ARE YOU AVIALBLE? (YES, IT IS SPELT INCORRECTLY!)

 

It’s 7am on a December morning. I’m checking messages across all my media. This is my best quiet admin time.

The phone rings, but I ignore the unrecognisable mobile number. They tried calling the previous night too.

I see my sister has messaged me and ping her a response. I wonder if maybe she’s changed her number for some reason and ask if that was her calling me adding it was either her or some “dirdy perv” wanting extras. I’m wondering if everything is OK with her, with mum maybe? So the next time the number calls at 7.25am I pick it up thinking maybe she needs to talk.

“Hello,” I say

Instead, I get a breathy man’s voice who I do not recognise, “Hello, who’s this?”

I can feel my Catherine Tate’s inner nan rising inside my head, “Ere we go!” but respond, “hello, who are you?”

“Who’s this?” the breathy man asks again.

“Well, you rang me. Who are you?” an uncomfortable prickle builds inside as my senses establish that it’s one of those calls. Colleagues agree with me that we have learned the subtle tell-tale signs over the decades. My senses are in quiet fight mode.

“This is James,” he says.

“Well James, why are you ringing me?” I say in no-nonsense mode.

“Your number was in my phone,” he says justifying his call.

“Well James, surely you should know why my number is in your phone.”

“Where are you?” he presses.

“Cornwall,” I state keeping it general

“What Newquay?” he asks in a sleepy, groany voice which I feel repulsed by.

“No. Listen James, I don’t know you. You don’t seem to know me. I suggest you remove my number from your phone. Bye James.”

I hang up and immediately block the number.

I sigh. I really could do without this waste of time and energy. I see James also texted me, badly, “Are you avialble? Call out or is it wrong number?…” Does James have any idea how this impacts my mood? Compromises my sense of safety even though I rationalise he is probably too lazy to follow it up with any further predatory type behaviour.

I ping my sister another message saying, “Ah it wasn’t you … I really did have a ‘ditty perv’ called James just call me up.” I’ve tried lightening the moment with one of our ‘familyisms’ as I call them.

James, what you didn’t think about in that moment was that I have other things to think about than your desire for sexual satisfaction. James, you could have been someone from the hospital saying my frail mum had been admitted again. James, it could have been my sister or brother for any number of concerning reasons. James it could have been my vulnerable teen who had recently left home. James did you think about how this impacts other men? How the sensitive ones feel they have to walk on the other side of the road to ensure a woman feels safer, or to change their route so as not to be walking behind a woman on their way home. This behaviour ripples more widely than you thought James.

I understand that Jame’s issues of a sense of entitlement are part of a deeper cultural shame where masculinity has been distilled into unhealthy “power” stereotypes and there is little scope for healthy emotional expression and femininity is objectified and devalued, seen as weak. This shame and entitlement was further highlighted in Ellie Flynn’s brave piece of investigative journalism in Dispatches, Undercover: Sexual Harassment – The Truth #C4SexualHarrassment. However, I still feel anger at James, at all the Jameses I’ve had to deal with. That my colleagues have had to deal with.

I want to be clear as Ellie was clear in the documentary that I gave no indication of wanting to offer anything sexual. I have worked meticulously over the years ensuring all my promotional material gave no inkling that I offered anything other than therapeutic massage. I mithered over every word and image on my websites to ensure that I came across as the professional therapist I am. However, much as Ellie and women should not have to think about how they dress, their routes home or going out after a certain time, I should not have to think so carefully about how I present my service. I don’t believe male body therapists would have to work so hard to prevent sexualised attention.

But still the calls happen.

I monitor the top search terms in my analytics. They make for eye-rolling reading. I won’t repeat them here or the internet may funnel more to me by mentioning them in this blog.

Interestingly, during the last two years, and in particular during each lockdown, the number of dodgy calls sky rocketed. Colleagues reported similar patterns. I put it down to “touch starvation” and “isolation” how some desperate men thought they would take their chances. Again, only thinking of their needs, not the risk they may put someone in. Not thinking for one moment that they are causing me more stress when my anxiety levels were high as they were with most of us during the pandemic. You know mum in hospital, family members having mental breakdowns, money worries, bereavements. You’ve all experienced your fair share of similar stress. I was stressed yes, but also furious!

So I channelled that fury.

I had noticed that when the government rolled out who could return to work, and under what terms for each industry during the pandemic, they used dated terminology that would only inflame the perception of the massage industry (frankly this doesn’t surprise me given the lack of respect this government shows and is a measure of their own debauchery in my opinion). This terminology also filtered down locally to councils embedding the seedy perception further.

I wrote to George Eustice my local MP and Cornwall Council telling them about the work I do in the community and across the UK, including the service and training I provide for people living with dementia. Language matters so I quoted government and council terminology such as “parlour” and “masseuse”, asking them to replace these terms with maybe “massage centres/providers” and “massage professionals”. I copied in my professional association The Federation of Holistic Therapists (FHT) to amplify my voice. The FHT collaborated with other professional associations within the health and beauty industry as well as government to change the wording. Language matters. George got in touch with a Paul Scully MP, Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, and I noticed the language in the government updates changed. Cornwall Council also took the time to change their wording.

So when you hear something that demeans women, be that strong person, call it out. If it doesn’t sit right when you hear, “typical man”, be curious. If you see an eyeroll when someone talks about not sitting within the binary gender “norms” be open-minded. There is more to gender than our external presentation or stereotypes. Let’s normalise a culture of respect. This work starts with ourselves. Collectively it’s about collaborating and joining our voices to send a strong message that respect is nurtured, needed and the next time I answer the phone or walk down the street I am confident that respect is a given. Now there’s a lovely thought.

Names have not been changed to protect anyone.