Male Privilege: It’s Everybody’s Problem

Lucy Schorn, local writer, activist and resident, explores male privilege, power and misogyny in her account of a train journey back to Portsmouth from Brighton Pride in August 2018.

I just got home from a train journey of around an hour and a half that went like this.

I (female) board a train at Brighton with my partner (female) on amid the excitement and buzz of Pride.

The train is fairly quiet, as we’re leaving the Pride behind us and there’s one man sat adjacent to us, facing the front of the train, as we are. As we settle into our seats my partner and I lean into each other and share a reserved kiss. Fraction of a second stuff. My head is turned to the left, towards her and towards the male passenger, let’s call him Orange shirt guy, and he is staring. I meet his eye (no longer kissing my partner) and hold it for what feels like an uncomfortable length of time, before he looks away.

Shortly after, two other males join the carriage, one a similar age to orange shirt guy, late 50s I’d say, and strikes up a conversation with Orange shirt guy because the orange shirt is a football shirt – the same team that the second guy supports. He sits down opposite Orange Shirt Guy. Let’s call the second guy Football Fan. He has his son with him, who seems late teens/early twenties.

Football fan quickly clocks the two lesbians and I look over to see him looking at me. I look away and resume looking out the window on my side. A few seconds later I look back, he’s still looking. He looks away.

A few stops later the train is getting busy and quite a few more passengers have boarded, all male except for two young women in the seats in front of me, a row back. As they take their seats, a man in his late 40s leans across the aisle and makes conversation with the nearest girl. She politely responds and then turns back to her friend. The man looks her up and down several times before smiling and leaning back into his seat.

I assume they know each other but later they depart at different stops and it’s clear this isn’t the case.

One of the men who has boarded is facing the rear of the train, so can see me and my partner, even though he is three rows away, wearing a blue shirt. He’s around 70. Let’s call him Blue Shirt Guy.

He stares at us. We’re showing little affection to each other, at one point my partner puts her arm around me but for most of the journey we are either reading, talking or looking out the window.

Every time I look up, he is looking at us. Every time I meet his eye with my fiercest ‘fuck off’ stare. He doesn’t give a shit. Eventually he puts mirrored sun glasses on so I can’t see his pupil direction, but his head is turned the same way and I can feel his stare.

I go from meeting the stares of each one of these three men throughout the journey, til they look away, going from one to another so frequently that sometimes by the time I’ve gone though all three, the first man is staring again. Then Football Fan puts on dark glasses too. It’s still clear he’s staring but I can’t meet his eyes specifically, so I feel too uncomfortable to hold his stare. I feel overpowered. Powerless. Fucking fed up.

Then I hear a snippet of the conversation two young women are having.

“Yeah he isn’t into slutty girls, but he likes me being slutty, as long as it’s just for him.”

“Yeah” nods the second girl. They aren’t angry; their tone is matter of fact.

My heart breaks.

Not once does the young man who boarded the train with Football Fan stare at me or my partner. Maybe he’s so aware of his companions’ behavior that he’s learnt better. Maybe somewhere in his upbringing he’s been taught enough about respect not to do it. I hope to myself that his generation will be different. Then I remember, he’s the same generation as the two women whose boyfriends like them to be “slutty, just for him.”

A woman boards the train, possibly mid-40s, wearing a long, red summer dress. The majority of men in the carriage look her up and down as she walks a little way down the aisle.  She looks back at none of them, her gaze is to the floor as she quickly takes her seat opposite my partner. She puts on her headphones and closes her eyes.

So what do we say about this?

For me, there are two clear issues in this train carriage.

One of male entitlement – as if they have the right to stare at two women sat together regardless of whether it’s invading their privacy, to look a woman boarding the train up and down and objectify her regardless if it’s respectful or not and to force conversation on a young woman regardless if she wants it or if it’s age appropriate.

And the second issue is of a clear power imbalance. The young woman seemingly feels powerless to ignore the older man starting a conversation with her, even though she appears uncomfortable and keeps looking away and verbally trying to end it. I wonder if she also feels powerless to tell her boyfriend it’s not ok to ask her to be ‘slutty just for him.’

The woman in the red dress is clearly uncomfortable as she’s stared at by the men in the carriage and the only power it seems she feels she has is to quickly take her seat opposite two women, as far out of the eyeline of the staring men as possible. She closes her eyes, puts on her headphones and shuts out the world around her.

And then there’s me and my partner. I feel powerless to call these men out for staring, despite the obvious rudeness. I don’t feel safe to do so. I feel like it’s an act of bravery to even stare back at them, to meet their stares shoots adrenaline through my body. I’m incredibly uncomfortable and they hold the power to stop it.

I often hear the question “why do we need feminism?” and to that there are so many answers.

But here is one I’d like you to consider:

Because male privilege is so endemic in society that too many of us have become blind to it.

So I have a request. Today, notice when male privilege comes up for you, as a man, or as a woman. Because the first step in changing it is noticing it, acknowledging it. It is our conditioning. But we can change that. And it’s everybody’s responsibility.