Hugo Rifkind

The Chinese water torture of everyday sexism

16 March 2013

9:00 AM

16 March 2013

9:00 AM

So I’m outside Finsbury Park tube station, the other morning. There’s a girl in front of me, white, twentysomething, rosy-cheeked, long and ruddy hair bouncing in the brisk spring air. Not that I’m, like, noticing. From behind me, overtaking, comes a tall, handsome black guy, smartly dressed.

‘You’re so lovely,’ he booms, as he draws level. With her, that is. Not with me. Alas. ‘You’ve made my day,’ he says. ‘It’s wonderful just to see you.’

‘Oh,’ she says, blushing red. ‘Thank you.’ Then he pulls out one — but only one — of his earphones and for a few paces they chat before off he strides. And all around us, people start craning their necks to see who this girl was and come to their own silent judgments about whether she was really as lovely as all that.

Not a great story, really. No edge. But I keep thinking about it, because the whole scenario just seemed so… transgressive, somehow. Should it have done? She didn’t seem to mind, but maybe that was the result of a lifetime of conditioning, etc, masking a true horror at being singled out while minding her own business on the way to work, and her looks offered up for contemplation, as though she were a painting, or a vase. Did you see that article Petronella Wyatt wrote the other day? Apparently she didn’t mind being actually groped by Laurence Olivier, Robin Day, Albert Finney, Lord Lambton and virtually every other man she’s ever met. I think briefly spoke to her once, at a Spectator party, but I kept my hands to myself. She must have thought me terribly rude.


It all sounds so old-fashioned, that’s the thing. Something is happening to women. They’re manning up. The case is being advanced, persistently and credibly, that a cultural change is only half-made. I’m sure it’s relatively rare these days, at least in the office, for a chap to put hand to bottom, or even eye to chest. There’s a new fight going on, though, and that seems to be to make us grasp exactly why we shouldn’t; forcing men to comprehend that it’s not just a bit annoying for many women, this sort of thing, but culminatively closer to terrifying. A while ago, I started following a Twitter stream called @EverydaySexism, in which women tally their survival of wandering hands, off-colour remarks and attempts at assault. Individually, often, they don’t seem a big deal. ‘Quit moaning,’ you might say. But Christ, so many of them, one after the other, day in, day out. Like a Chinese water torture.

I don’t think I’d have ever sidled up to a stranger and told her she was pretty. Not really my style. It’s only recently, though, that I’ve come to grasp that if I did, it would not be an event in isolation. It would sit alongside the bus driver’s ‘love’ and the eyes of the silent, spooky cashier in the shop where she bought her newspaper, and the man too close on the train, and the boss who asks her to make the coffee, and the husband she’ll one day have who expects her to quit work for the kids. And yet, at the same time, I still don’t know if she minded. And it’s complicated, also, by how very thrilled I know I’d be if a woman — even one who looked like Robin Day — should ever lean in close and say such a thing to me.

Labour’s Eastleigh triumph

Regardless of the way they got 9 per cent of the vote and came fourth, I think the Labour party might look back upon the Eastleigh by-election as a triumph. Because since then, the right of the Conservative party has gone insane. And with gusto.

Sure, a combined Tory/Ukip candidate could have romped home there. But everybody knows most of Britain doesn’t look like Eastleigh. Or don’t they? There’s a selective myopia to it; the Tory right finding an excuse to care more about the things it cares most about already. I’m not going to get shrill about this; you lot do what you like. But shifting the party from the centre will make for one that the people already in it like more, and hardly anybody else likes at all. You’ll see.

The mystery of Bitcoin

A while ago, mainly because I was researching an article about how you buy heroin on the internet, I read about an emerging -internet currency called Bitcoin. I can’t begin to understand the maths of it, but it functions without banks or any central body, in a peer-to-peer fashion. So, if I’m in -Britain and you’re in, say, Vietnam, I can theoretically transfer any number of Bitcoins to you instantly, with hardly any transaction fees, and without either of our governments knowing it has happened. Chances are, your tax authorities would only spot it when you downloaded yours into dong.

I forgot all about Bitcoins until a couple of weeks ago, until I read an article on an obscure tech blog about the way they’ve rocketed in value lately, by a factor of three since January. So I spent a hundred quid on some, and didn’t spend any of it on heroin at all, and today it’s worth £141. Which is pretty good in a fortnight, right? Some enthusiasts reckon Bitcoin will change the world, others thers are nervous it might turn out to be a  Ponzi scheme. I wouldn’t buy any more, because the latter lot are probably right, but I would quite like to know what the hell is going on and I don’t really know who to ask. Can somebody cleverer than me write an article about this please? Much obliged.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments

    Unfortunately the encounter you describe WAS transgressive.
    Some young black men take advantage of white women’s reluctance to appear racist to be inappropriately familiar with them.Think this girl would have tolerated such an approach from a white man? Think this man gave a second thought to how embarassing or threatening she would find such a comment from a complete stranger? Think he didn’t like watching her squirm with embarassment?
    This was an assertion of dominance; of power; “I can do as I please with you; I am invading your space verbally and physically. I am sexually threatening you while pretending to be complimenting you. Pretend you like it or you are a racist”
    I once worked in an office with a young black colleague who specialised in flirting with the female staff.They all put up with it until a very confident new girl arived,. When he tried his “charm” on her she put him in his place in no uncertain terms at which he went into a sulk and called her a racist.
    Luckily the incident “lanced the boil” as it were and an increasing number of female staff finally confessed that they disliked his behaviour and he was told to stop.
    A certain kind of young black man takes advantage of the wish not to be racist in this way, which gives ammunition to the bigots who hate blacks in publications like this one.
    Ask yourself; what sort of man goes up to a total stranger and pulls a corny line like this?

    • Debi L.

      Of all the men who have come up to me, a total stranger, and pulled corny lines, sexual advances and outright harassment in my life, the only thing influencing their race has been the demographics of the place I was in at the time.

      Women are cultured to be polite to ALL men, because perceived rudeness can escalate into something scary very quickly, no matter who the man is.

    • Michelle Mangal

      I find your comments offensive and out of context. I am black and many white men have similarly spoken to me, complimenting me on my looks for no apparent reason or previous conversation. How do you know that she was squirming with embarrassment? She might have liked and/ or felt able to deal with the situation. I feel that the author was merely commenting on the race of the people involved but not making an issue out of the fact that a black man complimented a white woman- where as you are demonising black males- what is this, the 1950s? Would you be as offended if a white man had complimented her?

    • timinsingapore

      I fear, , you may be the kind of person only to willing to find transgressive behaviour in the people round you. Basically I think you are writing paranoid tosh; and as to ‘what sort of man goes up to a total stranger and pulls a corny line like this?’, the answer might be, provided it goes no further, ‘someone with a charming and generous personality’.

    • Louise McCudden

      What absolute bollocks, race has nothing to do with it. Heaps of sexual harassment from white men happens all the time. Chris Rennard? Jimmy Savile?

    • Simon Semere

      Sorry but you sound like one of them losers that sits in the corner upset because someone is talking to a girl he likes.

    • StephanieJCW

      This is such a spectacularly bonkers comment I cannot stop laughing at it!

    • Stevie Mac

      For you information, white guys approach women like that too and the women generally act like the woman in this anecdote did.

      The black guy wasn’t trying to take advantage of anything to do with race. He was just a chancer with the balls to shot. He probably gets a fair few phone numbers like that. You should be respectful and back off if somebody seems genuinely uncomfortable but you’ve got to be in it to win it.

      As long as there are young men, they will try to make connections with young woman they don’t know. Sometimes the female involved likes it, other times she doesn’t.

  • Hugo Rifkind

    It’s kinda depressing that the first comment under this article is one as ridiculous as yours.

    • Jenkins Junior

      There’s a thing called the blockchain which some people describe as a distributed ledger, it uses Proof of Work, if you know what a checksum is, you can understand proof of work. All Bitcoin transactions are public, they are shared on the P2P network. When Bitcoins are transferred they are digitally signed using Public-key Cryptography. Understanding Bitcoin is no easy task, it requires time. Took myself 3 months. Patience, some reading up on Public key cryptography and HashCash and you’ll figure it out. Need any help?, maybe better to email me rather than replying to my comment.

    • Jenkins Junior

      I think you requested some article: I recommend this:

  • Alexandra Wilson

    I applaud you Hugo for your realization and I wish more men made the same connection.

    I shall help enlighten you further, the kind of interaction you witnessed is probably not too bad. In fact that is as good as anyone is going to get, for the following reasons.

    1) He spoke to her face and like a human being

    2) He did not make a comment about any part of her body

    3) He did not foist his conversation or company for any longer than was necessary and then he left her alone.

    Too often the kind of attention women get is deeply dehumanizing (comments about our bodies, referring to us as “that” or “it”), however this man did not do this.

    However, far too often in my experience and in those of most other women, interactions like these may start out innocuous seeming, but can quickly turn nasty.

    I have had friends been aggressively groped by men who seemed polite and nice, I have been verbally abused and physically restrained by men who I was polite to but made it clear that I did not want to talk to them. Every time a man approaches you or compliments you like this the fear is there that this will be another man who pesters you for your number, or follows you off the bus or starts calling you a “bitch” or a “dyke” if you decline to speak to him.

    A strange man approaching me in public is not only a nuisance but also a potential physical threat and I wish more decent men realised this. It is not a personal slight on you, but I have no idea what your intentions are and my safety has to come first.

    As a result of this, many women are constantly on their guard in public places and would prefer not to be approached or spoken to at all by strange men. This may seem like over-caution or paranoia, but I have had too many scary and unpleasant experiences to act otherwise.

    It is good that more men do seem to be catching on to what the daily realities of life as a woman are like.

    And as regards the comment below, it is nothing to do with race, I have been harassed by men of all colours and types. In fact it is most commonly white, middle class men who have the greatest sense of entitlement to my time and attention and are often the most likely to be verbally abusive if I deprive them of it.

    So I say to all decent men out there, be aware of the affect that your presence can have on women, particularly on women alone and at night, and particularly on public transport.

    If you do strike up conversation with strange women or compliment them, keep it polite and respectful, keep your physical distance and do not keep talking to her if she seem uncomfortable. And for gods sake do not start calling her a “bitch” for not wanting to talk to you.

    • Tim Reed

      “So I say to all decent men out there, be aware of the affect that your
      presence can have on women…”

      Geez, we’ll all stay indoors so as not to frighten you, precious. Such oppressive monsters, with our mere presence. Most ‘decent’ men are just going about their business, without the need or the inclination to make you the centre of their attention at every pace. Finger wagging permission seeker.

      • Alexandra Wilson

        Oh whine harder.

        All I’m asking is that you bear in mind such things as personal space when it comes to women.

        So for example, if you’re walking home late at night and find yourself walking behind a woman alone, don’t stay behind her, try to walk past her (but giving her a wide berth) or even cross and walk on the other side of the road.

        It’ll make her feel a lot safer, and means she doesn’t have to try and judge whether you are a threat to her or not. Call it the equivalent of giving up your seat for someone on crutches, you don’t need to do it but it’s the decent thing to do and makes life, easier and safer for the people around you.

        When I am alone, particularly late at night, every man that I see is assessed at least briefly to see if I judge him a potential threat. Women are constantly taking precautions for our safety, on a bus we’ll sit up the front near the driver, on the train we’ll walk down the carriages till I find one that has several other people in it, including other women.

        I’ve stepped into the road to avoid walking through a group of men who were taking up the entire pavement so they would be less able to grab me.

        Women are in the double bind of being blamed when we are assaulted or attacked because we “weren’t careful enough”, but when we are careful we are accused of being irrational, paranoid or sexist towards men.

        Decent men understand this and do their best to ease the fears that women have.

        It’s not a personal attack on men, it’s just the reality of my life. I don’t know you, I don’t know what you are about to do, you are bigger and stronger than me and if I am on my own you are a potential threat.

        That’s life, and it’s time men woke up to this fact.

        • Tim Reed

          Life must be traumatic for one so self-involved, expecting everyone within your vicinity to know their place within the privilege hierarchy, and behave with according obedience.

          It’s not the call for consideration that grates, it’s the self-righteous expectation of compliance and the “know your place’ attitude.

          The world doesn’t revolve around your pretentious neuroses.

          …and men can define themselves, thanks all the same. They’re not required to submit to your criteria in order to be bestowed with the honour of ‘decency’.

        • Sue Ward

          Alexandra, I am not unsympathetic to your comments but do you not worry that by your argument you give strength to the arm of those who would stick us on pedastels, cage us in purdah or beneath burkas for our own ‘protection’?
          Personally I want people of both sexes to treat me with the same respect and consideration I show them and most importantly to treat me as an equal not as some fragile flower. I will certainly not be driven off the streets, off public transport or out of the workplace by my own fears!

          • Arthur Nichols

            ‘So I say to all decent men out there, be aware of the affect that your presence can have on women, particularly on women alone and at night, and particularly on public transport.’ – ‘Decent men’ should be aware of this already IMO.

            Sue, some fears are well-founded. Your view is respectable. But don’t let your pride jeopardise your security!

        • Simon Semere

          That’s understandable, as a man I do the same thing, naturally assess any potential threat around (especially at night), and same way I cross the road if I sense I might be seen as a threat; it must be a lot worse for women, never thought of that.

  • paul snow

    Just a bit about Bitcoin.

    Bitcoin does one thing, and only one thing well: It allows you to pay someone over the Internet Bitcoins without an Active third party.

    Here is a blog where a bit more is explained:

    I hope this helps. If you have any questions, leave a comment on that blog!

  • timinsingapore

    Reads as a totally innocuous and rather flattering episode to me. Race is of no relevance here. It speaks volumes that Rifkind should mention it in the first place. Considering all the time and effort that women (and men) expend to appear attractive, I cannot quite see what grounds for complaint there are in succeeding. Yes, there are certainly social constraints to the manner in which being attracted should be expressed, which is a quite different matter.
    Incidentally, as a youngish man I was twice the recipient of unwanted advances in the backs of taxis – by white, middle-aged women. And in office circumstances by one black and one Indian middle-aged woman. I just told them not to be so silly. No offence taken by any party.
    I think Mr Rifkind is being boringly PC, on-message, ’empathetic.’

    • Louise McCudden

      Gosh yes, empathy, how terrible and boring! What is the world coming to, people having empathy for each other. It’s the thin end of the wedge.

    • Carly Florence Green

      the thing is, you told them ‘not to be so silly’ and they left you alone. try telling that to someone that’s potentially twice your weight and a foot taller. sometimes if a women tells a guy she’s uncomfortable with his attention, he’ll understand and leave her alone. however, more often than not, if you tell a guy you’re uncomfortable and ‘please leave me alone’, he’ll often become aggressive and sour, which is terrifying when you’re just trying to get home and you have no idea what he’s capable of. i’m not saying all men do this, god no, but just bear it in mind.

      • timinsingapore

        As I said, Carly, ‘Yes, there are certainly social constraints to the manner in which being attracted should be expressed, which is a quite different matter.’ No one, not even me, is condoning threatening behaviour. But an appreciative interaction between the sexes is not automatically threatening behaviour.

    • Stevie Mac

      Are you sure he was being 100% serious, without any irony? Chinese water torture? Come on!

  • Guy De Boer

    Transgressive? I suspect rather it was one of the last signs we live within a civilization with a certain amount of institutional self confidence. One worth living in. One where a polite compliment does not lead to a fear of imminent groping. We’re supposed to accept that, because more and more men appear to act like cads, that society has become coarsened, that we’re then to abandon much of what made it good in the first place? The lady in question had two reasonable reflections available to her; relief that it did not go further or, it’s nice to know men still find me attractive. We used to tip our cap in such encounters.

    A certain type of feminist mindset holds that we’re all supposed to walk around like automatons pretending there are no differences between any of us, and certainly not the sexes. The author’s final reaction is indicative for it reveals that we all dress and present ourselves for the approval of the opposite sex. Absent women, men would generally wander about looking like they’d just finished either an oil change on the auto or a trip up the Amazon. Women have been known themselves to devote some amount of time towards making their appearance pleasant. Does it make them sex objects? Of course it does, for we’re of opposite sexes. And there is something worse than being regarded as a sex object; not being regarded as a sex object.

    Sadly, I’ve learned to save my compliments for those little old ladies I run into, rather than waste my time on their younger sisters who seem to think a compliment nothing more than a “hit”. And those little old ladies seem almost universally pleased that someone noticed the results of the time and effort they took to put themselves together. If we never see each other again, I’d like to think that, in the one moment we had together, I left them feeling better about themselves, the day, and polite society. And, like the author, I’m pleased upon those rare occasions when I’m on the receiving end.

    • Louise McCudden

      You can walk around doing whatever you want and being a sex object and being as “different” to women or as “man like” as you want. What right does that give you to tell others how they MUST behave, and what behaviour they MUST accept and put up with?

    • Stevie Mac

      The old ladies are just glad that somebody still appreciates their appearance and the young ladies don’t want sexual attention from an old guy. That should explain your experiences.

  • Zola the Gorgon

    Hand to bottom and eye to chest still happens incredibly frequently in the workplace, as is reported far too often in the everyday sexism blog.

  • Simon Semere

    White girls can be very sexually-forward, and let’s not talk about when they have drinks in them, jesus christ.

  • Liz

    Well done Hugo. This article is a breath of fresh air.

    Particularly in the Spectator which really needs to hear it.

  • Liz

    There’s a definite “spot the difference” game to be played on this magazine. When it comes to the women, it’s overwhelmingly about sex, mockery and sidelining. Demonstrated in the images, the language, the angle, the subject-matter and the tone.

    The press and media does a huge amount of harm to women in this country through its sexist propaganda. Such a pity Leveson barely addressed that and now it looks like the watered down version the editors are rejecting won’t address it at all.

  • Arthur Nichols

    On ‘The Chinese Water Torture…’; When I see a pretty girl, sometimes I smile (briefly). If I’m lucky, I get a smile back! 🙂 Simples.