Dani Garavelli: Singing a song of sexism
When I was heavily pregnant with my second child, I spent every Saturday working in Edinburgh. This meant leaving Glasgow at 8am and staggering back on the last train home, exhausted. On one of those nights, I had no sooner sunk into a window seat and opened my book, than two inebriated men lurched towards my table. One of them sat beside me, hemming me in, the other opposite. Inevitably, they started chatting, then the one beside me prodded my stomach and asked me when my baby was due.
Then he asked me if I’d enjoyed the “shag” that got me knocked up. Then he asked me if I was married or if my bump was the product of an up-a-close encounter. You get the gist.
The train was really busy. There were no empty seats in my compartment, I was too tired to stand and, in any case, I didn’t want to make a scene, so initially I did what most women do: I put up with it. At first, I smiled resignedly as one does when accosted by garrulous drunks, then I buried my head in my book in the hope he would give up. Finally, when it was clear he was not to be deflected, I moved to First Class, where, thankfully, the ticket inspector took pity on me.
Those acquainted with @EverydaySexism will know this incident is no big deal. Indeed, it pales into insignificance beside some of the horror stories of indecent assaults on all forms of public transport which appear on its timeline. But I was reminded of it when I saw the footage of members of Stirling University’s hockey club singing drunken obscenities at the top of their voices on a packed bus, which went viral earlier this week.
This was not the fatuous toilet humour of boisterous young men; it was an explicit version of the bawdy call-and-response drinking song I Used to Work in Chicago in an Old Department Store. I won’t repeat it word for word, but for those who have never heard it, it involves one student singing about a woman customer who has asked for a particular product, for example, material. “Material, she wanted?” the ad-hoc chorus chants back at him. “Felt, she got”, the student responds, to roars of approval. Most of the lines repeated on the bus were much more graphic and the faces of the women (and one of the men) on board wore the same expressions of embarrassment and discomfort I felt all those years ago on that train. One brave soul challenged them, but for the most part, they just sat there awkwardly until they reached their stop.
The footage, which is now being scrutinised by Stirling University, appeared on YouTube less than 48 hours after The Sun’s new editor, David Dinsmore, announced that the newspaper had no intention of bowing to pressure from campaigners and scrapping Page 3. “Breasts have always been a big part of our life. I think my mother had them and my wife has them,” he said, without expanding on how he’d feel if a bunch of strangers were leering over theirs as they swilled their morning tea.
You see, reducing women to pieces of meat is a cross-generational pastime. And it’s harmless enough, isn’t it? Lads on a building site, lads on a bus, sniggering at topless pictures and the thought of an anonymous woman acting as a receptacle for their unbridled sexual appetites. Anyone who says otherwise is getting things out of proportion. “People are much too precious these days,” said one tweeter yesterday. “That’s radical feminism for you,” sighed another. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with radical feminism, but how “radical” do you have to be to believe women are more than the sum of their anatomical parts or that they have a right to travel on public transport without being subjected to casual sexism?
Another thing Page 3 and the students on the bus have in common is that their advocates tend to peddle spurious, though superficially compelling, arguments in their defence. In the case of Page 3, we are told, it’s a question of consumer choice. If you don’t want to see breasts, don’t buy the paper. Simple. Except it isn’t, because hundreds of thousands of men are buying the paper and absorbing the message it sends out about the place of women in society. When it comes to the students on the bus, the argument raised is one of freedom of speech. Why shouldn’t these men be allowed to express their contempt for the opposite gender in a public forum? It’s a free country, after all. You can see it all over their smug faces. Such is their sense of entitlement, their absolute sense of their own superiority, it doesn’t occur to them that their right to be obnoxious has to be balanced against other people’s right to be treated with respect.
Although it cannot be argued – of course it can’t – that there is a direct link between ogling breasts/singing crude songs and indecent assault, I believe a line can be traced all the way from Page 3, through drunken sexism, to the likes of the Steubenville rape – the attack carried out by members of a high school football team on a comatose girl in Ohio. It’s a line that says women are sexual objects, that they are always up for it, and, really, what does it matter if they’re not? It’s a line that says it’s fine for your good night out to come at someone else’s expense. If this seems like an exaggeration, listen to the song for yourself. I draw your attention to what, for me, is the most offensive line. “She wanted an orgasm,” one of the students sings. “She wanted an orgasm?”, the chorus echoes. “And who gives a **** what she got?”, the student replies. And there – in a nutshell – is the problem. Women might want Page 3 to be scrapped or to live in a world free of sexual harassment, but there is still a sizeable proportion of men who don’t give a **** what they get.
Looking back, I don’t remember feeling angry about being harassed on the train. I reckon I thought it was just what you let yourself in for if you chose to travel at night. But I was angry when I saw the footage on the Stirling bus; angry that – for all the progress made on other equality issues – this kind of thing still goes on. All those years of putting up with it has led men to believe they have a licence to behave badly. Good on whoever filmed it and shamed those responsible. I just hope the university follows through and disciplines them so that future bus journeys might be misogyny-free zones.