Female-On-Male Abuse – A Joke I Do Not Wish To Tell

August 3, 2014

by Martin Odoni

Something happened while I was travelling through Manchester on a tram a couple of months ago. At the time, it annoyed me a little but didn’t anger me as such, but subsequently it really started to unsettle me.

Context; –

It was early June, and the Parklife concert was being held at Heaton Park that weekend. I wasn’t attending it myself, but the tram I boarded was absolutely crammed with concert-goers, especially teenagers. Now I suffer from terrible claustrophobia, so I was always going to be uncomfortable. But there wasn’t a seat available, so I was sort of jammed in place with my side against a handle rail next to the doors, meaning I was leaning in an awkward position in the press of people all around me.

There were a few girls stood right in front of me in, shall we say, ‘brief’ outfits, which was slightly embarrassing, but I was able to ignore them and avoid bothering them. But on the other side of the rail I was propped up against, two more girls were in the nearest seats to me. They couldn’t have been more than 15, probably younger.

While I was struggling to stay upright and avoid a full-blown claustrophobic attack, one of the seated girls reached out and pinched me on the backside. I tried not to react, indeed pretended not to notice, and I gave her the benefit of the doubt. It was very crowded after all, and with the tram shaking around so much as it was moving, it was possible she did it by accident. Right?

Yeah, right. I could be a speech writer for Benjamin Netanyahu, couldn’t I?

A moment later she did it again. I turned and looked at her directly, and she beamed up at me, fluttering her eyelids at me in a flirtatious way. I raised an eyebrow at her and gently said, “Behave.” She responded by blowing a kiss at me, and then pretended to turn her attention to her iPhone.

I turned my own attention to the ceiling, as looking away from what is crowding you is sometimes the only way to stave off claustrophobia. But a few minutes later, the girl pinched me again. Fortunately, this happened just before the tram reached my stop, so I was able to alight and get away from the packed crowd before I had to make a scene.

I was a bit puzzled and uneasy at what had happened, but I was so relieved to get out of the crowd that I put it out of my mind for a bit. But later that day, the incident came back into my thoughts, and I began to feel quite angry and upset, in a way that rather took me by surprise.

What got to me wasn’t just the old, “Can-you-imagine-what-people-would-think-if-the-roles-were-reversed?” complaint – it’s a legitimate point, but also a very obvious and well-worn one. No, part of the problem was the fact that I really didn’t know, and indeed still don’t know, what would have been the best way to handle what the girl was doing to me.

After the third time she pinched me, thankfully, I was able to get off the tram, but that was just luck. What if my stop had been another five miles away instead? What should I have done then? It wasn’t like I could go and stand somewhere else – the tram was so crowded that there was scarcely room to shuffle my feet. I couldn’t report her to the driver as I couldn’t get near to the intercom or the ‘cockpit’.

Should I have slapped her hand? With all those people around, it would probably have triggered a fight, and I would have certainly been charged with assault.

Should I have grabbed her arms? Same problem surely, in fact I might even have been charged with sexual assault.

Should I have just stood there and put up with it? The problem with that is that it is humiliating, but also it can give a very unfair, very wrong idea. The girl might have thought I was enjoying it and decided to do it even more, and she might even have started thinking I was perverted and liked getting felt up by minors – and if anyone else saw it they might assume the same thing too – when all I had been doing was standing there minding my own business. (I don’t doubt some people reading this are rolling their eyes and thinking I really was enjoying it, but that says more about them than it does about me – sort of one of the points I’m trying to make.) It’s a kind of victim-blaming in fact. It was a very uncomfortable, powerless position to be in, in which I’m a wimp or a bully if I object to it, or a pervert if I don’t. No, a woman shouldn’t have to put up with that sort of degrading treatment, so why should I?

(I should just make clear, this is certainly not the first time something like this has happened to me – in particular I remember one girl when I was at school in Scotland who would routinely fondle me in front of her friends just to make a big show of “teasing the class-geek”, and even after all this time I still somewhat resent her for doing it. Also, one Christmas she kept trying to kiss me under the mistletoe, and wouldn’t respect my objections when I refused; it seems only women have the right to say ‘no’. But this recent case is the first time an underage minor has tried it on. That’s what really bothers me, as I can’t think of a ‘right’ way to put a stop to it when it’s someone that young, and when you’re jammed in a noisy crowd of people.)

But these thoughts only apply to me in that situation, but you can carry thoughts even further and it leads to even more disturbing questions. I most certainly didn’t like the girl feeling me up like that, but consider this; –

What if I had?

No, it’s a serious question and it has really started troubling me in the weeks since the incident happened. What if I’d instead found I was enjoying what she was doing? The girl, undeniably, was very pretty, and I have no doubt at all that some men would have rather liked having her hands on them. But this is the unsettling point; if I had enjoyed it, would that have made it all right? Would that have meant it was okay for the girl to keep touching me? Would that have meant it would have been fine for me to stand there tolerating it, even getting off on it?

No, surely not, surely that would make it even worse, because it would mean I would be approving sexualised contact with someone who was probably underage – we would have both been behaving badly then, surely?

Except… it’s our bodies, therefore it’s up to us what contact we want? Well okay, but isn’t that an argument to legalise the reverse behaviour too? Do we really want to head down that path?

I have no doubt the girl had been drinking, and I do doubt that she really fancied me. Most likely she was just testing her social boundaries with someone a good deal older than her.

Some people – especially older generation men I tend to find – might argue that I should just stand there and enjoy it, and stop complaining, but that does rather raise familiar questions about how seriously males take sexual abuse at all in a society that retains so many paternalistic hang-ups. There is rightly a measure of outrage that breaks out in public when a woman is raped, for instance, but until fairly recent years, that outrage was predominantly expressed by women. Men are far likelier to raise their voices against it these days, but the impression I get a lot of the time is that many men do so only because of growing social pressures to make a big show of being ‘anti-sexual abuse’. How seriously would most men take what happened to me? In all honesty, I suspect most, on hearing me tell them about it, would either call me a pussy for getting upset about it, or nudge me and wink at me and say, “You lucky dog!”

I don’t feel lucky that it happened, and I don’t like the follow-up implication of the nudges-and-winks that I am therefore being in some way ‘ungrateful’. It’s one of the reasons why I haven’t discussed what happened face-to-face with any of my male friends, precisely because I know that they will sneer at me that I’m being a wimp over what happened. It may not have been nearly as dreadful as a rape, it may only have been mild, testing-the-water touching by the girl who pinched me, but it was still abuse, it was still someone taking unfair advantage of me being in a vulnerable position, it still made me feel embarrassed and uncomfortable in a public place. And as I say, I don’t think it would have made matters any better had I enjoyed it anyway.

For the most part, I can’t picture women nudging and winking at one of their friends when she tells them that a man groped her while she was stood in the aisles of a crowded bus, but I can picture men making a joke out of it when it happens to one of the lads. I can also picture, I have to say, many women sneering contemptuously that the man probably enjoyed it, which again conforms to a familiar pattern of victim-blaming.

For that reason, while we must acknowledge that society has made a lot of progress with its attitudes to sexual abuse, we also have to acknowledge that we have a very long way still to go.


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