It Takes Guts – by Judith Staff
Our children all flew trans-Atlantic before 6 months of age – all three travel well, and “get” airport protocol. We remind them not to mention terrorism when the announcement about unattended luggage being destroyed comes on, and to put chapstick in the clear plastic bags as it’s considered a liquid (never figured that one out…?) The main thing they understand is to be super sensible as we pass through security. This is partly because I find it stressful – the pressure of getting five of us and our bags through the security gate with no snags.
Departing for a short break to Copenhagen, we arrive at Luton Airport security. Dutifully, shoes are removed, bags and coats placed in grey trays, and the children are solemnly quiet. I send our young girls through the metal detector first, one at a time, before following them. Distracted, I neglect to remove my favourite solid Mexican silver bracelet, guaranteed to set off the alarm. And it does. As my heart-rate skyrockets with anxiety, I make eye contact with the security guard, a portly older man wielding a detector wand. Tentatively, I put my arms out to the sides in preparation for a search. Laughing, he says “I’d love to give you a pat-down sweetheart, believe me, but I’d get fired, so you’ll have to wait for my colleague!” He gestures to a female security guard over his shoulder. A shocking comment. Shocking.
You won’t believe what happens next….
I say nothing. I do nothing.
In front of my daughters, I let him get away with blatant, antiquated, patronising, patriarchal, oppressive, humiliating sexism.
And he is in a UNIFORM. Being PAID.
When I say “nothing”, I do react of course – I blush, hotly and cast my eyes to the floor, momentarily wishing it would open up and help me to vanish, as I wonder how many other passengers heard his suggestive remark. I remain silent as the female guard briefly checks me. We go to the opposite wall to put our shoes and coats back on, and with scarlet cheeks, I tell my husband in a small voice what happened. He is amazed and angry, asking if I want us to do something about it. I reply “No, I’m okay, just leave it.” Later, the extent of my “complaint” is a single Tweet full of indignation, which unsurprisingly, fails to elicit a response from Luton Airport.
Since then, I can recall at least three other instances in the past year where men were at work, and behaved inappropriately towards me in front a roomful of people, and I did nothing apart from blush with embarrassment. Interestingly, I subsequently end up feeling more angry with myself for not calling it and allowing the behaviour to go unchallenged, than I do with the men or about the behaviour itself. What happens in that moment that is so disarming? Now, I can think of a million justified responses, including the obvious, albeit reactive, “Fuck off”, to the more pragmatic – lodging a written complaint to their employer. Doing nothing at all, I am in essence, letting it go. Which leaves them, and everyone who witnesses it thinking it is acceptable, when it is completely not.
Why can’t I speak out in the moment? What is the matter with me? My friends know I am a talker, and I have strong views. Most of us think we know exactly what we would say in response to such sexist, demeaning behaviour – I definitely think I would. I love challenges and have coped with adversity in life, and am used to being assertive when it’s required. I will not hesitate to speak out on what I feel passionate about, even if it ruffles feathers. I have clear opinions on what women should not have to tolerate , including verbal comments and intrusive physical contact. So what is the problem?
The answer I think, is that it takes guts. For a range of reasons, it takes guts.
- It’s always men, and as I’m only 5’3”, most men tend to be bigger than me.
- By speaking out, I am prolonging the exchange and it might become more humiliating or even violent. The man at the airport was a stranger, and unpredictable (the other three, I knew.)
- Witnessing sexist behaviour is one of those situations where bystanders are highly likely to pretend they didn’t hear/see, and less likely to chip in and assist if I speak out. So it will be a lone-wolf-girl moment if I choose to challenge it.
- These interactions can leave women feeling ashamed (yeah – I know the shame lies with the man, but in the moment….) which can inhibit a gutsy response, or indeed any response at all.
By saying something, I would not just be challenging a man who behaved badly. I would also be challenging a culture of sexist behaviour that has been embedded in the fabric of society for centuries. And that takes guts. If we all found the guts to support each other, men and women, and spoke out against sexist behaviour in public, it would help.
The best way to challenge sexism is to pull together – after all, it’s so much easier to have guts if someone’s got your back.