The thing about public spaces is that they are not always as scary as they seem. Despite my fear, I am on some level aware of this. People usually ignore you and you can just get on with things without being ridiculed or judged. Panic attacks can happen but it isn’t something to be worried about every second of the day.The trouble is that occasionally something horrible happens in a public space and it makes you realise just how vulnerable you really are.
I was sitting down in the pub, twiddling my thumbs whilst my partner went to buy more drinks. I was keeping myself busy by chewing on my straw and poking the ice cubes with it. I was looking around the room and noticed a table of really beefy, rowdy men. I overheard some pretty horrible and graphic conversation about their preferred body parts on a woman. One of them then noticed me and started the following conversation:
Man: ‘You liked listening to that didn’t you.’ [laughter. Group of men turn round to stare]
Me: ‘I may have overheard a bit’ [nervous laughter, elbows on table in front of me]‘Haha, look she’s covering up her tits. Doesn’t want us to look at them. Come on show us what you’ve got’ [Laughter all round the table]
I am not sure where the conversation ran exactly after that. I was so nervous at being spoken to in that way. They continued on with their 'flirtatious banter’ and said a number of crude things about me which made me extremely uncomfortable. They wanted me to join them at their table despite the fact that I said I was with someone. At one point, one of them came over and put his hands on the table, looming over me. I felt very intimidated.
I should have responded but I am ashamed to say that I was too scared. The thing is, I don’t think they were keen to take no for an answer. I don’t think what they were doing was even about flirting. I think that they were enjoying intimidating a woman. They loved every second of seeing a woman on her own, vulnerable and placid. This was all about power rather than any kind of flirtatious connection. This was about looking good to other men and displaying dominance.
As someone with a mental health problem, I feel vulnerable to this kind of attack; I may not have coped as well as someone without a mental health problem with a social interaction. However, any woman would have felt intimidated. No, it is not complimentary to a woman to tell her she is attractive in whatever rude way you like. Women are allowed to exist in public spaces and should be able to do so without being forced to engage with strangers in this kind of way. I was trapped in a place where I should have been allowed to sit in peace. They knew I was trapped and they took advantage of this.
I go through the days hanging out with family and friends who all care about me and don’t intimidate or judge me. Sometimes you forget about the fact that you are vulnerable to attack by other people. I have noticed casual sexism all around but I forgot that, for many people out there, women are to be aggressively kept in their place.
As for what all this means for my mental health, let’s just say that I won’t feel so safe walking around in public spaces anymore. I have seen how quickly someone can spot your vulnerability and exploit it.