Dear Readers, is there anything more pleasant than to walk amongst the oak and hornbeam trees on a sunny morning, minding your own business and enjoying the song of the birds? Well, if you went down to the woods in the past few weeks you might have gotten more than you bargained for, because here in Coldfall Wood we’ve had one chap exposing himself to women walking past, and another man bursting naked from a bush to confront a woman going for a wander by herself. Personally, I think we do ourselves no favours by ignoring these events on the basis that the person is just a mildly comic ‘flasher’. As someone who was, as a young woman, barged into a ditch in a wood in Winchester by a completely naked man and then chased through the undergrowth after I managed to get away, I can vouch for it being terrifying. I can still remember how he smelled, and how I got welts across my arms after running through nettles and brambles. I remember thinking that I would never see my parents again, and that they wouldn’t know what had happened to me. When I finally found some people and told them about the attack, they remarked that there were some very strange people about these days, as if I’d come across someone talking to themselves or wearing a funny hat. It still makes me furious to think about myself as a young woman, shocked and bloodied, being told that what had happened to me was so was so insignficant.
Even if you are not touched, to be suddenly confronted by someone performing a sexual act that you have no wish to witness. let alone be part of, is a kind of violation, and I suspect that the shock and disgust that it engenders is part of the thrill for the perpetrator. I know of women who’ve responded wittily and disdainfully to such events, and well done them, but in my experience men who have these kinds of compulsions will choose the mildest, most inexperienced and often the youngest of women to torment. Ask your young friends, your daughters, your nieces what’s happened to them. You might be horrified.
But what is saddest, and what is sometimes difficult for people who haven’t had such an experience to understand, is that such events have long-lasting effects. After what happened to me, I could never again enjoy being on my own in an open space without being vigilant. Believe me, when I’m in the woods I know if there’s someone around, if they look suspicious and if I’ve seen them before. In a way it makes me feel closer to the animals for whom this is their everyday reality – no sparrow or wood mouse can afford to relax their guard, and it seems that the same is true for women. I’m not saying that I’m terrified of harm every time I walk out of the door, but the possibility of something happening is real and present to me.
Nor does it stop me doing what I want to do: I walk where I want to walk, when I want to, and if sometimes I have to steel myself to get out of the door, then so be it. I made a decision all those years ago that I would not let someone stop me from enjoying the thing that gives me the most solace, the natural world. And maybe these days I’d be one of those stern women telling the miscreant to ‘put it away’. We need to reclaim the woods, because I think some men take it for granted that they are the normal inhabitants and lords of these places, and that women are an anomaly. The woods actually belong to everyone, and we have as much right to walk unmolested as anyone else.
It’s important to report incidents of indecent exposure to the police – sometimes people need treatment for their compulsions, or you may stop someone from graduating to doing something worse. Believe me, if someone does this to you, the chances are that they”ve done it before and are going to do it again, and the next person might be even more vulnerable than you are.
And chaps, if you’re walking in the woods and you see a woman on her own that you don’t know, think twice before rushing up behind her unexpectedly, and be sensitive about engaging her in conversation, especially if there’s no one else about. You might only be being friendly, but she is probably already considering you a potential threat, however lovely you are (and I know that the men reading this blog are kind and gentle human beings). Just be thankful that, generally, you can walk in the countryside without anyone waving their private parts at you, or trying to elbow you into a ditch. You don’t know how lucky you are.