I was the reason a man lost his job just before Christmas.
Growing up in Denmark, we would read Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales like The Little Match Girl about a poor little child who tried to sell matches and ended up freezing to death while she is looking at a family celebrating Christmas through their window. So naturally, that is how I have been imagining this cab driver ever since I found out he had probably been fired. Standing outside my window, looking in, freezing to death.
Men have groped me on the bus three times. Cab drivers have been sexually aggressive and threatening twice. I’ve been followed home, I’ve been pushed up against walls, I’ve been forced to kiss strangers and worse. I have never reported any of them. All the classic excuses: what if it was my fault? What if they didn’t mean to do it? What if I misunderstood? And, most importantly, what if no one believes me?
All these excuses made sense to me. However, when these things happened to friends, I would furiously demand they contact the police. All their excuses sounded ridiculous, like they were blaming themselves for something that was completely out of their control. But when it came to me, the excuses felt right.
Last week, I ordered a cab through an app. A man in a car showed up and drove me to Gatwick Airport. It was 4am and I’d not slept so I hoped he would not talk to me, but he was well-rested and chatty. It was fine. At first, he complained about foreigners, which seemed like such a cliche at first, but then it just felt weird, as he himself was an immigrant, he told me. From India. I said I was an immigrant from Denmark. I disagreed with his points without being as aggressive as I usually would have been when meeting a right-wing person – after all, I was in his locked car in the middle of the night.
Then he asked me if I had a boyfriend and I made one up. After all, I was in his locked car in the middle of the night. We arrived at the airport. Before he opened his door (and mine) he asked if he should pick me up, when I came back to London.
“No, thank you. I will take the train.” I said.
“I can pick you up.” he said.
“No, I am definitely taking the train.” I said.
“You can give me your number and just call me whenever you need to,” he then offered.
“No, that’s OK,” I said, “Uhm… You can take my email.”
After all, I was in his locked car in the middle of the night. I wrote down my email and gave it to him.
“I can email you and you can let me know if you want to be picked up,” he said.
“No, I’ll be taking the train, but thank you,” I said.
We both got out and I took my bag, shook his hand and flew to Denmark. I thought nothing more of it. Until I received a text from him a few days later, offering to give me a lift back to London. I ignored it. Then he sent an email. I ignored it. The next day he started calling me. I blocked his number from all platforms.
I don’t know if it’s because I recently turned 27, because I remembered having said “no” so clearly so many times or if I just felt particularly empowered just then, but I sent screenshots in an email to the app’s customer service. I told them everything that happened in detail and added, “I am sure he is a good and harmless guy. All I wish is for you to let him know why this is not OK. That it feels scary. He probably just doesn’t know.”
“Most of us have tried to reject a man, only to see the actual rage and surprise in his eyes, like we didn’t have the legal right to do that to him. But why wouldn’t he think that? That’s all he has been taught.”
The message came the next day. “We have removed the driver from our app, we apologise and here is a refund.”
Then the wave of guilt washed over me and I crumbled. I started seeing this poor cab driver standing in front of my window with a matchbox and one single tear rolling down his cheek. I felt like the devil right then and there. He is probably a father of 10 starving children. He was probably just trying to earn an extra buck. What if I had ruined his life? What if I was just a prude? What if I am just Cruella de Vil and he’s a puppy Dalmatian?
I threw it all up on social media, which is the perfect place to find out the worst possible thoughts that people can have about you. People said in unison: You said no. This is not OK.
And I know they are right. Had it happened to a friend of mine, I would have agreed. But the feeling of guilt, oh, the guilt.
The guilt interests me. Since the incident I have heard stories from vast numbers of women. Women who have been sexually assaulted and didn’t report it, because they were scared. But also from women who have been sexually assaulted and did report it – and were overwhelmed with guilt. Police officers who told them they were overreacting. Friends telling them that they had now ruined a man’s life.
The only possible theory I can think of, is that maybe, just maybe, it’s because in the back of our minds, we know that sexism affects all genders. Men have been taught that it’s OK to keep pushing women to get their way. If she says she doesn’t want a cab ride home, show up in front of her window with a boombox and an 80s pop song and she’ll be sure to fall in love with you(r cab).
Men have been taught that they can ‘earn’ women and they ‘deserve’ women. Most of us have tried to reject a man, only to see the actual rage and surprise in his eyes, like we didn’t have the legal right to do that to him. But why wouldn’t he think that? That’s all he has been taught. This might be why we feel bad. Because they are, apart from assholes sometimes, also just victims.
My go-to feminist friend in all of this has been Deborah Frances-White, the amazing Radio 4 star comedian. We have had countless debates about the guilt part of being a woman, a feminist – a human, even. So much so that we have decided to face this head-on in a new podcast recorded in front of a live audience.
Click here to listen to the first episode of The Guilty Feminist: Nudity.
First posted in Standard Issue Magazine.