This one time, a Frenchman asked if he could date-rape me

This post is about gaining greater self-awareness. Not the sort of kinky self-awareness that you might infer from the title, you awful denizens of the Internet. No, this is actually about feminism and male privilege. If you’ve ever called yourself a Nice Guy or used the phrase “she should be flattered” then, honestly, me and you aren’t going to make the best of friends. You should stop reading now, I don’t want you to enjoy my story.

Abrupt change of subject: when I was a teenager I did parkour. If you’re not familiar, it’s basically jumping and running around made extreme. If you’ve seen Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first Bond movie, then you’ve seen Sebastian Foucan. He’s the bomber bond chases up and down and all around and he was one of the founders of the discipline. He’s not the Frenchman from the title of this post, he’s a different Frenchman. Here’s a video of me and him, I’m the wafer-thin teenager with the red t-shirt from about 5:30 in.

That’s my claim to fame is out of the way. One Wednesday afternoon I was off to a place name Byker, which is a rough-ish area of Newcastle famous for a 90s TV series that brought the world TV presenters Ant & Dec. It was a half-decent place to practice my parkouring skills (which were epic, see above), plus I knew a fellow traceur (that’s what we parkourists are called) that lived nearby. It’s serviced by a Metro station, so I got a Metro to said Metro station. Then I got off the Metro at the station, because that’s how that all works. I then left the Metro station via a ramp (rather than the lift or stairs), because unnecessary descriptive detail.

That’s when he approached, the Frenchman from the title you’ve all been waiting for. He was in his early thirties or so, with a bit of stubble. I’ll be honest, he didn’t tell me he was French, but he had the accent for it. He could’ve been from elsewhere.

ImageExcept Belgium. He didn’t have a moustache.

He approached me with a “hi,” which is English for salut, as I understand it. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to meet a friend,” I said.

“Would you like a drink?” he asked. I didn’t want a drink, as it happened. I told him as much.

“Come on, come back to mine [I hope you're reading this in an accent, by the way], have a drink. Listen to some music, get sleepy, feel nice,” he creeped. “Said” feels like too lacking of a verb.

“No, I’m going to meet my friend,” I said. I was seventeen and so somewhat naive about humanity. “One cup” was but an American cooking measurement to me at that point. But I knew exactly what he was after, and the French penis that getting sleepy and feeling nice would entail. Nevertheless, I was a ninja, highly practiced in the art of running away (see video), so I put my skills to use and crossed the road. Frenchman gone.

Skipping forward half an hour and my parkour friend hadn’t turned up. I found myself back in the vicinity of the Metro station. “Do you know any good coffee shops,” asked the approaching Mr Frenchman, who had spotted me and was now following me down the street. Whilst me of now would opt for “fuck off, you lunatic,” me of then was, “no, sorry” as I made my way towards the busy shopping street nearby. I was a bit frightened, honestly.

Monsieur Pervert was, he explained, new to the area and looking to make friends. By hanging around public transport and approaching teenagers with offers of alcohol at his flat. Isn’t that how the best friendships are made?

I eventually gave him the slip (in a very not-a-euphemism way) and left the area. I never saw him again, which is good. Also, I’ve never had unsolicited sexual attention from an older man again at any other point in the decade since. This brings me back to the first paragraph of this post. You see, I turned this weird and frightening experience into an amusing anecdote. I can, because by virture of my birth-gender and subsequent facial hair, I’ve only experienced this once, ’twas but an anomoly. But that, the fact that being accosted in the street by a strange older man became a lighthearted tale about my teenage years, is a shocking indictment of the guy privilege I, until recently, didn’t realise I had.

I’m a skeptic, hence the web address in your URL bar up there. Not sure about the number bit, I guess I just like numbers, so I thought I’d call myself one? Then i can be an imaginary number (surprise maths pun, boom!). I’m a skeptic that reads blogs, listens to podcasts, occassionally attends a meeting. Then a few years ago an awesome blogger and podcaster named Rebecca Watson was approached at 4am in an elevator by a dude she didn’t know. He asked if she’d like to come back to his room, for coffee. “Come back for coffee?” is about as “wanna fuck?” as a question gets.

She made a passing mention in a video of how this was creepy, and in the process unleashed a torrent of hatred and abuse from horrible, horrible men across the Internet. It turns out that skepticism is rife with misogynistic asshats. The experience I outlined above with the Frenchman is something women have the risk of having to deal with every time they attend a skeptical conference. Hell, they have to put up with worse. And if they speak up about it, they get threats of death and rape. Even the less violent creeps out there refuse to accept that propositioning someone out of nowhere is a really shitty thing to do.

That set me off on a path of learning of misogyny, privilege, rape culture et al that makes me staunchly a feminist. It’s amongst the biggest self-improvement I’ve undergone in recent years, for which I thank Rebecca and the numerous other feminists who put up with so much shit to raise awareness. If I was at risk of having to put up with creepy guys approaching me every day, French or otherwise, the result wouldn’t be a light-hearted anecdote.

My privilege is enough to make direct unwanted sexual attention less of an issue. That’s why we need feminism.

My life in awful jokes part one

I had cause the other day to tell the following joke:

“What do toilet paper and the starship Enterprise have in common?”

I didn’t have good cause to tell that joke because such a thing cannot exist. And yes, I’ve left the punchline off on purpose. If you don’t know you can abandon your dignity and Google it. It’s a pun based around shit because of course it is. I had to explain to the jokee (word: coined) that it was considered a classic when I was ten, and also why they shouldn’t just show me out of their house. I’ve always told awful jokes, so here’s part one in a series of posts revealing my life in jokes.

Joke 1: Ear-bleedingly awful knock knock jokes

My first post was about queuing so I’m now going to talk about rain. That should fulfil my quota of sounding painfully English for awhile. When I was around seven there were two types of break time in school (recess, if anyone from America is reading). There were dry breaks which entailed going outside and avoiding girls. Then there were wet breaks, which involved sitting on a carpet in a classroom. These occurred when it rained and I went to school in the North of England. It’s rarely completely dry around here. Please insert your own vagina jokes. Now insert your own “insert your own vagina” jokes.

Smashing, that was pretty hilarious. Well done. Now back to me as a seven-year-old.

The staff tasked with looking after us youngsters during lunch break weren’t teachers, they were dinner ladies. They came into school and supervised us (stood in the yard for an hour) whilst the teachers had sandwiches. Their sole qualification seemed to be no track record of murdering children, so when they got sixty of us in a classroom staring wistfully at the rain, they were useless.

If you have a group of sixty seven-year-olds (not to be confused with a group of sixty-seven-year-olds) then here is an idea on how not to pass the time. To the room, ask, “Does anyone have any jokes they’d like to tell? Put your hands up.” The only dinner ladies with access to blogs in 1993 were working at CERN so no-one had seen fit to grace my dinner ladies with that advice. Cue a dozen hands in the air and a clusterfuck of awful about to descend.

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Doctor.”
“Doctor who?”
“That’s right.”

That’s the best joke I ever heard in these sessions and even at seven I knew it was utterly benign, and I didn’t even know the word benign. Every single joke was a knock knock joke involving Doctor Who or toilets. Behold:

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Doctor.”
“Doctor who?”
“Doctor who down the loo.”

I heard that specific joke about nine dozen times. That’s nine dozen more times than the world loo has ever been funny, even when two thirds of the room has yet to master wiping after using one. Doctor Who down the loo with a shoe doesn’t help.

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Puh”.
“Puh who?”
“Haha, you said poo.”

I’d like to remind you this all happened two decades ago. But it happened every bloody time it rained. And the dinner ladies never once tried to entertain us with anything except asking us to take turns telling jokes to each other. I am never going to get over this. My friends and I genuinely believed the sheets in lasagne were made from snake skin at that age, there was literally nothing cutting-edge about the brains in that room. Especially not humour.

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Boo”.
“Yes, yes I am crying. On the inside I’m weeping like a penile ulcer. Which is a thing funnier than any of the jokes I’ve heard here today.”

Why did they do it over and over and over again? Was it some sort of psychology experiment? If so, it probably worked. I doubt I will ever have the answers, but I suspect it was a chronic lack of imagination in how to entertain children. Frankly, I would have much rather faced the rain. Back then I didn’t need to worry about wet weather at all, because I spent every lunchtime as a Ninja Turtle. Cowabunga!

The war on queuing

My local McDonald’s has decided to launch a one-restaurant war against the psyche of the English. Their general in this war is the branch’s manager, a middle-aged fellow who looks like he’s fighting his own internal battle. One day he’ll make the decision between ending it all with the fryer or murdering all of the customers. He looks like someone that’s middle-aged and working in McDonalds, in short. His battleground with the rest of England is the floor of the restaurant.

To understand this war you need to understand the English and our intense relationship with queuing, because we have one. The Visit England website introduces queuing as its first topic of discussion in their page on English etiquette. A poll of 5000 English people put queuing as our second most defining trait. Queuing, along with calling people wankers and spelling maths correctly, is our thing.

This McDonalds has about half a dozen tills. When we English queue, we care about fairness. First-come, first-served.  “Ain’t no motherfuckers jumpin’ no motherfuckin’ queues,” we might say, if we were cast as bad racial stereotypes. So what forms is a single queue, from the door of the store to the point just before the till area. I’ve done some art:

Mcdonalds diagram

What this means is that when a till becomes available, whoever is at the front of the queue can hop on over. The order of being served is based on order of arrival at the restaurant. Justice prevails. But the staff at McDonalds hate this. Hate. They don’t want customers queuing in that section between the seating, they want us to form into a number of mini-queues and take our chances. Don’t get me wrong, the people of Sunderland also love to gamble. There are at least seven thousand betting shops elsewhere in the town centre, sandwiched between pie-shops and empty former-shops. It’s a working-class-recession-hit city in bloom.

We just don’t want to gamble with order. We could get served after someone that turned up later than us, if we pick the wrong till. Dear god, we could be getting served first. That’s the sort of guilt that can break a person. Yet McDonalds is happy for our ingrained national mind-set to swivel on its very greasy finger.

The staff shout, “Can you use all of the tills please!” It’s the same tone of “please” that you’d find in the request, “Can you for once not shit yourself, please?” There is no attempt to conceal the vitriol they have for the customers that are once again failing to use the correct queuing area! I’m not going to go into the ludicrous scenario of yelling at your customers with unconcealed contempt. They’re lucky the people of Sunderland are so desperate to be fat (we’re the most obese city in the country). People will tolerate that shit for some calories.

It’s the supervisory staff that are at fault. They go through an odd thought process: “Why should I act like a pleasant human being whilst performing my customer service role? The cattle are being uncooperative.” They see their power over the naïve teenage till-monkeys as de facto power over the entire realm of that restaurant. They’re the fucking emperor, baby, and you’ll queue how they tell you to queue.

It’s a losing battle. We’ll queue the just way, the fair way, the English way. Bizarrely, the staff trying to enforce their perverse queuing agenda are all themselves English. What did McDonald’s do to extract their queuing instinct? I daren’t imagine, though I dare say it involved a spatula.