Recently in Ireland, there was a scandal. Quelle surprise? This scandal saw the national broadcaster pay compensation to a few people that were offended by an interview conducted with Rory O'Neill, aka Panti Bliss on a popular Saturday night chat show. As a response to the massive public reaction, Panti performed 'Noble Call' at the national theatre. To my mind, it was incredible - passionate, considered, empathic, insightful -- it was brilliant.
The entire performance resonated but one quote more than most. The checking of oneself. Describing his feeling when homophobic abuse is hurled in his direction, Rory described the sensation he felt as "what gave the gay away." It struck me because it was he who felt embarrassed and exposed by other people's poor behavior. I'm not suggesting they are completely alike experiences, but I believe women experience something similar on a regular basis too. Out in the world, we check ourselves. I'm loathe to speak for all of womankind, but they asked me to! Seriously, though, I can speak only from personal experience and chats with friends and colleagues who experience the same.
If you're male and reading this, let me ask you, when is the first time you feel awkward or intimidated after you leave your house in the morning? Are you struggling to think? For me, I've been made aware of myself by the time I get to the tube, three minutes away. Not in a good or a bad way, but in some kind of way. Bear in mind too, that's the morning, broad daylight when there are tons of people around, safety in numbers. The fact that I am thinking in those phrases says a lot too, I believe.
Full disclosure, I think I've definitely jumped to the more extreme end of the spectrum as I'm not the calmest of people, though I try. I'm excitable, jumpy, nerve ending-y... and that's at my most relaxed. For instance, I'm sure lots of women don't worry excessively about the sound their shoes make when it's dark. I feel like the click clack of heels is inviting trouble. It's ludicrous, it's maddening, it's so far baseless... but it's there.
When I say baseless, it's not totally baseless. I lived in Berlin alone for most of 2012, moving from one short term apartment letting to another. My last rental would have been tough for the best estate agent to spin; Period property (tumbledown shack) in up and coming neighbourhood (dive) with great connectivity (right beside the nastiest U-Bahn entrance) and great views (of the garage forecourt and the gun and knife shop. For clarity, that's a shop that sells both guns and knives). Side note, it was also completely curtainless so day and night it was illuminated to the world outside by either the sun, which I can forgive, or the blue, flickering, garage forecourt lighting, which I can not.
Anyway, I digress. One public holiday, I was leaving the flat to go and meet friends for dinner. Downstairs, in the "garden" I turned to lock the outer door in fading light. I felt something graze my calf, then suddenly someone grabbed it for dear life, pulling and twisting. I had a mini light on my keys which I shone in the eyes of the guy, kicked myself away and fled, my heart coming out of my chest. For the next six weeks, I would pay friend's taxi fares to take me home. That tiny apartment ended up costing me more than any of the others in protection money! To this day, opening a door in the dark, I get a tingle in my calves.
I think that's a shared experience with a lot of women. Writing this article, I asked my flatmate did she have any experiences of being nervous walking alone. Her answer, "Yeah, all the time. Every time." We can't be the only two. In fact, when I first moved in, we started to do that thing that only happens in your 30s... walking... for exercise. Tripping around North London, I remarked to her that she knows the area better so must feel safer. I was forced to lay bare my petrification just leaving the house in the dark. Laughingly, she told me there was no way she'd be out there without me. Again, safety in numbers.
During the day, the low level tension that comes with just walking around as a woman is easier to mask. I tend to try to look purposeful and nonchalant. HA! I would love to see what that looks like. Also, a big part of me thinks frowning is some kind of shield from danger because, naturally, my would-be attacker will have been completely offput by a cranky demeanour. At nighttime, it takes on a life of it's own. I'm never not aware of who is behind me and who's in front of me. Getting off the tube, I'll hang back if I feel uncomfortable about someone on my carriage. I'll try to find a couple to slope beside, or a group of women. It's a superficial, unforgiving decision making process -- it's the X Factor of safety. Based only on looks, I seek someone to be in front of me, someone that "looks decent" Someone that I think might come to my aid if things took a turn for the worst. An unfortunate thing to have to habituate to, it seems.
So, how to defend yourself? I asked another friend what her techniques are. Her answer was well thought out, well practised and sadly, predictably, centred around what part she might play in a potential attack. "I make myself as unattractive as possible, I throw my hair in a tight ponytail, I walk heavily, I sniff loudly, clear my throat and cough loudly to put people off, I try to be disgusting." My tried and tested technique is different, I call it 'Out crazy the crazies.' You'll be surprised at how little it takes. On your bus or train... a chuckle out of nowhere here, a narrated guide as you fashion an origami bird from a discarded chip box there and hey presto... people will be swerving to avoid you.
There are some real, meaningful things you can do, though. Like, take a self defence class. Something I've promised myself for years. Now's the time, I think. It will make you feel more in control... and I'm convinced, that like dogs, attackers can smell fear. Be vigilant -- know you're area, be aware, plan your route, do whatever you can to eliminate anxiety and where possible enjoy the feeling of putting one foot in front of another.