Chapter 7: Wandering hands
Prague, 24 July, 1966—The most seductive way isn't always the best. This is what three young Czech girl hitchers found out yesterday. Tired of watching the cars stream past them along a road near Marianskelazne, the three 'nymphs' displayed themselves in the costume of Eve. But the drivers were either prudish or cowed by their wives and the strippers had no success. The only vehicle to stop and give them a life was a police car.
The Agence France Presse correspondent no doubt filed this story as a silly season joke item, but it illustrates, however hyperbolically, the element of sexual display in girls hitch-hiking.
The popular press is fully awake to this idea. Under the headline WHO GETS THERE FASTEST? the Evening Standard wrote:
Awareness of sexual display is strong among female hitchers. Some see their visual sex appeal as an advantage—it gets them lifts quick. Others see it as a danger and try to avoid wearing eye-catching clothes when hitching. Here are two examples of the less inhibited type of girl hitcher:
These two accept their sex appeal, enjoy it and use it to their own advantage. Other girls, just as conscious of sexual display when hitching, are more cautious:
I think any girl who goes hitching on her own in a mini skirt, a very miniskirt or anything like that is just asking for trouble. I mean, a chap goes along the road, sees a girl walking down the road in this mini—I mean, what's he going to think? When I hitch I like to wear trousers all the time. (Student nurse)
The more sexually up-tight a woman is the more she shies away from the self-display she senses when she sees girls hitching. So for instance this letter in the Times (14.5.64):
Some girls cover prodigious distances. Have their parents any idea what this entails? To witness a tawdry line of British girls, standing in ones and twos, self-consciously apart and strategically placed just inside a country's border at the point where cars are halted for customs, is most humiliating to behold. These girls make no attempt to hike, so they wait, quite simply, to be picked up. But first they must be selected (their very numbers enable a driver to be choosey) and so they submit to the appraising gaze of strangers comfortably insulated in Mercedes, Renaults, Fiats and Seats.
The same type of feeling is expressed by a 29 year old teacher looking back nine years to a hitching trip to Greece with her then boyfriend:
We took the train in Yugoslavia and then I felt better .... I didn't like standing by the edge of the road thumbing and being exposed to the looks of the people in cars—I didn't like that, I felt, um, I felt I was exposed and sort of eyed by everybody.
Female display and its power to stop cars is central to the 'decoy method' of hitching. The method is well described by a Cornish AA man:
Beatniks very often travel in pairs, the female attracting or should it be distracting the motorist, the male somewhere in the background out of the way sitting on a couple of old kitbags.
An Australian who hitched in Britain in 1967-8 invented a new variation of the decoy technique. Whenever he wanted a lift he set up his 'lure' by the roadside: a destination placard supported on what appeared from the distance to be mini-skirted legs. In sad fact they were two dimensional, cardboard and balsa-wood!
The "Decoy Method"
Sexual display prior to getting a lift is only the lead-in to the central problem of a woman hitch-hiking which is the intimate tete-a-tete situation between male driver and female hitcher in a small steel box cut off by speed from the external social restraints on sexual behaviour. The way I've put it is extreme—this is the architypal, fantasy situation that many girls have at the back of their minds when they discuss hitch-hiking. Obviously in real life the majority of girls thumb in twos or with a boy friend.
The female fantasy world round hitch-hiking is given beautiful expression in the Yugoslav film Happy Gipsies by Tomislav Pinter. The hitching sequence shows both what a girl deeply desires and what she horribly dreads in the lift situation.
The gipsy teenager is on her way back from Belgrade to her village. We see her waif-like in a cement landscape, thumbing pathetically as lorries pound over the fly-over. A huge refrigerator truck with trailer whooshes to a stop. As she climbs in the tired looking middle aged driver comments to his handsome mate:
Here's something to keep us awake.
The co-driver gently caresses her from the front seat into the bunk behind. She melts. When they piss-stop the older man now tries to get into the bunk on top of her. She bites him. He drags her out of the cab, kicks her down into the mud by the roadside and finally locks her up in the refrigerated trailer. There she travels in the icy cold until they get near her village. She is dragged out and thrown unconscious into a ditch.
The gipsy girl wants the warmth, the acceptance, the comfort of the cab high above the road. She deeply desires tender penetration by the young co-driver. At the same time one immediately feels her revulsion against the older man and his attitude of routine rape, the corollary of which is the sadism of kicking her into the mud, locking her in the fridge and dumping her in the ditch, all violent images of rejection. This scene encapsulates the two opposite poles of the female fantasy about hitch-hiking, the desire to be taken by a man and the dread of being raped and discarded.
This dread of rape comes up again and again in early teenage female essays. A 16 year old in a Liverpool dockland school wrote:
I have hitch-hiked but I don't agree with it because I have a fear of men. I would only want to hitch-hike if there were a gang of girls and if the person who stops was by themselves.
Quite a lot of girls said they would only hitch if there were a large number of them doing it together:
Hunting in a pack is not only objectively much safer but psychologically the girl no longer feels she is getting the lift, she is just a particle in the group, no longer a sexual object. Amazingly, quite a lot of female hitchers put the idea of 'mob hitching' into practice. I once picked up four girls who had travelled to Germany and back in a group. This was partly at their parents' insistence, but they said they had actually stuck together all the time, which suggests they agreed with the idea.
Fear of rape is the negative side of the female fantasy about hitch-hiking and, being socially acceptable, it is easy for a girl to express. The opposite pole of the fantasy range, as it is sexually unrestrained, is harder for women to give expression to. Hence the comparative vagueness and fumbling with words in the example that follows:
It's just the adventure, I mean, anything might happen. I can understand it as regards men ... whether I subconsciously wished something to happen ... or perhaps I didn't really ... I was just disappointed if it didn't happen. Well ... I suppose every woman wants herself to be noticed ... more than noticed by a man, and in a situation like that ... I suppose really you are inviting it.
The sexual wish fulfilment fantasy comes out most clearly in cases of sexual blackmail by female hitch-hikers: a man picked up a girl alone and when they had been going about half an hour she opened the front of her coat, uncovering a badly torn dress. She asked him for ten pounds or else she'd scream. He was so angry he stopped the car and threw her and her luggage out on the spot.
The two girl students who told me of the above incident thought it unlikely the blackmailer would have acted for money alone. They both felt she must have been deriving a fantasy sexual satisfaction from the situation. They felt she must have had a fantasy motivation at some level of consciousness to be able to overcome initial timidity. As one of the girl students commented: There are easier ways of getting £10.
Cases of sexual blackmail by female hitch-hikers belong to a category of crimes or attempted crimes that rarely come to the attention of the police or get publicly reported. Of the eight instances I have stumbled on in the course of research only one is a press cutting. This was a Sunday Mirror story (8.4.69) about two teenage girls trying to blackmail the Suffragan Bishop of Crediton, the Rev. Wilfred Westall:
I think they must have thought me fair game when they realised I was a parson.
If the theory of sexual wish fulfilment to partly explain the motivation of teenage blackmailers should seem far fetched it may be worth looking at the problem through sober lawyer's spectacles. Wigmore's On Evidence (1939 ed.) has this to say about such cases:
There may well be more instances of sexual blackmail in hitch-hiking than hit the headlines but all the same it can't happen that often. The astonishing thing is that the 'perilous female' has mushroomed into a myth among male drivers. Time and again one hears of men who don't give girls lifts for fear of being falsely accused. There's one very odd thing about this male feeling: men often say they might pick up 2, but they would never pick up 1 girl alone because of the special dangers involved. But in the case of a false accusation 2 girls corroborating each other's evidence are much more of a hazard than 1 girl lying on her own. The only way to explain this illogicality in male thinking is to suggest that here too there is a sexual wish fulfilment fantasy at work. The driver imagines what he could do to a girl alone and then goes on to imagine how she might expose him. It is his sexual fantasies that make him think giving a lift to a single girl more risky than picking up 2. In terms of a legal action brought against him 2 girls clearly represent a much greater threat than one.
So far a lot has been said about the mental and fantasy aspect of sexuality in hitch-hiking. What actually happens in practice? Of the 186 people picked up in my van and questioned 25 were girls. Of these, 10 said they had had trouble with men drivers. In the setting of the van, with other people around them, it was impossible to get detailed information from all these 10. This is what a few of them volunteered:
Of the 186 people I picked up in the van 161 were men. Of these, 4 said they had been solicited by women drivers and 36 said they had had unpleasant encounters with homosexuals. For more than a fifth of the men to have been solicited homosexually seems a remarkably high number until you realise the comparative safety of this form of approach from the homosexual driver's point of view. He has the dominant social and psychological position and the lift situation guarantees him anonymity. Several respondents pointed out that they tended to be picked up by queers late at night, after buses have stopped running. One 20 year old student said he had been picked up in Germany by 7 homosexuals in a row. The homosexual's propositioning may be simply verbal, but it can develop into a physical struggle, as Rodger describes in A Hitch In Time:
The end of the story was that the driver burst into tears, begged Rodger's forgiveness and drove him on to Paris.
To return to the 162 men: apart from 4 solicited by women drivers and 36 by homosexuals, 2 schoolboys had been picked up by a 30 year old man who begged them to beat him. He wanted the boys to act out parts in a masochistic punishment fantasy. This is the story as one of the boys told it and as I took it down in long hand. The incident had taken place the day before:
This bloke picked us up. He said he had got into trouble at work and saw we could help him out. When we got out at the end of the lift he looked tense. He said he'd stolen some money at work. His employer had said he wouldn't prosecute him but he should tell his father what he had done. His father was out of the country. He told his uncle who said he needed curing because he had behaved like a schoolboy. We said: 'How can we help you?' He said: 'You could cane me.'
It is reasonable to suppose that on a country-wide scale the odd hitch-hiker must have been picked up by every variety of sexual pervert and invited to join in the relevant perversion. Apart from the caning incident I have only come across two other cases of perverted behaviour. The first, reported in the Telegraph (18.9.68), involved two Middlesborough girls hitching to Bordeaux. They were picked up in Le Havre by a young man and driven to a nearby wood. He drew a knife and told them to strip so he could take sexy pictures. The two girls attacked him and the noise they made brought the police. The man apparently made a practice of taking English girls to the wood and photographing them.
The other instance of perversion I have come across is phenomenologically more harmless. Two girls got a lift from a young man who asked how they would defend themselves if attacked. Finally he dared them to tie him up. He stopped the car and found a suitable tree out of sight of the road. They tied him up so tight he couldn't break free. They had to untie him. From then on he became sullen and said hardly a word until they got out at King's Lynn.
Sexual blackmail, homosexual soliciting and the procurement of victims for acts of perversion are the silent dangers of hitch-hiking Every now and then a lurid murder or rape story splashes across the headlines and provokes editorial and police muttering about the foolhardiness of hitching. Not to mention these crimes would be to produce an unbalanced presentation of the sexual aspects of hitch-hiking, but on the other hand to give them the same weight as the media do would be equally unbalanced These are the crimes connected with hitching which cannot be hushed up by perpetrators and victims, while other things can. Such crimes are very few and far between, given the volume of people who hitch in Britain each year.
Perhaps the least psychologically twisted in this category of crime is the sexual murder committed almost unwittingly, in a moment of panic and passion. Such was the case of the 26 year old lorry driver, Albert Osborne. He picked up a 61 year old woman, Mrs Barber, from a bus stop during a bus strike. He drove off the route agreed and wanted to make love to her. She began to scream which provoked him to panic. He knocked her out, strangled her with a handy piece of string and then shoved the body out by the side of the road. In July 1958 he was condemned to life imprisonment
A more horrifying crime that filled the papers in 1963 was the holiday time murder of Barbara Herron. She and her friend, Joan McNulty, both 16 year olds, had hitched from Liverpool to the Gloucester area. 3 men pulled up to give them a lift. The 3 were White, Blunt and Webb. Sometime later, while Blunt was at the wheel, the car turned off the main road and, 2½ miles down a side road, stopped. Blunt took a .410 from under the seat and went off with Webb. In a moment they were back. Covering the girls with his gun Blunt ordered them: 'Take off your trousers'. He had clearly agreed with Webb that he would rape Joan while Webb took Barbara. Webb dragged Barbara out of the car. She bit him—he picked up an axe from the back of the car and laid into her wildly. He battered her skull in and later she died. Webb also attacked Joan with the axe but she was left with enough life in her to drag herself to a nearby farm house for help. All this while White had tried to dissuade his friends, but he was covered by Blunt's gun. The fact that the three men were driving round with an axe and a gun suggests they were looking for some sort of trouble but nothing came out at the trial to imply that they had actually set out to rape female hitch-hikers.
Cases of premeditated rape using lift-giving as the method of securing victims do sometimes get reported. A salesman called Jay Judd and his girl friend, Ann Watts, were sent to prison in 1968 for conspiracy to commit rape. They had apparently cruised around in his car with the intention of picking up girls between the ages of ten and fourteen. Ann Watts told the Central Criminal Court:
Ray did not have a thought for the consequences. It was obvious that having kidnapped a young girl and done what was intended, it was clear to me that the child would have to be killed to silence it.
Watts had earlier stated to the police:
We began looking round when we were out in his car. We once saw two hitch-hikers and Ray said they would be ideal. He said we should pick the girls up. He was just like a maniac when he talked like this.
The last few pages have dealt with sexual attraction in hitch-hiking, with the fantasies of girl hitchers and male drivers, with homosexuality, perversions and sexually motivated crimes of violence. All this has its place but it must be stressed that out of the 186 people I picked up and questioned in the van, less than 60 reported having been sexually approached while hitching, and a lot of the people picked up had thumbed many thousands of miles. In other words nearly three-quarters of the people questioned had not been solicited sexually while thumbing.
To return to girls: only a minority hitch alone; most of them thumb in twos or threes or with a boy friend. In this way the majority of girls who hitch are not exposed to the self-evident dangers of being alone in a vehicle with a male driver.
Even these dangers can be exaggerated. Some drivers pick up a girl hitch hiker on her own simply because they like feminine company and without even half-thought out designs on her person. A few probably even pick women up out of a sense of gallantry. A girl student at Cambridge makes the point that the degree of danger in hitching alone for a girl depends on her own state of mind and outward behaviour while doing it:
I think girls hitching on your own ... it can be ... dangerous ... but I don't know. I find this is a question of the way you act when you first get in. And I mean if you're on your guard and not over-encouraging I think you're very unlikely to get any trouble unless you've picked up some kind of a maniac.
Most girls seem fully aware of the latent dangers in the hitch-hiking situation but, like this one, they keep them in proportion:
A thing that has in the past perhaps made lorry hitching less dangerous for ordinary girls, 'thumb babies' in drivers' slang, has been the existence of road prostitutes, or 'scrubbers'. I say 'in the past' because truck drivers report that there are many less scrubbers around than there used to be.
According to Edith Solomon who investigated the transport cafe scene in the mid-fifties, the scrubber was quite common at that time. She was the lowest grade of the prostitutional profession, ranking below the city girl who at least had a room or a flat to sleep in. Solomon found that road girls were nearly all trying to rise into the category of town prostitute or that they were drop-outs from it. She pin-pointed 5 types of scrubber:
Girls on the run from approved schools, hiding on the roads.
This is what Solomon had to say about the scrubber's life 20 years ago:
Scrubbers sometimes pick up their clients in transport cafes but this is not always possible as many cafes don't tolerate their presence. Another method is to thumb by the roadside, a covert form of soliciting. Lorry drivers seem to know exactly where and at what time of day you'll see a certain girl standing.
While scrubbers of the type Solomon describes are declining in numbers, lorry drivers speak of a new kind of 'lay' you can get on the roads. This is the girl travelling say from Glasgow to London. She gets a through lift from a driver and lets him make her in payment for the journey, a kind of fare. She's not a prostitute in that she doesn't ask for money and doesn't do this every night. She merely pays for the ride in casual sex. She's a half-way house between the old type scrubber and the 'thumb baby'. She stands in the mainstream of English puritan morality by refusing to accept something for nothing. No beggar she.