[CW: sexual harassment, assault, rape]
This year it will be the 25 year anniversary of a month-long inter rail trip I saved up for and took around Europe with another male friend.
We were 19, had no fixed plan and travelled freely around, making our plans day by day, staying in random little backstreet hostels and hanging out with strangers we met.
We went to random parties in abandoned warehouses, slept on seats in trains and benches in train stations.
Sometimes we went off individually and there were nights when I wandered strange streets on my own, thousands of miles from home, with literally no one knowing where I was.
It was a spectacular feeling of freedom and, honestly, there were only a handful of times when I felt worried or unsafe.
Now yes, I was young and had plenty of hubris and was maybe more overconfident than I should have been. But it only occurred to me *this year* what an extraordinary privilege that was, and – more specifically- how much of that freedom was granted by virtue of my gender.
A recent study confirmed what others have shown before – that the overwhelming majority of young women (97%) have experienced sexual harassment or worse. And even that tiny percentage who have avoided it first hand will very likely have a close friend or family member who hasn’t been so lucky.
And so the harsh reality is that, by that same age of 19, there is a vanishingly small number of women who have not been affected, one way or another.
A woman simply does not get to breeze down the street in a fit of care-free exuberance like I did. Not because of anything she has any control over, but because of how our society and specifically the men in our society treat her.
This seems so obvious to me now that I’ve seen it, but the fact is it took me a very long time to recognise there was anything different about my experience compared to that of a woman in the exact same circumstances.
To my shame, this is despite having heard about the terrifying attempted rape of someone close to me on a similar type of trip.
I don’t think I am especially lacking in self-awareness (perhaps others would disagree) but the privilege I had and have was so invisible to me that it has taken a quarter of a century to even notice it was there.
Of course that doesn’t mean my life has been easy – I’ve had my own share of difficulties. But there are things that are baked into men’s expectations of the world so early and so deep in our subconscious that it takes – or at least it took me – a lot of time and thought to see.
So, men: if you would worry about – say – your young daughter in a situation like that, then you *know* this is out there. Please, take some time to re-evaluate some of the things you do without thinking through the lens of a woman, and think about how different it might feel to have to live that every single day.