I live on the South Coast of England. When we were at college a friend and I used to regularly go into town or the nearest city together, just to hang out and shop as girls do. It wasn’t something we thought anything of, but we used to get held up quite a bit by people talking to us in the street. Perhaps one day I will post more stories on this site, but there’s just the one I want to share tonight because of the impact it had not just on me, but on this best friend of mine. It happened a few years ago now (two or three) but it remains on our minds now and then.
We’d gone into Brighton for the day, just to wander around the shops and spend some time on the beach. We rode on the gallopers (carousel) as we often did when we were in the city, and then we went to sit on the pebbles on the beach and just catch up on each other’s lives. Brighton’s quite a touristy place, and it’s not unusual to be stopped as you wander along to take a photo of someone. It was a little stranger to be approached while sitting down on the beach, but not alarming in itself.
A young guy came up, holding a camera, and asked in somewhat halting but, we thought, understandable English, if we could take a photo for him – and this being, as previously stated, a fairly common occurrence, we agreed. My friend, being the better photographer of us, took the camera and that’s when things got weird and uncomfortable.
Rather than standing in front of the nearby and quite picturesque pier, or the view of the town, as is usual, he plopped down on the shingle next to me (in front of featureless beach and sea) and wrapped an arm around my waist. My friend, camera already raised, and I froze. I didn’t know what to do so I just indicated for her to take the picture fast. Fortunately – no, unfortunately – we had a long-established system of communicating what we were going to do about creeps in the street. She pretended to take the picture, but he checked, so she took the photo, and immediately tried to delete it, but he checked again before holding the camera out again, leaning back to where he was still sat uncomfortably close to me.
“One more,” he said, “with kiss?” We flat out refused, and at that point I lost my nerve, glanced down at my watch and leaped up as if the pebbles had caught fire beneath me.”Oh no, we’re late to meet your Mum!”
The guy seemed disappointed, but we gave him no chance to waylay us further, and disappeared into the maze that is Brighton’s smaller shopping streets. We didn’t feel safe for about an hour after that, constantly dipping in and out of shops to check we weren’t being followed, doubling back on ourselves, and making use of the shops we knew had two doorways so that we couldn’t be trapped if he’d followed us. Fortunately for us it seems more likely he just wandered off down the beach, and we never saw any sign of being followed that day. We were shaken for some time, though.
I don’t know if either of our parents, to this day, has ever heard this story, although we were certainly young enough – at around 17 – for them to be a logical port of call. Whether we didn’t want them to worry, or were ashamed of how we’d handled it, I’m now not sure, but I certainly don’t remember telling them this story. If it was ever brought up among friends, it was shrugged off as just one of those bizarre things. But it’s stayed with us.
I still have a flicker of doubt when a tourist comes up to ask me to take a photograph, even though it’s almost always a completely innocent request. I do sometimes wonder if there’s a photo still out there somewhere of me with a stranger’s arm around me, perhaps labeled ‘My English Girlfriend’ by someone who wanted to show off to his friends. I do know that if such a photo exists, it’s clear that I’m uncomfortable in it. I’m not so worried about the photo – taken against my will though it was, I’ve put plenty of photos of myself online before and since that day – but that feeling of being trapped in a situation with no rational next step to take will never stop haunting me. That young man invaded my personal space and made me feel completely powerless and paranoid on what should have been a nice day out with a friend. I’ve put it behind me for the last few years – I’ve had other incidents to worry about, sadly – but the other day my friend posted a blog about Street Harrassment and she mentioned how she still felt guilty for not being able to delete that photo, or for not helping. And I realised we were both still victims of that day.
So really, I suppose my point in sharing this long anecdote is as follows: my friend and I, two or three years on, still feel as if we didn’t do everything in our power to stop what was happening. That might be true, but that doesn’t mean we were in the wrong. The only person at fault in that situation was the guy who thought he could pose with my body as he would with a statue or a landmark. It makes no difference whether we fought, or froze, or ran, and it wouldn’t have mattered if we were in bikinis rather than jeans and long sleeves – there’s no point beating ourselves up for how he made us feel.
In the end, we got away without it going any further than an arm round the waist, and as sorry as I am that we had those procedures in place, I am glad that our knowledge of where we could lose a potential stalker and where we could find support with local shopkeepers helped to calm us down and keep us safe in this situation. I’d like to think that if that same situation happened again, I’d have walked away when he put his arm around me, but I can’t be sure I’d be brave enough. We spend a lot of time trying to be polite, but in the end putting me in that position wasn’t polite of him, whether he realised it or not, and I’m glad we didn’t feel obliged to play along.
Location: Brighton, UKShare on Facebook