I know this question has been thrown around over cocktails and cups of tea since time immemorial, but I mean it in the most literal way possible. Why do (some) men think that it’s OK to masturbate at unsuspecting women in public?
I’m on the other side of the world and I get a message from my ex-girlfriend.
‘Last night I experienced what happened to us in the park in Rome, well 3 different times, 3 different men to be precise…I feel horrible and I guess I just wanted to talk to someone who understands.’
My heart sinks and I feel sick as I’m treated to flashbacks of the man on the bench opposite us, in one of Rome’s busiest parks, his penis peeking out of his shorts, casually stroking it whist staring at us. In broad daylight.
I feel obliged to say that we weren’t even indulging in any excessive PDAs. We definitely weren’t looking particularly sexy or even being particularly gay. We were actually sheltering from the heat to nurse a hangover. I don’t even think we were holding hands. And then I get a surge of anger that I even feel the need to defend myself in this situation.
I feel as powerless now as I did then, but more than anything I feel angry. Angry that it’s 2017, and so many female travellers that I know have a similar story. And too often more than one story.
It’s a story that provokes so many different reactions; from resigned indifference to the guys that think it’s absolutely hilarious. And from a detached perspective they’re right, it is so ridiculous that It’s actually comical. I mean what kind of grown man, no- what kind of human, masturbates in front of a stranger, in public, in broad daylight? It’s animalistic.
But the people who see it as a disgusting but funny travel story can’t begin to understand how vulnerable and violated it makes you feel. You are powerless to do anything except leave. You feel like a victim, even though you haven’t been physically attacked. You begin to question your behaviour, your appearance, your reaction, or how you could have reacted. You feel wary in public spaces, even when there are crowds of people around. You feel dirty, and ashamed, even though logically you know it’s not your fault.
It’s hard enough trying to figure out how to behave in a same sex relationship while traveling, how not to offend, or draw attention to yourself. It’s hard to accept that this is still something you have to worry about, without the added fear that some men will see your sexual orientation as an excuse to degrade you in public.
But it’s not just a problem faced by obviously queer women. The first time it happened to me I was on a beach, away with my mum. She was leaving and I was planning on staying in Greece and travelling. I was 18 and about to embark on my first solo adventure, but the trauma of this event put me off for years.
It’s still seared into my memory. Before my mum flew home, we decided to get up early and go to the beach. It was about 9am and we chose a strip near the main road to maximise sunbathing time. With a stack of snacks and magazines we found a spot at the edge of the beach and I quickly fell asleep.
After a while I became vaguely aware of someone walking past, and then back again. In my sleepy state I didn’t think anything of it. Until I heard my mum scream. I opened my eyes to find them shaded from the sun by a looming figure. He was tugging and grunting directly above my face.
Now there are a number of ways I could have or should have reacted to this. Present day Kiki would probably have grabbed him by the rapidly shrinking penis, and beaten the crap out of him. Past Kiki almost threw up, and ran screaming towards the sea, while her mum threw stones and delivered an impressive stream of Greek abuse.
The man ran away, also screaming by this point, and made a quick escape in a van (someone pointed out years later that it always seems to be men in vans…) We were both in a state of shock, I remember shaking and feeling sick right to my soul. We packed up our things quickly, and headed back to my aunt’s house, where I showered before getting straight online and booking onto mum’s flight home.
While I was shaken and upset, the thing that disturbed me more than anything was the lack of reaction that this got from my family. They told me not to bother going to the police, as it wasn’t like I was raped. The general consensus was that I should avoid quiet beaches and not go anywhere alone.
So I got over it. Slowly, the weird feeling of shame that I couldn’t quite put my finger on started to fade away. The story got funnier with every re-telling. Yeah, I actually got wanked at, in public, while I was asleep. Isn’t that hilarious? What if mum hadn’t woken up? What if my mum had seen me getting the money shot while I was still asleep??
Last summer on a hike with my friend we started comparing travel horror stories. It turns out that getting wanked at in public by strangers was pretty high on both of our lists. She had a terrifying story about being alone on a beach in Indonesia when a man came and sat near her and started masturbating. He actually ran after her when she tried to run away. She also had a friend who had a similar experience. All of a sudden my experience had gone from a disgustingly weird travel story to a frightening pattern of abuse.
So I did what anyone would do and googled it. And of course, there was an article in the Guardian about it.The journalist had retweeted a woman’s experience of being masturbated at on a train, and was approached by over 400 women who had similar experiences. She then consulted the Everyday Sexism project database to find that in the preceding two years there had been 525 reports of this kind of thing. The worst part is that a ‘staggeringly high amount’ of these reports happened when girls were on their way to school.
A quick survey on Facebook pages for female travelers reinforced this pattern, with the general consensus being that ‘I don’t think it’s as uncommon as some may think.’ Women were quick to make it clear that isn’t just a problem they have faced while travelling, but tends to happen back home too; especially on public transport. I’m flooded with replies from women who have experienced it in parks, bath houses, taxis, on the street and on busses as well as at touristic sites. Clearly nowhere is safe.
These incidents rarely make the news, and when they do their coverage is worrying to say the least. Last year the Sun ran the headline ‘Hilarious moment sassy commuter confronts train passenger she accused of secretly masturbating in a packed carriage.’All of a sudden the wanker becomes the victim. His ‘public telling off’ is referred to as an ‘expletive ridden rant’, ‘a tirade’ ,‘a loud lecture’ and, wait for it, ‘verbal abuse.’ While his masturbation is treated in startlingly neutral terms with ‘rubbing his penis’.
It’s baffling how in the 21st Century a refusal to sit back quietly and allow someone to masturbate at you can qualify you as a ‘sassy woman.’
Last month in Delhi a woman returned from a festival where she had been groped, only to find semen stains on her jeans. She posted the photo to Facebook and it went viral. But alongside comments from women about their similar experiences she received a barrage of abuse from people claiming she was ‘attention seeking.’
Again and again we are expected to shake off this disgusting kind of male behaviour and only see the funny side. One woman told me she went to the police about repeated attacks and was told to ‘point and laugh’ next time. While this is certainly one way of dealing with it, I can’t help but feel like a more serious response is needed, especially from law enforcement.
So why don’t we hear more about it? Are women discouraged from reporting it, like I was, because it’s not seen as ‘proper’ sexual assault? While in the UK, it is an offence to expose your genitals, attackers are rarely prosecuted. In the United States, public indecency is classed as a ‘misdemeanor’ and is only upgraded to a felony if a perpetrator has previous sex-related convictions. In 2013, a man was actually acquitted of masturbating on a beach in Sweden, as the judge ruled that he wasn’t doing it at anyone in particular. In Italy last year, a case was brought to the supreme court where a man was accused of pleasuring himself outside a university in front of female students. His lawyers argued that the low light meant he was unlikely to be seen, and the court ruled that masturbating in public is not illegal.
Assuming that public masturbation is a victimless crime reinforces the idea that women’s bodies are fair game;that by simply existing as a woman in a public space we are opening ourselves up to this behaviour.
I refuse to think so lowly of men as to believe that their urges are so consuming that they can’t control themselves until they go home. This is calculated exhibitionism. It’s all about power. It’s about taking pleasure from a woman when she is powerless to stop you. Looking her in the eye and daring her to do something about it. This is why most victims are schoolgirls, or women traveling alone, out of their comfort zone. This is why it happens in confined spaces, where you can’t run away. This is why it is time to take a stand.