Let’s get something straight.
Just because two people share the same public space, it does not mean that their own personal boundaries cease to exist.
There are a great deal of folks all walking the same streets, sitting on the same buses, occupying the same office blocks; all of us sharing our spaces together. What is important, and what keeps everything functioning according to the underlying social rules, is that all of us maintain our own personal space within the wider public space. Just because our bodies are out in the public domain does not automatically render them ‘fair game’ to the other bodies who are sharing that space.
Unfortunately, women’s bodies are frequently viewed as public property once they are outside the confines of their homes. This means that when I go out jogging, people roll down their car windows and shout things about my breasts at me. It means that, when I can’t use the car park at work for a couple of weeks, I get wolf-whistled on the fifteen minute walk home from work. It means that women’s boobs and bums are groped and pinched when they’re in nightclubs, that pregnant bellies are touched by absolutely anybody who takes an interest, that women with tattoos are told that they’ve ‘spoiled’ their bodies, that women’s weight is commented on in every magazine, that clothes are judged, that sexual harassment happens in workplaces… the list goes on.
Society has informed us that women’s bodies are there to be looked at and talked about and that personal boundaries do not apply.
There is a clear difference between striking up a polite conversation with somebody whilst both parties inhabit a public space and utilising that public space as a tool to enable inappropriate commentary. Because public space can be scary. It requires a great amount of trust to navigate public space because people are incredibly different and what is fine for one person might not be fine for somebody else. That’s why there are rules and etiquette and norms and manners; to try and regulate the fact that every day lots of us all pile into buildings and open spaces together and are entrusted not to offend or harm each other.
Of course there are always exceptions to this, if you watch the news just once in your life you’ll know that there are people flouting these social rules all the time. However, these people are ‘othered’ in a way that serves to reassure us that we are mostly safe within public spaces if we follow the rules and apply common sense. Yet enabling women’s bodies to become public property isn’t subject to the same ‘othering’ and is entirely normalised, completely diminishing that safety subsequently causing women to walk around with their keys between their fingers or with rape alarms in their handbags.
It’s for the same reason that cat-calling women or getting in their face is NOT a compliment. It’s not a compliment because there is an undercurrent around this behaviour that is unsafe and has roots in vulnerability, fear, abuse, violence and rape and this undercurrent is borne out of the misogynistic societal attitudes around women that enable them to become public property in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every guy who whistles at a woman has intentions of violence or abuse, I’m just saying that it shows a lack of understanding around the difficulties that come with being a woman occupying a public space.
There are always going to be people in this world who invade your space when you’re trying to have a conversation, that person who is overly tactile (probably me), the person who sits next to you on the bus when there are loads of other seats available, the one who pushes in front of you in the queue, or any other irritating little foible that arises as a result of sharing a space with a large amount of strangers. These are invasions of space and privacy that we are forced to forgive as a result of our proximity (yes, even the man who practically burped in my face on the bus). But to purposefully encroach on a person’s boundaries and utilise the freedom of that public space as an attack on that person’s body is simply not acceptable and it has to stop.
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