To the Male Population: Don’t like seeing my knickers? Don’t look up my skirt!

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Me in Bruges, on discussed day, in discussed outfit.

Last week I was in Bruges, Belgium. As one does in Bruges, I knew I wanted to go up the Belfrey Tower. The Belfrey is one of the oldest attractions in Bruges, and there is fantastic view from the top. To get to the top there are steps. A lot of steps.

As myself and my cousin, my travelling partner, had arrived in Bruges from Paris, we had already climbed quite a few stairs. Numerous attractions, not to mention the metro, run off of steps in Paris, (which is fine for my escalator-phobia). My cousin was therefore lacking the physical motivation to climb up yet more; deciding instead to enjoy the view of the tower from beneath it, tucking in to some tasty Belgian waffles.

Result? I was going it alone.

Which was fine. For me, this was fine.

That morning I had dressed without consideration. Get up, shower, get out; see the sights. I had arranged a few outfits before coming and packed them together. This particular day I grabbed one of these pre-fab outfits, and went to chuck it on. Only, I soon realised there was a serious issue. It involved tights. The weather was to hot for tights. Solution? Ditch said tights. Simple.

So there I was, on my own, climbing a tower, in a skirt without any tights on.

Turns out the skirt was shorter than I had recalled.

Never-mind.

You couldn’t see my underwear. I clearly wasn’t a prostitute. It was quite a classy outfit. I had a long sleeved blouse on. The skirt wasn’t leather. I didn’t have heels on.

So there I was, around step 250 or so, feeling quite impressed with myself. I wasn’t even out of breath yet – not bad ey? Then, I realised that someone was speaking to me. Sorry at me. Sorry about me. The offending people were two gents and they were literally passing me, they going down as I went up, as they spoke. Hence my confusion as to whether they speaking at, about or through me. I think it was the latter.

The first bloke said:

Well that’s a bit of a short skirt for climbing a tower isn’t it?

(Laughter from both)

I stopped in my tracks. I looked down and saw that, as they continued walking, they were blatantly staring up my skirt. Still laughing.

I shouted down the first retort I could think of:

I can hear you guys you know!

I heard more laughter ensue, and some more remarks, but I couldn’t catch what exactly was said.

It wasn’t long before I had wished I said something more intelligent. I spent the rest of my walk up thinking about it, and tugging my skirt down as much as I could. Every time I passed someone from then up, and when I went back down, I let them go rather than slipping by them if nodded to, and tried to plaster myself to the wall so that they wouldn’t notice how much of my bare legs were on show.

After I had done at the tower it didn’t take much walking before I returned to the hostel to change into jeans; under protest of the chilly breeze that had suddenly come on. In truth I just felt exposed.

Laid bare.

I hadn’t even thought of the skirt length when I had put it on, but I now felt ridiculous. I felt ashamed, and I felt like a slut.

This one comment did all that.

Then the anger set in, and I was furious.

How could they think that it was alright to say that, as if I wasn’t stood there. Right next to them. They should have known I could hear them but they simply did not realise this; they did not realise this because they were actually speaking through me. They weren’t acting like 13 year old girls, bitching in plain sight to hurt me; they were simply acting like I was a piece of meat, like I couldn’t hear them. Maybe they thought I was foreign, but I cannot see that as an excuse. We were at a tourist attraction for Christ’s sake – more than half the people I had overheard in the hour-long queue were speaking English.  

Thus, this means they were treating me like a piece of meat. A lone female that they had a right to speak at in such an un-gentlemanly fashion. Like a white person speaking of a slave girl’s tits like they were a cow’s udders in pre-civil war America; speaking in front of her, about her, touching and feeling her, judging her. Well, we own you they might have said; why not?

Makes me feel sick thinking about it.

I should have done a Sojourner Truth-esque move. Stripped my skirt and knickers off, right there in the narrow stairwell; given them something to flipping stare at!

Yes? Well guys – how shocking am I now? Am I woman?! Can you see my vagina?

Sojourner was a slave who, whence she became free, attended many anti-slavery conventions, where she gave many inspiring speeches. When upon a stage at one said convention in Ohio, giving one of these said speeches, she was aggressively heckled by male members of the audience who insisted that she was no woman, clearly she was a man, they shouted. As legend has it, Sojourner responded by stripping her top off, bearing her breasts, and saying the following:

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883): Ain’t I A Woman?
Delivered 1851
Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-woman.asp

Sojourner Truth; wikipedia.

Sojourner Truth; wikipedia.

The fact is, like Sojourner, I do not care if guys like the ones discussed here, or anyone else for that matter, stare at my legs. If I am wearing something that reveals them it means you can look. It really is not a big deal. There is no need to comment on it, or laugh at me. It is precisely this sort of treatment that, in this situation, made me feel like a hunk of meat; an exposed, strung up piece of meat.

They could see my legs – fine. They didn’t need to lear, or stare, or judge. They couldn’t see my knickers unless they looked up my skirt. Me wearing a short skirt does not give them good reason to stare at my knickers. I can wear what I want. They can look at what they want.

However, if they get turned on by my bare legs, and can’t handle it, then that is their problem to deal with; it is not then up to me to feel a guilty-need to change into something less revealing. The guys should avert their gaze if it bothers them – avert their gaze and get over it. Maybe mention it to your friend later on, when you are out of earshot. Or, just masturbate in a public stairwell.

Whichever way, I don’t care.

It is not my problem.

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14 responses to “To the Male Population: Don’t like seeing my knickers? Don’t look up my skirt!

  1. Reblogged this on nerdinessandpolitics and commented:
    “Ain’t I a woman?” is such a fantastic speech. Honestly, I can’t believe that women are still, to this day, in 2014, being treated like sex objects. I am a woman, yes, but I can hear, and work, and take a freaking beating if I have to. For the love of goodness, I have horrible cramps and bleeding every month, and still go about my day. If that isn’t strength more than a man has to show, I don’t know what y’all want from women.

  2. Helen, I hope you know that I hugely enjoy your writing. I hope that you are posting these posts as an open invitation for discussion and that, as such, you will not mind my saying that I found this post to be somewhat confusing and that I was made to feel more than a little uncomfortable by the element of slut-shaming running throughout it.

    Why, I wonder, are you so keen to stress that your outfit that day was a “classy“ one? Are you saying that the fact that you are not, or were not dressed like, a “prostitute“ (your words, not mine) is the basis for the respect you demand here? Why are you keen to stress that you were not wearing leather, a short sleeved blouse or, God forbid, high heels? I am saddened that you are implying that wearing these items might have somehow justified these men’s behaviour in some way.

    Surely it is EVERY woman, regardless of occupation or the way they dress (even if that were to be a leather mini-skirt with high heels) deserves the respect you are demanding here?

    • I never implied it would have justified their behaviour whatsoever, and if you read any of my other posts regarding sexual abuse, feminism and rape you can see this; in fact, at the end of this post I say as much regarding wearing what I want.

      They were simply my thoughts after I had dressed – it was an aesthetic commentary. Hence why these thoughts were to the start of the post; I would have thought that was clear. I just wouldn’t wear high heels whilst out sight seeing in a city full of cobbles. It was not a open implication that such an outfit would invite abuse, and like I said, this is clearly not my opinion. If you read my post called Rape is about misogyny you will evidently see this.

      Thank you for the criticism though I am very sorry that you would get that impression from anything I write.

  3. Helen, I hope you know that I hugely enjoy your writing. I hope that you are posting these posts as an open invitation for discussion and that, as such, you will not mind my saying that I found this post to be somewhat confusing and that I was made to feel more than a little uncomfortable by the element of slut-shaming running throughout it.

    Why, I wonder, are you so keen to stress that your outfit that day was a “classy“ one? Are you saying that the fact that you are not, or were not dressed like, a “prostitute“ (your words, not mine) is the basis for the respect you demand here? Why are you keen to stress that you were not wearing leather, a short sleeved blouse or, God forbid, high heels? I am saddened that you are implying that wearing these items might have somehow justified these men’s behaviour in some way.

    Surely it is EVERY woman, regardless of occupation or the way they dress (even if that were to be a leather mini-skirt with high heels) deserves the respect you are demanding here?

    (Apologies if I’ve posted this multiple times – the wordpress commenting system is a pain!)

  4. Pingback: Taking the Path of Most Resistance: Why Am I a Feminist? | Abstractions of Life·

  5. Your reaction to this unfortunate incident makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t like the way these men treated you, but are you sure you haven’t over-interpreted what happened?

    “Don’t like seeing my knickers?” Well, who said they didn’t? More to the point, who said they thought badly of you in any way? Perhaps they thought you were a terrible, fallen woman, fit to go straight to the Hot Place, but I’m not sure you can tell that from this regrettable but brief interaction, You can tell at least one of them was a knob, but that’s about all.

    I’d have looked (without comment). I’m a terrible perv. What I wouldn’t have done is thought badly of you or made assumptions about you. More than likely, I’d have admired your freedom, lack of self-consciousness.

    This is what makes me uncomfortable: once a woman is attractive or alluring to me, as a man I’m expected not to have any further opinion about her. Indeed, I’m expected to make a final, harsh judgement on her without collecting any other information. Who’s the piece of meat here? The sexy woman or the intellect-free, drooling misogynist?

    I realise it was the thoughtlessness of discussing you as if you weren’t there that rankled (and I can understand that), but would you have been so upset and angry had the man loudly commented on your nice watch?

    Men are demeaned by being assumed to be purely shallow gawpers (when they may only be doing some gawping on the side) and this makes the world sadder. At the same time, women believing men see them only this way feel bad like you did and that makes the world sadder still.

    Perhaps the man really was trying to humiliate you and, if so, and that was really obvious, I apologise. But as someone who likes (and can always handle) “being turned on by bare legs”, please don’t tar us all with the same brush.

    • I can see what you are saying but I am sure I did not over react. I have no problem at all with silent or well meaning appreciation and I wouldn’t have worn it if I did: I am without doubt they said it in a mocking way. In a way that made me feel humiliated. And tiny. And disgusting. Clearly they were laughing at my choice and there was no hint of appreciation. I have male friends and acquaintances who will make comments and it won’t bother me because I know it is genuinely friendly admiration rather than a mocking joke. I know what you are saying but please trust me when I say I know the difference.

      Also, I never said I would tar you with the same brush – my issue is with men that do not like the fact I may be wearing a skirt – or who think it is their right to be able to mock me if I am. Maybe it is a fine line that is hard to describe discernibly but I feel the difference between misogyny and a decent minded human being is pretty obvious when a situation as the one above presents itself – I can tell you are not a misogynist from your comments alone for instance.

      Thank you for reading it and taking the time to reply.

      • Okay – fair enough (and thanks for you reply, Helen). As long as no one thinks seeing women sexually = hating women, I’m happy. (I know you didn’t say that, but there does seem to be an undercurrent suggesting this in some quarters and I really don’t get it.)

        I am curious on a point though: “if they get turned on by my bare legs, and can’t handle it…”. I genuinely don’t understand this comment and it’s part of what I was reacting to. What does “can’t handle it” mean? Other than for some ultra-puritan (and I guess these men were not that), I simply can’t imagine being upset about being mildly titillated. What did you mean?

      • Of course not women and men are generally designed to be attracted to each other right? I would stop shaving my legs and wearing skirts at all if I felt like that.

        I was still mad when I wrote it perhaps I could have wrote it in a calmer fashion but I did have a valid point. They felt they had to react in a mocking way because they couldn’t just either appreciate bare legs or act as any other bloke would and ignore it or pretend to ignore it. Mocking like that says to me they were insecure and hence reacted in that fashion. Maybe that’s a feminist point of view or maybe it’s me reading into it but that’s how I felt at the time. Maybe they weren’t turned on at all and just genuinely found it funny – who knows. You see my point though?

      • I guess so. I certainly can’t argue with your conclusion that putting people down suggests insecurity.

        Perhaps it was because I can’t get my head around feeling threatened by a quick flash up someone’s skirt that I wondered about your interpretation of the situation.

        Maybe I’m being naive. I’ve been genuinely shocked by the recent social media attacks on women who stick their heads above the parapet on anything even vaguely feminist. There’s obviously the sort of casual sexism that some groups of blokes can find entertaining, but I was totally taken aback by the vitriol in these attacks. Perhaps these are the same people.

      • Perhaps … There is a lot of casual sexism and most of it is horrific -completely unnecessary. For instance, people like Mary Beard, who was treated horribly by Twitter trolls. Some of it is seemingly harmless. But it all bothers me. And the more I see the more I notice if that makes sense. It’s like learning a new word that you thought you had never seen before and then suddenly seeing it written everywhere.

        I don’t mean this offensively, but I think that it is always easy to think a woman is being over-emotional. Many men do it subconsciously, and women partake massively as well. It is one of those things. Women assume men are under emotional as well, just to be equal. But I’m not sure it is seen as bad thing in society for a man to be under emotional – it is simply a macho thing – where as over-emotion is frequently used as an insult or a put down against women.

        In any case, that is how it is happened and that’s my interpretation of the situation, and I genuinely think it’s accurate. There maybe wasn’t a need to rant about it but then I like putting my head above the parapet!

        I hope that my replies clarify it for you though, and I like to think I may have swayed your view of my post to a more positive light! I also think you may notice more instances of casual sexism yourself now you’ve put your mind to thinking about it.

      • Yes – I understand more about what you’re trying to say.

        I’m sorry if I’ve inadvertently fallen into the poor-emotional-woman cliché! I think, if I thought about it at all, I was probably thinking more about the too-close-to-the-incident cliché, but you could be right: subconscious things are hard to pin down.

        Whatever, it is quite presumptuous of me to challenge you on an incident I wasn’t a witness to and which was obviously painful. Given this, you’ve been incredibly gracious. I’ve enjoyed thinking about it and talking to you. If “enjoyed” is the right term for this subject matter.

        I see nothing wrong in your “ranting” about it, by the way. You were made to feel uncomfortable: complain about it. Apart from anything else, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity for this discussion if you’d kept it to yourself!

      • Well I’m glad about that. It is always nice to have a point be understood, rather than be misconstrued.

        Thank you very much, that’s nice of you to say. I always enjoy discussing these issues – a discussion is where the fun lies! The more discussions the more people are thinking about it, so it’s all good. Thank you anyway for your comments, maybe talk to you again sometime!

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