25 November 2011

Talking about fat and sexual harassment

Twice in the past few weeks I've been grabbed in the street by strangers. The first stranger grabbed my arm and whispered "Ohh, big girl" at me as though he was sharing a sexy secret. The second, last night crept up behind me and as he walked past brushed his dick against my hand, grabbed my waist and said "Hello gorgeous" quietly in my ear and walked away. Apart from these incidents it's been a while since I've noticed anyone harassing me when I'm out and about, I felt that I could walk down the street like anyone else.

In both cases I pulled myself away and told the strangers to fuck off. Nobody is allowed to touch me without my consent, it's a relief that I know this deeply. But I've also found myself following a disturbing line of thought: how have I attracted this attention? Is it my clothes? Something about how I walk? Why is it happening now? What have I done? It's depressing how easily I fall into the belief that I must be responsible for someone's unwanted intrusion.

I am a catch. There are good reasons why someone's head might turn to look at me. This knowledge has been hard fought for over decades, and continues to be a battleground of sorts, and maybe always will be. I am also an ordinary-looking dyke in my mid-40s. Neither my beauty nor my everydayness makes me safe. I find it grotesque when men grab me in the street when I am going about my business and not hooking them for attention, there's a disturbing mismatch between how I am and how they misread me. It feels as though they have picked me out and are trying to put me in my place by forcing me to see myself on their ugly terms. It reminds me of the ways in which my sexuality was treated as a joke in the past because I am fat and, although this is different, I find it humiliating. A fat dyke being sexually harassed, it almost feels like a joke in itself, who would anyone bother with me? How can it even be real? I must be secretly flattered and titilated that men still want me, that anyone is remotely interested.

Other people have written about the visibility and invisibility of fat people in public spaces, and it's no secret that street harassment is a daily reality. I think an understanding that harassment can be sexual tends to be missing. There are things to be said about the sexual harassment of fat people and, in my case and others, the interplay of gender, homophobia, racism, disableism and other types of oppressive behaviour on that harassment.

I would like more fat people to break the silence around this stuff, if they feel able to, and for people to develop stronger ways of addressing it. Whilst they don't ruin my day, these brief impositions upon me nevertheless raise many difficult feelings about fat, sexuality, being out on the streets, and claiming my space in the world.


Bri said...

I am sorry this happened to you. My biggest 'harassment' lately has been the kids at my daughters daycare making comments when I walk by them. I can deal with little kids, grown men is a lot different. You handled yourself admirably and like you said, you know it isn't your fault they are morons. Just keep remembering that and keep standing proud.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Bri.

Anonymous said...

I noticed that you live in East London - did these incidents perchance happen there? I say this only because I used to live in Whitechapel for two years and received more harassment there than I did anywhere else. I think because the neighbourhood I lived in I was one of the few caucasian girls and would get approached/shouted at/groped by Pakistani men very frequently.

Anonymous said...

Wow! To the last poster: I find the idea that men of color are the cause of harrassment that white feminist always bring out REALLY offensive! Can we just dispense with that mythology. Street harrasment is not just done by men of color or working class men! Sexual harrasment of all kinds is perpetauted by all sorts of men. Google Daniel Strauss-Kahn if you dont believe me

That said I really liked that Charlotte Cooper brings up the issue of street harrassment in relationship to fat positive politics. Sometimes I feel like its not even legitimate to be part of the dialogues on street harrasment as a butch, fat dyke.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for saying this!