Thursday, April 1, 2010

I scare people

I sometimes wonder if vulnerable people think I’m going to attack them when I pass them by on a street.

I have mused about the Youth Bulge effect in different countries with high populations of young men and corresponding high rates of political violence. Statistically speaking the average young man is much more likely to assault someone than a grandmother.

Not me, though. I feel uncomfortable with raised voices, let alone violence. Nonetheless I happen to belong to the category of people most likely to attack others, and I sometimes feel that vulnerable people look at me with caution because of it.

Walking fast one night in Dublin once, minding my own business, I overtook a middle-aged woman. She gasped and recoiled in terror as I passed*. If I had brown skin I might have called her reaction racism. Sharing her ethnicity, I don't have that explanation: it was sexism and ageism. I was a little annoyed, but couldn't blame her. People ‘like me’ tend to be more dangerous, her discriminatory little gasp was well-founded, if silly and unnecessary that time.

This observation is inspired by a BBC programme I watched recently about modern radical feminists. One young woman, who often dressed in fashionable, attractive outfits, was arguing that she should be allowed to dress however she wants without having to expect hassle from men. Her appearance should not provoke a different reaction from men.

I wondered about this, because I realised that my own appearance – right down to things I’m not able to change, like my age and sex – does affect how others behave towards me. Unlike her, I take this discrimination for granted. Clothes serve a communicative function beyond their protective function: appearance communicates something to others and people respond to that.

If I accept that my age and sex change how people behave towards me, and that the clothes I wear further changes that behaviour, so should she. Within reason, of course. I don't expect to be pepper-sprayed in the face for over-taking some old lady on a dark street and neither should she expect panting weirdos phoning because she exposes the occasional ankle. But some altered behaviour, even if it is just a cautious or lustful glance, is inevitable.

*I did the same thing in Japan once, overtaking an old woman on foot. When I passed her she showed surprise, but no fear. The relative absence of crime made people more relaxed, which was really nice.


  1. This whole argument falls apart if you admit you were wearing assless chaps when you passed by that old woman.

  2. Hahaha, actually I was bleeding heavily from my nose, humming "The Teddy Bears' Picnic" and wearing nothing but a layer of cling film wrapped tight around my loins. Didn't think it was worth mentioning..

  3. Hehe, I'd pepper spray you if you over took me. Just so you know.

  4. Haha Sujji are you saying you'd pepper-spray me even knowing who I was?

    Shane *overtakes Sujji*
    Sujji: Hi Shane! *pepper sprays Shane* How are you?


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