I remember my first time.
I was in the science lab at school asking a male teacher a question, when I noticed his eyes momentarily flicked down to look at my breasts.
It was a split second, and immediately afterwards his eyes met mine again.
Initially I was taken aback, but I didn’t dare let on. There was no break in conversation and we continued talking about the task at hand. I guess I went on autopilot, while I slowly realised what had just happened.
I was probably around 14. I was an ‘early bloomer’ to quote my mum, and so was used to boys my age commenting on the fact that I had boobs. That seemed normal and even acceptable but it was the first time I’d ever experienced unwanted attention from a man.
I didn’t say anything. What would I have said? That I think Mr Whatshisname looked at my breasts. No one would have believed me for a number of reasons, or so I thought: he was a teacher, no one else saw and I was wearing a loosely-fitted school shirt and tie, not a corset. After all, it all happened so quickly.
Fast-forward to the present day and this weird awkward and totally inappropriate moment (which I’ve never mentioned to anyone before btw) came back to me, some fifteen years later, after a new YouGov survey revealed how perceptions of sexual harassment vary between both gender and generation.
While most of the results are depressing but predictable, others surprised me, perhaps naively.
The most stark difference in results between men and women was around the subject of men looking at women’s breasts. Specifically while 57% of women saw this to be sexual harassment, just two fifths (43%) of men thought the same. Two fifths.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re all guilty of looking people up and down when we first meet them. But you know when a man looks at your breasts. Sometimes it’s sneaky peek and other times it’s deliberately blatant, and I’m sure a lot of the times it might even be subconscious.
But to outright deny it as being sexual harassment and to assume you have a right to look at, comment on or touch a woman’s breasts is plain wrong.
I started thinking about how over the years having random men look at your breasts is another accepted part of being a woman. Wear a strap top? You’re asking for it. Have big breasts? They’re only human. Shirt unbuttoned? Stop flaunting your curves.
Whenever it happens, and any woman will tell you once is enough, you can’t help but feel powerless. The violation is so instant, so difficult to prove and easy to deny, that you just carry on.
We talk a lot about the “male gaze”. From early in our lives we learn this first-hand. Women are to be seen, to be looked at, to be desired. When this is non-consensual, this is a violation plain and simple.
You might remember your first time but the rest is just a blur, because it doesn’t matter how many times it happens the shame is still yours and so is the embarrassment.
As we’re seeing with historical allegations around sexual harassment and assault creeping out of the woodwork and years of complicity within a wide range of industries coming to a head, these attitudes towards women are almost institutionalised.
The generational breakdown of this study only serves to underline this. The older the age group the more likely they are to accept sexual harassment as the norm.
There is one piece of good(ish) news from the study? Of the 18-24 year olds, 61% of men and women thought looking at a woman’s breasts was sexual harassment. So that’s something to hold on to. Things are changing. Slowly.