The street lights flickered as if unsure what was expected of them. I found a bench beneath the most assertive and sat down.
A van approached, fast at first but significantly slower the closer it got. As it crawled past its engine called out to me, revving as if bereft of gears. Looking up from my phone I noticed the man in the passenger seat had locked eyes on me. They remained locked long after it’d driven past. Uncomfortably so.
The van then stopped a little further up the road, performed a three-point turn and was now coming back, even slower than before. Now I was nervous. This time both passengers stared, the man furthest away visibly stretching beyond the driver to get a good look.
Uncomfortable had become sinister.
I put my phone away and anxiously looked around. It was eerily quiet, even for this time of day. But for the distant street cleaner brushing aside the night sky, I was alone.
Then I heard footsteps. Were they the same men? On seeing me they deliberately changed direction and were now heading my way. They passed barely ten feet in front of me and as they did so their pace slowed, they stopped talking and both looked me up and down. One smiled but not in a friendly way, it was threatening. As they continued on, his friend, face devoid of expression, kept looking back over his shoulder. Enough times for it to be unnerving.
I checked the time on my phone. Five minute had passed. It felt longer. Across the road a small group of men had now congregated. Well suited, jovial and far less intimidating. Immediately I felt more at ease.
Then one prodded his colleague and nodded in my direction. Soon they were all looking. There was no doubting the topic of conversation.
Another anxious look at my phone and it was time to go. Troubled by what I’d seen, relieved to be somewhere else.
But there’s one minor detail I haven’t yet mentioned. Strictly speaking I wasn’t alone. The attention hadn’t been on me.
On the bench directly in front of me sat a woman. Mid-twenties, smartly dressed, reading a book.
It was her who was being stared at. She’d not asked for it. She was definitely aware of it. From her resigned expression it was far from unusual.
And for those few minutes I witnessed first hand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of unwanted attention and to be leered at. It was as horrible as it was demeaning.
For those few minutes I realised that harassment doesn’t have to be vocal or physical for it to be intimidating and frightening.
For those few minutes I felt ashamed to be a man.
Because it’s not harmless any more that it’s somehow a compliment. It’s the thin edge of a prejudiced and misogynous wedge that whether male or female, blights us all.
I’m not suggesting for one minute this type of behaviour is typical of all men, it’s not, but we must surely accept some collective responsibility for dealing with it. To call it out for what it is. To lead by example and to teach our children that equality isn’t just about equal pay and opportunities, fundamentally it’s about respect.
Whether it be in print, online, or a Tuesday morning in Manchester, this casual objectification of women is the absolute antithesis of respect, and it needs to stop.