Like many, I’ve been taking advantage of the absorbing nature of books and articles recently to soak up hours like a sponge, indulging in far more news coverage than relatively “normal”, or busier, times.
It was my newly-formed Sunday paper habit that introduced me to a fascinating social experiment performed by the academic historian Charlotte Riley last year: the exhilarating Patriarchy Chicken.
It caught my attention as I had coincidentally adopted the same experiment, casually, in an attempt to alleviate boredom and inject a little unpredictable thrill into my daily walks around Bristol.
Riley invented the “game” to liven up a dreary commute. The rules are simple: “Do not move out of the way for men.” Riley attempted her experiment during London rush-hour; I can confirm it’s equally challenging on the pavements of Bristol, busy or otherwise. Men do not wish to cede ground, regardless of how much there is to go around.
I found that asserting my right to space does not come easily. The sense of self as an obstacle is overwhelming when faced with approaching pavement users. The instinct is to move, shrink, side-step and accommodate. It can be enlightening to deliberately make the unconscious conscious.
What are these patterns, neural pathways and behaviours, so habitual I act on them as impulse without a single thought, let alone a second? When faced with the common female experience here it’s hard not to see the behaviour as a product of socialisation.
Riley sums this up so well: “Men have been socialised, their entire lives, to take up space. Women have been socialised to give way, alleviate, conciliate and step to the side. This is so ingrained that we don’t even think about it.”
I’m sure many would agree this to be a commonly gendered pattern of thought and behaviour – while others (admittedly in the minority camp) argue the description is not commonly “male” but instead a certain type of man.
In a freshly-emerging world becoming ever-more comfortable with gender equality, fluidity and spectrums perhaps it’s more helpful to consider the need for common courtesy from everyone we share streets with.
We should all act in accordance with the needs of the people around us, actively ensuring there’s enough space for everyone.
This is the ideal. The historical and everyday reality for many women is much more akin to Riley’s experience, with uncomfortable encounters with men taking place on far too regular a basis.
Small aggressions, unwarranted comments and one-sided confrontations are a common occurrence on the Bristol-Bath cycle path. Male cyclists that exude a sense of inflated importance and ownership of the space, and those that go further, impressing a desire to dominate and intimidate.
Do these men shout at other men? I don’t know; but I do know that I’ve never, not on a single occasion, been shouted at by a woman. I may be prejudiced and blind to the behaviour of self-obsessed, space-absorbing women, or perhaps they are too busy directing angry ‘out my ways’ at male pedestrians.
In any case, I’m not looking for a gender-centric standard of behaviour: accommodating and enabling others to use public space comfortably should be a one-size-fits-all societal norm.
I’m not a cyclist but having recently acquired some shiny new roller skates I decided the cycle path would serve as a Covid-friendly location for safe extended practice: a smooth, flat surface away from cars, with plenty of space for everyone.
Still a little wobbly on the wheels, I take it reasonably slow: checking front and back for other path users, moving to the side where I hear cheery bike bells at my back, sticking to my lane and trying not to be “in the way”.
The sudden “oi” from close behind, with a “wake up” bellow as my single-minded assailant bombed past and disappeared rapidly into the distance was more than surprising.
The gentleman cyclist didn’t mind that I was clearly nervous, that there was ample space for us both, that I was “in my lane” and, anyway, moving so slowly and cautiously that anyone even half able to control a bike could easily pass by. Perhaps there are justifications for his sentiments but, even so, one question remains: why didn’t he use his cheery, non-threatening bicycle bell?
Shrug it off, you might say; an incident inconsequential in light of so many critical issues and events unfolding across our newscape every day. But within the current global landscape these petty acts of aggression, when encountered, appear as a microcosm of the macro level of violence happening around the world.
Each small act grows in significance, reverberates, incorporates and stands to affirm the sense of social injustice, inequality, environmental destruction and real-world violence felt so keenly at this time.
Now, out of necessity, we’re all reassessing how we move alongside and around other people; we’ve become more aware of the vulnerable, and of our own vulnerability. We give each other more space and are more friendly with strangers because we don’t want our physical avoidance to be misinterpreted.
So if routes, paths and behaviours are evolving, I’m imagining a new world where a confident cyclist approaches a wobbly skater from behind and thinks “there’s an accident waiting to happen, better not startle her or she might fall over. I’ll just ping my bell so she knows I’m here, slow down a little, give a wide berth and be on my merry way”; then skirts round and passes by as a sensitive driver moves cautiously past a skittish horse on a country lane.
A little bit of courtesy goes a very long way at the moment. Can we make that the “new normal” please?
Ursula Billington is an enthusiastic Bristolian adoptee with a background in practical sustainability, arts. nature and wellbeing projects and events. She currently divides her time between environmental causes and musical endeavours.
Main photo: Andy Catlin/Cycling UK