I never realised the extent to which men claim ownership over women’s bodies in everyday life until I worked in a nightclub. The club I work in is young and trendy clientele for the most part – not so much the rowdy rugby and stag do side of things, more students and young people of similar ages – and generally overtly sexual touching isn’t a problem. I’ve probably only been actually “groped” once or twice in the six months I’ve worked there. But I’ve been flashed (once), called a “dyke” for intervening when a customer wouldn’t stop harassing a staff member for her phone number, and lost count of the number of times men have stopped me by grabbing my arm or standing in my way, or “guided” me through basically empty spaces with hands that are just, almost, not quite on my bum.
For me, the “compliments” are often the most uncomfortable part. Don’t get me wrong, I can take a compliment. When a young guy comes up to the cloakroom, pupils big with ecstasy, and says, “You’re beautiful”, or, “You look nice tonight”, or even, sometimes, “I love you”, I don’t mind. It can even be quite lovely. They just wanted to say a nice thing, and they expressed it respectfully, or at least through a joyful haze of drugs that I can understand. But the guy who grabs you by the arm, stopping you from passing him, to tell you that you have “a cracking body”, or “a great arse”, or “really nice tits” – I hate that guy. I don’t know how to answer that guy. Usually I say thank you, the words dripping with anything but their usual meaning. The way I feel about my body isn’t contingent on how a random man in a nightclub feels about it. I don’t feel any more or less beautiful when someone talks to me that way. What I do feel is uncomfortable, dirty, and guilty. I probably shouldn’t be wearing that top, or such tight trousers. On some level I can’t help but feel like I’ve done something to make them think it’s ok, “led them on” by smiling or by just being there in front of them. It doesn’t make me dislike the way my body looks, but it can make me feel ashamed of the reaction it’s elicited.
There are numerous respectful ways to pay someone a compliment. If you want to try and flirt with a bartender while she’s at work, the chances are she’s not interested – trust me. She’s busy, she’s sober, and there’s a good chance she’s trying to figure out how to politely end the conversation because she has shit to do. But complimenting her tits isn’t going to help your case. You’re creeping her out. Tell her you like her outfit, or her hair; strike up a conversation about the band on her t-shirt; ask her if she likes her job, and listen. Basically anything except drawing attention to the fact you’re staring at her body and wondering what she looks like naked. This doesn’t just apply to flirting with bartenders, obviously.
The club I work at is underground (as in physically so, not culturally) and on a busy night it’s fucking boiling. Usually I’m wearing a cropped top or something slashed down the sides, because it’s so warm, and my stomach and ribs will be out. Some men take that as an invitation to touch me there. They’ll touch my bellybutton jewellery, or the tattoo on my side, or sometimes – weirdly – tickle my stomach like you would a baby’s (although thankfully no one has yet blown a raspberry on my tummy). Don’t do that. That isn’t ok. Some men, when they see the look on your face – in that moment when you say nothing because you still can’t quite believe, even after all these years, that a stranger thought it was ok to put their hands on your bare stomach – immediately apologise. I don’t blame those men. They’re just drunk and got carried away and they’re products of a society that taught them it was ok. They know they did something wrong and they’re sorry. Maybe they won’t do it next time, maybe they will, but in that moment they know they shouldn’t have touched you, and they apologise. But a lot of them don’t. A lot of them think you should be flattered.
But I’m not flattered. You’re a knob. Not only am I at work, where my need to be at least moderately polite to you prevents me from telling you to get to fuck as I might on a night out, but in general it is just not ok to touch strangers in anything even approaching an intimate manner. I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would stop someone walking past me to stroke his biceps and tell him he’s sexy. It’s just absurd and incomprehensible to me.
I’m lucky to work somewhere that takes a strong stance on mistreating the bar staff. Our door staff will chuck guys out for groping or intimidating you, no questions asked, and our management will back us up. I’m also lucky that, in general, overtly sexually threatening behaviour is rare in our venue to begin with. But I shouldn’t have to consider myself lucky that I only occasionally get groped at work. I shouldn’t have to field “compliments” from men who’re looking at me with such a leer in their eye that I feel dirty and want to cover myself completely. Men need to stop thinking that they have the right to touch me, or to stare at me like I’m meat. Nobody has that right, and your desire to touch someone or stare at her tits doesn’t override her right not to feel uncomfortable and objectified just for being outside her house and being a woman.