn’t. You know it didn’t. The three men carried on walking down the road. At some point one of them likely turned to the others.
And they laughed.
A child learns to walk. The child hauls herself up on a chair or her mother’s knee, finds her balance and takes one tottering step and then another. The parents murmur sounds of encouragement, spread their arms. Come! Come! The father catches the child and swings her up in the air. My mother tells me that my approach was a little different from most infants’. I would crawl into the empty middle of the room and there I would take a breath and slowly rise. And I used my growing independence not to run towards her but to run gleefully away.
I grew up in the compounds of developing countries, in West Africa, where my father was from; and Southern Africa, the Middle and Far East, where my stepfather’s career as a diplomat took us later. The hazards of the compound were snakes mainly, and army ants. As children, my brother, my sister and I didn’t leave the compound alone much except to go and buy sweets or when we broke out in search of adventure. Around the age of five I began to borrow my brother’s clothes. Boys’ clothes afforded a greater practical freedom, were better for sliding down banisters, climbing trees, even the simple act of sitting. There was a lot of focus when I was growing up on making sure I sat properly, that is with my legs closed. My brother didn’t have to sit that way, which seemed odd to me, given that he had something far more prominent to display. I wondered why, if what girls had between their legs needed to be so closely guarded, we were the ones to wear skirts.
I went to boarding school at 6 and left at 18 for university in London. The enclosed worlds of compound life and British boarding school left me unprepared for the streets of the capital, the act of walking, specifically of walking alone and female down a street. Yet in my tomboy/cross-dresser days, which lasted until I was around 14, I had already begun to understand viscerally something I couldn’t articulate. I didn’t want to be a boy; I wanted the freedom I saw belonged to boys but not girls.
“I wondered why, if what girls had between their legs needed to be so closely guarded, we were the ones to wear skirts.”
2017. I am standing on the platform of a London tube station, I’m back in the city where I lived for 30 years, before making my home in the United States. A young man is looking at me. I ignore him, but his stare is intrusive. When we board the train he stands very close to me, and at one point his hand touches mine. I am twice as old as him, which makes this situation somewhat unusual. But everything else about it is familiar, and I’m old enough now to recognize exactly what is going on. The next stop is mine and so I move to stand facing the door. He follows and stands right behind me; I can feel his breath on the back of my neck. The train is crowded, it’s unlikely anyone else has followed his behavior closely enough to think it out of line. What the young man doesn’t realize is that I am facing the wrong door. This is my old home station, and the doors behind us will be the ones to open. At the last moment I swing round and exit.
A week or so later, on the tube again, I catch the eye of a man sitting opposite me. For a few moments I hold his gaze and then I look away. In the moment of turning I see him smile and it is a smile of triumph. He has won something, he has defeated me. Like the first man he is very young, around 20. In that moment I realize something chilling. My God, I thought, he’s practicing.
Nobody tells young girls that men own the power of the gaze. My mother never told me that men may look at me but I may not look back. That if we do our look can be taken as an invitation. Men teach us that. Over the years we train our gaze to skim men’s faces, resting for only a split second, shifting fractionally sideways if our eyes happen to meet. The man on the other hand, if he so wishes, will look at your face, your breasts, your legs, your ass.
In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey described how films are created to be seen from the point of view of the heterosexual male. Their female characters are presented to him as objects of desire. This is the “male gaze.” The gaze is power. Men own the power of the gaze. White people do, too. A white friend tells me of the time she took her adoptive daughter who is black to a small town in Maine and found her daughter the object of stares. “I guess there aren’t too many black people in that part of the country,” she suggests placatingly, because already I am visibly irritated. “And they don’t own a fucking television?” I say. “And they’ve never laid eyes on their president or his family?” (This was early 2016.) They stare because they can, by the gift of the power vested in them by their membership in the ethnic majority. They stare because her daughter’s discomfiture is nothing to them, may be the whole purpose.
When a man stares at a woman in public her sensitivities are, at the very least, immaterial to him. He owns the power of the gaze and he will, if he cares to, exercise it. The real mind-fuck is that enfolded into the action is the defense. The woman who complains may well find herself being told she should be flattered, that she is lucky men find her attractive.
“Where you going, baby?”
“Smile, little lady.”
“Want some of this?”
“Look at the ass on that!”
“You wouldn’t be able to walk if . . .”
“’Til . . . it . . . bleeds.”
“Nobody tells young girls that men own the power of the gaze. My mother never told me that men may look at me but I may not look back. That if we do our look can be taken as an invitation. Men teach us that.”
In the early 90s I shared an apartment in London’s Chelsea with a friend. One week, while repairs to the roof were being undertaken, we had scaffolding erected at the front of the house. My room was on the top floor and faced the street, and from there I could see the roofers go up and down the ladders. At certain times throughout the day they would take their breaks sitting on the scaffold deck right in front of my desk unaware that I could hear them as they took turns yelling comments at the women passing in the street below. The excitement each opportunity provoked was astonishing. “‘Here comes one, here comes one! Your turn!” One man in particular was actually jumping up and down on the scaffolding. The more evidently humiliated the woman, the greater the delight. From where I sat I noticed several things: Firstly, yes, the young and attractive women drew more aggressive attention, as if the men were intent on denigrating what they could not possess, to punish the woman for being desirable and also unobtainable to them; secondly, no woman who was walking alone was exempt; and thirdly, they especially liked to pick on women who were dressed for work, who almost certainly earned more than they did. The women were metaphorically stripped, just as women were in earlier times and still are publicly stripped in some parts of the world, for transgressing the boundaries of womanhood, for stepping out of their place. They were being shamed, stripped not of their clothing, but of their dignity.
As a child I was taught to ignore aggressive dogs, to keep walking. Once you’re out of its territory, the dog will leave you alone, so goes the conventional wisdom, and mostly it works. The same is supposed to be true of men, except it isn’t. They walk alongside you, they kerb-crawl you. If you tell them to leave you alone they will call you a bitch and ask you who the fuck you think you are. Every encounter, however seemingly benign, contains the possibility of violence. By the time it is over (you have entered a shop or a subway), your breath is coming quickly and your heart slamming against your ribcage. Why do men do this? Nobody asks the question and when I ask, I don’t get an answer. Sometimes it is said or suggested that this is simply the nature of men. What is interrogated more often is my response. Submissiveness is what is demanded. Women are taught not to answer back, for if we do we will escalate matters and then—the subtext—whatever follows will be our own fault.
Except I do, I do answer back. For, you see, it is in my nature. In London in those early years, I get into fights. In South Kensington a man threatens to punch me after I tell him to piss off. I say I am going to fetch a policeman and if he is still there I will have him arrested. He swears at me, but he goes. A man in Camden Town pulls out a knife and threatens to stab me in the stomach. A crowd, mostly white, gathers around me and watches to see what will happen. The man is black and so am I. The stand-off goes on for long seconds. “Do you want to fuck with me? Do you want to fuck with me?” Even then the ghost of a joke crosses my mind. Well, I thought I’d made it perfectly clear. Another man, also black and wearing dreads, moves through the audience. He walks up to us both, looks at the man with the knife and says: “What’s the problem, brother?” I never see that man again, not even to thank him, because the friend with whom I am walking has found a policeman and my harasser flees. But he is caught, and he goes to court and I am there, and I see him. His hair is braided and he wears a shirt and suit; he looks so different I wonder if I would have picked him out of a line-up. My statement is read to the court. He is found guilty, not of the sexual harassment which began the whole altercation, although the judge tuts at this part of my statement, but of possession of an offensive weapon. The case is over in minutes, my assailant is sent away to be sentenced at a later date. The girl I was walking with and her father attend the case. They both make it clear, though not unkindly because I have now learned my lesson, that this is my fault.
Later, when I tell the story I will discover that in the eyes of many of my white friends, the fact that I am black and both my harasser and savior are black makes this a “black thing.” Something in which they have no stake and in which the mostly white onlookers are now exempt from interfering; the courage of the dreadlocked man is suddenly not so great.
On the streets race and gender intersect, the dominance of men over women, of white over black, of white men over white women, of black men over black women, of Hispanic men over Hispanic women and so forth. Layered upon that is the relationship between men, the sometime competition and sometime complicity between men of all colors, the upholding of male power. This can play out in a variety of ways. For a woman of color, men of the same ethnicity may be ally or foe.
In London men view street harassment as an equal opportunities occupation. I’ve endured sexually aggressive behavior from men of every color and class. In New York I am rarely publicly bothered by white men. How to account for the difference? In America the edges of racial politics are sharper and more bloodied. Human motivations are often hard to fathom, but I’d give a good guess that white men in New York City are scared to be seen harassing a woman of color. To be seen. In public. There is also this—that within the codes of heterosexual masculinity, black men have ownership of and therefore power over black women. In some places this code is more strictly enforced than in others. On one of my last visits to the city I had to pass a group of workmen on a narrow sidewalk as they stood leaning with their backs against a building. In London this would be an inescapable moment. But we were in New York. All the men were white except one black man at the end. I was dragging an overnight bag and so my progress was slow. The men went silent and watched me as I passed. The unspoken rule, I sensed, was that the job of calling out to me belonged to the last man, the black man. I walked towards him and it seemed we both knew what the other was thinking. Would he betray his race or his place in the patriarchy? As I passed he leaned forward and, audible only to me, whispered: “I like your jacket.”
“In America the edges of racial politics are sharper and more bloodied. Human motivations are often hard to fathom, but I’d give a good guess that white men in New York City are scared to be seen harassing a woman of color. To be seen. In public.”
Emmett Till was murdered. Emmett Till did not own the power of the gaze, at least not as far as Carolyn Bryant was concerned. 50-plus years on, white women friends in New York complain of the behavior of some black guys there. They worry about being thought racist if they complain. This is the power play between men, the revenge exacted by certain black men upon white women but in reality upon white men. Payback is the pickup truck bearing a Confederate flag that cruises me twice on a long, lonely run in Western Massachusetts, the white guy with the baseball cap who turns his head and licks his lips on each pass.
At some point most women come to the silent and terrible realization that the men in their lives—fathers, brothers, uncles, boyfriends and husbands—are not especially outraged by their experience of sexual harassment.
Late one evening when I was in my mid-twenties I had a row with my then-boyfriend. I decided to go home until I remembered the time of night, that I didn’t have a car and would have to call a taxi if I hoped to execute my walk-out. I had very little money at the time and I’d have to weigh the cost of the taxi against the level of my outrage. A few months later, arguing with the same boyfriend (things didn’t last too much longer) while on holiday in Southern France, I remained walking on one side of the road while he crossed to the other. We were headed for the beach and the road was more or less empty. A man driving by, assuming I was alone, began to proposition me. I ignored him for a few moments and then I told him to get lost; finally I crossed to walk with my boyfriend and the man drove away. I remember very well my boyfriend’s reaction. He laughed at me.
Writing about South Africa, where the incidence of rape is among the highest in the world, the feminist activist, poet and academic Helen Moffett has stated: “Under apartheid, the dominant group used methods of regulating blacks and reminding them of their subordinate status that permeated not just public and political spaces, but also private and domestic spaces. Today it is gender rankings that are maintained and women that are regulated. This is largely done through sexual violence, in a national project in which it is quite possible that many men are buying into the notion that in enacting intimate violence on women, they are performing a necessary work of social stabilization.”
In other words, rapists are the shock troops of male power.
The more I think about it, the more I come to the uneasy conclusion that, whilst #notallmen are rapists or sexual harassers, equally #notallmen are too unhappy about the status quo either. The relative vulnerability of women in public spaces limits our freedom of movement and our choices. Good practice in personal safety—telling someone where we are going, allowing ourselves to be escorted home and not walking alone at night—all add up to an effective form of social control. “The necessary work of social stabilization.”
Only in the second half of the 20th century did middle-class women in many Western countries acquire some degree of freedom outside the home; before that, to walk unaccompanied was to be taken as a prostitute, a “woman of the streets,” a “streetwalker.” Walking, for a woman, can be an act of transgression against male authority. When a man walks aimlessly and for pleasure he is called a flâneur; a certain louche glamour attaches to the word. One rarely hears the term flâneuse. In her account of women walkers, itself called Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin observes that: “narratives of walking repeatedly leave out a woman’s experience.” Historically the free-ranging woman who dispensed with the domestic to claim ownership of the streets was a rare creature. Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, George Sand, the flâneuses who recorded their flânerie were women who all defied male authority in other ways, too. George Sand wore male dress so that she could move more freely around Paris.
“The relative vulnerability of women in public spaces limits our freedom of movement and our choices. Good practice in personal safety—telling someone where we are going, allowing ourselves to be escorted home and not walking alone at night—all add up to an effective form of social control.”
Only once has a man ever stood up for me against harassment by another man (with the exception of the dreadlocked man, though he did not know what had started the trouble) and the man who did so was gay. We were standing outside a bar in Soho in London smoking cigarettes when a young man passed me and made a remark to which I responded with a put-down. His rage was instantaneous. He was smoking too and he threatened to burn me with his cigarette, holding the lit end close to my cheek. My companion intervened and in doing so drew fire away from me, literally because now the burning cigarette tip was being held to his neck. The scene ended when a friend of the assailant pulled him away. Afterwards we talked about it. I observed that a straight man would almost certainly have reprimanded me for my comment but he, notably, had not. No, he told me, because he grew up having much the same fight on the streets: the sexual insults, the shouted provocations. As a gay man he had learned to stand up to bullies.