I have a vivid memory of almost being kidnapped and that’s no exaggeration. I was 11 years old, walking home from school, unsupervised. It was perfectly normal for kids to walk home on their own back then; my peers and I would knock for each other; cycle to each other’s houses and get back home before dark.
On this particular day the friends I’d walk home with had already left – I must have been at an after-school club or something. The sun was out and I was wearing grey tracksuit bottoms with a cardigan wrapped around my waist; a vest top with no bra ’cause I hadn’t yet developed. Despite being 11, I probably could have passed for 13…which would still make me a child.
My walk home took no more than 15 minutes and consisted of three main roads. I remember reaching the end of the first when a car with two grown-ass men began to holler at me: “Hello Miss. Oi, OI! What’s your name baby?” I fell straight into an unfamiliar panic, ignoring their attempt to engage. Rather than driving off, the men slowed down and began to drive at my pace. They continued to cat-call until I said “You’re scaring me”, a remark which made them erupt in impudent laughter.
5 long minutes passed until I found myself at a zebra crossing. The men let me pass, heads turning to see where I was going. I arrived at North Ealing Station – literally 2 minutes from my family home – to find that they were STILL following me. I practically flew into our local corner shop just a few steps away. My eyes filled with tears as I explained to the shopkeeper I was being followed. My dad was called and as we left, the men were still waiting for me. My dad, cursing obscenities, jotted down their license plate number and phoned the police, who said there was nothing they could do. They didn’t take note of the license plate number. They didn’t record the incident. They were actively inactive.
During the next 6 months, I was picked and dropped literally everywhere. I was no longer allowed to play outside without a known adult present. I didn’t feel particularly traumatised by the event, although, my heart would race every time I saw a similar looking vehicle. The good thing (or even bad thing) was that I was naïve, I felt like a grown up and therefore didn’t realise the severity of the situation. I know now looking back that the outcome could have been unimaginable.
I was so, so lucky.
Time passed and the incident was forgotten. Primary school was over and by the time I reached 13 I began to take an interest in guys. I no longer attended a mixed school and had forgotten what it was like to have male friends; I didn’t know how to engage with them and felt grateful any time I was noticed. Boys would approach me with what I perceived as “swag”, sexual slurs spilling from their lips like dribble and I was quite happy with the attention: “Sup babes you give shiners, yeah?”, or “Oi! What you sayin’?” were just a couple of the romantic notions I received. If only I knew then that not all attention was good attention.
When I think about the way some young boys would approach me in comparison to the car-stalking incident, their methods are paralleled. So what is it? Are grown men who wish to sleep with young children still kids themselves, or are young boys being taught that the right way men approach women is through sexual aggression?
A couple of years ago I was on the way to a walk-in clinic (a self-professed hypochondriac, routine check-ups are my thing) and I remember this guy in his car, looking like a cross between a garden mole and John Leguizamo, leering over his steering wheel. “Fuck”, I thought, as I spotted the thirst of desperation in his eyes.
Before I was able to inhale my next breath, mole-man had u-turned and parked up beside me. “You alright sexy, got a second, yeah?” “Oh sorry, I’m 3 months pregnant and have green slime coming out of my vagina so I can’t really talk!” The amount of women who must lie their way out of potential altercations is surely endless.
Some men don’t understand their style of approach is intimidating. And it’s not me being conceited; I haven’t met a girl who hasn’t experienced this kind of unwanted attention. Forcing connection, hollering at someone in the street or driving up to them is harassment and needs to stop. It’s not flattering, it’s a problem.
Once a guy wearing a colourful hat walked over with 5 of his friends and I kid you not, I thought he was going to rob me. Having invaded my personal space with our noses almost touching and his eyes on my phone, I started running – like literally – running. I sprinted all the way to Holborn station and didn’t look back. His friends erupted into laughter and I realised he was actually “on the chirps” and not after my cracked-screen Blackberry.
More recently a guy in North London popped over my shoulder like an irritating wasp and buzzed: “Wassup Miss Pretty Pretty?” It was so unexpected that I practically jumped out of my skin as he starting walking alongside me. Turns out he was quite a bubbly and warm character, just utterly clueless. I gave him the old “I’m pregnant” spiel but rather than being deterred, he asked “What? So is your man taking care of you babes or can I still take your number?” Oh. Dear. God.
I hate walking home after a night out because I genuinely feel unsafe. A friend of mine suggested that I walk like a nutter: “All you have to do Chels is swing your arms like golf clubs, keep your legs wide apart and occasionally shout at yourself”. I’ve considered carrying the pepper spray my mum bought 10 years ago but I’m not much of a law-breaker. As a woman, I like all others should feel safe within our community. We should be able to trust our bearings; regardless of place, time; gender.
My advice to the guys who haven’t yet mastered tact and respect, is to at least wait for a smile before you ambush a woman. Be aware of personal space; we shouldn’t feel pressured to engage with you.
Following, hollering and sneaking up on someone you’ve never met before is creepy as hell. I’ve been yelled at, stalked; hissed at and haven’t enjoyed any of these tacts. If you want a girl to notice you, become a street artist or a neon highlighter. We don’t owe you anything, so stop acting like we do.