On Friday night I went to the Donkey pub in Leicester with my partner Gavin. Our friend Carol was singing with a soul band collective, brilliantly. Actually the Donkey is a great live music venue; mostly for jazz, folk and blues. It tends to get a slightly older crowd who don’t get too drunk. It’s a nice venue to hear music where the audience are appreciative, but never too rowdy.
Friday was no exception. It was a great evening, except for one person. There was this small, quite pretty woman, aged about 25/30. She was with a group of other women who were celebrating a birthday, but she kept breaking away from them and wandering through the crowd. When she did this she invariably bumped into people. She gave the initial impression of being quite drunk, which I don’t think was actually the case (I’ll explain why in a minute). When she did bump into people she would smile and apologize. But she went much further. She would touch them. She would stroke them. Very often, her hand would linger.
Watching her, I began to realise there was a pattern to the people she was mostly bumping into. She occasionally bumped into women or couples. Then, her hand would just briefly tap them on the shoulder in apology and she would move on. But mostly she was bumping into men who were standing on their own. They were doing nothing to solicit her behaviour. In fact, given the clientèle of the Donkey as I mentioned, there wasn’t a single man she approached in this way that didn’t seem uncomfortable with her behaviour. Most of them recoiled, but she had already moved on. Watching her I realized, despite her gender and appearance, I was observing a classic sex harasser at work.
At one point I found myself outside on my own in the smokers’ space (the last stage of a PhD will do that to you). She had found her way out there. She came up to me, said something inane and went to stroke my face. My response was pretty emphatic. I said quite loudly “I don’t want you to do that!” Her demeanour completely changed. She straightened up and, started saying “What’s you’re problem? Enjoy the night!” She then went back into her previous behaviour, smiling and gurning at everyone as if it was something I had done. I could see this guy across from me nodding sympathetically at me, clearly she had done the same to him, but I could also see two women stare at me.
I realized a couple of things quickly. Firstly, that she wasn’t as drunk as she initially seemed. Secondly, that she had a practised spiel to cover herself for her behaviour. This spiel made it incredibly difficult for the type of men who come to the Donkey to challenge her behaviour. I imagine that the gendered way in which we frame sex harassment would make it difficult for cis-gendered hetero-identified men to challenge anyway. Men who act like this are sex harassers and sex pests; women are simply being leery or making themselves vulnerable (which is not to deny that that may be the case).
One of the men she had bumped into early in the night had very clearly, but politely, said no to her. By the end of the evening he was quite drunk (probably the only person in the Donkey who I saw who was inebriated). As Gavin and I were leaving I saw her with her hands around him. He really wasn’t in a state to say yes or no by then. But most people, seeing them, would have probably read her as the vulnerable party.
I have to admit I was still having misgivings about how I was reading the situation, because he was quite a large guy and she was a small woman, so I mentioned my feelings to Gavin. He told me that he been watching her all night and had felt exactly the same as I had. She was clearly a predator. I wonder if a man had been acting like that, in the same type of bar, would he have been asked to leave? Would his friends have not noticed? Probably not. The sad truth is that men often act like that. But as sad a truth is that women do also. As indeed do lesbian, gay, trans*, et cetera, individuals. Framing harassment as a predominantly hetero-male cis-gendered act doesn’t protect the vulnerable; it only emboldens others in their own behaviours.