Following the murder of Sarah Everard, who was killed by a man when taking an ordinary walk through London, I’ve seen the hashtag NotAllMen trending. I want to tell you a story. It’s not an important or traumatising story, though it is. It’s not about all men, either. But it is.
This is a picture of me a few years ago, at a publishing party. It was a fun party. I met a lot of great colleagues, and some quite famous people. I’d been told that my book was the top selling ebook in the company. I was wearing a new dress. I felt great: successful, pretty. My dress was a little more low-cut than I’d normally wear, but that wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t inappropriate or immodest; it was a warm day, and this was a party. It was a normal dress, and I’m a professional adult. As I said, I felt great. Until I got on the Tube home.
Across from me on the Tube carriage, were three men. Middle aged, white, middle class. They looked like dads at my son’s school. They’d been at a party, or a sporting event; they were drunk and very merry. They kept on looking at me and sniggering. Finally one said ‘Nice hat.’
I’m a successful, confident woman. I’ve been taught to be pleasant to people. I’ve been taught to be pleasant to men. I said ‘Thank you,’ and smiled. Then I looked away. But they kept trying to talk to me. They kept sniggering. Trying to flirt. Looking at my chest.
I knew that when they said ‘Nice hat’ what they really meant was: ‘Nice tits.’
But I didn’t say anything. I was a mother, a teacher, a writer with two degrees and several awards. A bestseller. I’d been all of these things before I stepped into that carriage and they spoke to me and laughed. Now, I was a pair of tits in a hat.
I didn’t say anything. I tried to ignore them. If you can’t be pleasant to men, you’re taught to ignore them, because if you encourage them they might get worse. If you refuse them, they might get much worse. They asked me my name. I didn’t answer. They said, ‘You look like a Jemima. We’ll call you Jemima.’
Now these were really normal-seeming guys. They weren’t scary looking. They were having fun. I wasn’t having fun any more, but they were. In a normal way. Three of them, one of me. No one on the carriage said anything.
This is a totally normal story by the way. There is nothing special or unusual at all about this story. Because NotAllMen is wrong.
I got off the train at my stop. I walked away, not looking back. Until I heard them behind me. They’d got off too. They were following me. Laughing and yelling, ‘Hey, Jemima! Where are you going, Jemima? Can we try on your hat, Jemima?’ I told myself that this is okay. They were normal men. They’d mentioned their wives. Their kids. They were just having a day out in London, had a few beers. They weren’t rapists or murderers. They were just being assholes, normal blokes, trying to flirt and banter. That’s what I told myself to feel safe.
Here’s what these normal men probably did. They laughed some more. Traded some bants. They went home to their wives and kids. Next day they remembered that they had a great time, saw a woman on the train and flirted with her. Had a laugh.
Here’s what I did.
I walked quickly out of sight. Took off my hat. Pulled on a scarf. Tucked up my hair. Walked to the next platform, took a train in the opposite direction. Rode it one stop, got out. Took another train back to my destination. Looked around for the men in case they hadn’t left. I was on high alert all the way home. Made eye contact with no one. Texted my friend to say where I was. Held my keys between my fingers, ready to jab. Stayed in lighted areas. In the cab, I pretended to be talking to someone at home, waiting for me.
I was fine, in the end. I was safe. They didn’t mean any harm. I have never worn that dress again. I will never forget how they stripped everything from me: my enjoyment, my feeling of safety, my professional achievement, my self-esteem. Even my name.
Here’s the thing. THIS IS A NORMAL STORY. This has happened to every woman. And it’s not just cis and trans women who are the victims of this normal everyday bullshit. It’s also nonbinary and gender nonconforming people. Anyone who is not a ‘normal bloke’ gets to be frightened and humiliated by blokes being normal.
We live with this fear all the time. For many women it’s much much worse. I had the privilege of being white, cis, abled, middle class — though none of those would’ve helped if those men wanted to hurt me.
We can’t tell which men are safe because even the ones who are supposedly safe feel enabled to humiliate us for fun. No men are safe. Normal men aren’t safe. We are never safe because our society believes that the safety of women is not as important as the entitlement of men.
And no, it’s #NotAllMen. But it is cis men. Even normal ones. Even the ones with wives and kids who think they are the good ones. The problem is not women. It is men. Until they prove otherwise, we have to be afraid of them all.
I originally posted this story as a thread on Twitter. I didn’t expect it to reach more than my usual followers, but it went viral, and as night follows day, the online abuse started. Men called me names. Swore at me. Told me it never happened. Told me to shut up, that I’m ugly and stupid and that they wouldn’t fuck me. Tried bad-faith arguments to prove me wrong. Abused me with misogynistic and antisemitic images and slurs. A few women joined in too, but mostly it was men. I knew it was going to happen, because this stuff is normal. Women are always treated like this.
I also received hundreds and hundreds of stories from women and nonbinary people, trans men and gender nonconforming people, telling me: yes. This happened to them too. It happens all the time. It’s happening right now. And I received messages from cisgender men, too, not to argue that #NotAllMen are like this, but saying they were listening and learning, that they realise that as men, it’s their responsibility to step up. That it’s their job to make the change.
If you don’t want it to be all men, then men: you have to do the work.