So I was tired. Very tired. Eight hours of customer service job, dealing with progressively drunker people went by without incident, but I wasn't up for interaction. Social conversation. Not up for much of anything, to be honest.
Enter Two Drunk Boys On The Tube, both with a bad case of man-spreading.
I sit down next to Drunk Boy #1, getting some space (I'm a tall person and I won't fold in half, because bro has less spacial awareness after drink). To his credit, he gives, and murmurs a vague apology, to which I murmur vaguely back. All correct within Tube etiquette. Much as I sometimes enjoy random conversation, today is not the day. I hunch over my phone, mentally hanging a Do Not Disturb on a locked door.
Sadly, Drunk Boy #2 doesn't get the memo.
Hi! My friend is very shy. Can he get your number? - they both laugh. Oh, he's pleased with himself.
No. - I barely raised my eyes from my phone, where I'd been reading a story. Please, go away. No such luck.
Leave her alone, man! - says Drunk Boy #1. It doesn't sound like he means it, mostly because this is a game for both of them. It's Saturday night, a fun night out and nothing dire is happening. Still, he gets credit for nominally trying. - She's cool, she's reading a book there, leave her be!
I never said she was not cool! I didn't say that! - Drunk Boy #2 is flustered. Indirect compliment that it is, I still don't make eye contact. I know better than to offer attention.
Hi, nice to meet you! I'm Adam. - a hand appears in my field of vision. As in, 10 cm from my eyes.Between my eyes and my phone. I snap.
Man, I'm not talking to you, leave me alone! Please and thank you!
And then we get the classic, if mild version of #MasculinitySoFragile.
F***ing Europeans - says Drunk Boy #2 - the sooner we get Brexit, the better. We'll throw them out.
I'm boiling. Now they made my behaviour somehow representative of "Europeans" (those rude Europeans, Brexit will sort them out! or is it that they couldn't figure out my accent?). Also, their hurt egos make it okay to joke about something, that might impact my life very strongly. I'm the one reading Guardian articles about how non-EU migrants are treated; I'm the one thinking, are they coming for us next? They are drunk, oblivious and happy with the put-down. Bad European, bad person. Sit! Roll over.
When I recount the incident to my friends and significant other, they are incensed on my behalf. Replace Europeans with Jews, or Muslims, they tell me. And they are right. My European heritage and my perceived womanhood lost the confrontation with garden-variety sexism. Intersectionality lesson, right there, in the privilege and obliviousness of (Drunk) Straight White Male.
Still, I say nothing. They chat up another girl, who is willing to indulge them where I wasn't; she says "nice to meet you" and all the right things, and soon they get off and nothing happens. They didn't mean it badly. They weren't aggressive. They didn't hit me.
The truth is that being picked on in public places makes me panic. I don't like drunk men, or just random strangers, focusing their attention on me. It's different in my workplace, where I feel relatively safe; but on the Tube, on the street... I don't respond well. I greet wolf whistles with rude gestures, I get really angry, I find it hard not to care that men of all shapes and ages share their opinion about my looks, clothing, facial expression, anything and everything. And I'm supposed to take it, because "they're being nice".
I've learnt to be assertive. Often I use the broken record technique: in another workplace a "joker" frequently commented on my body, to hilarity of male colleagues. When he went as far as touching me, I said "Don't touch me without permission" several times, not responding to "it was a joke!" attempts to make it not a big deal. Finally, he said "I apologize for touching you without permission". That was enough. I didn't report him - didn't occur to me at the time - but I was called to testify when another woman did, and he was eventually fired.
My experience is that if I offer attention, men will keep asking me questions, any questions, just to keep me talking. If I'm talking, I'm being polite; if I'm being polite, half the battle is won. Girls are socialised to Be Nice, so a pushy guy will get that (false) number, that (forced) smile, that (insincere) ego stroke. So I learnt to snap; to cut it short; to make my position clear and not respond after. I've had many occasions to practice this art.
To be clear, I'm not ragging on British guys in particular. Once, a drunk man on the Tube took the magazine I was reading, kissed my hand, kept bothering me... quickly enough I found that he was Polish. When he didn't stop trying to engage me, it was a British guy who intervened and helped me make a decision to get off and not to take it, who got off with me and made sure I was safe.
By and large though, I deal with this alone. I panic, and so perhaps I brought out the canon to kill a mosquito. I was, from Drunk Boys' perspective, shockingly rude for no reason. But the very fact that they can't conceive of a reason why - the fact that they had zero empathy or understanding for my predicament (person alone, Saturday night, two tall drunk lads) - this makes my tired reaction justified. Every time you try to bother a woman in a public place, consider that you're not the first or the last to do so, and what those other guys did will impact how she responds.
In future, I'd like to calmly raise my eyes and say "I don't want to be talking to you" and stare them down when they blurt out "But why? we're nice guys, and you're so cool and " etc. I'd like to be more confident.
But really, I'd like it most, if it didn't happen at all.