My birthday approaches, and looking back on the first year of my fourth decade a jarring realisation strikes: my age means I’m now at lower risk of sexual assault. I’m simultaneously aware of my relief at the more favourable odds and how sick I feel that I’m thinking this. In my mind I see my eldest daughter and my stomach lurches – at eleven she’s poised at the mouth of the gladiatorial arena that is being female.
“GOOD GIRLS DON’T…”
This is where it gets heavy. Where the walls of female accountability close in, funnelling off the girls who’ll ‘be sorry’ from the ones who sensibly accept the dangers of this world – dangers posed largely by men – and modify their actions, their dress, their personality, ambition and self-worth accordingly.
We learn to hide, take up less space: “Cover yourself up!” “Sit with your legs together.” We’re reminded we’re hunted: “Stay together where it’s well lit, where there are plenty of people.” But anonymous hands in stores and streets still grab parts of our bodies we’re taught are private and sacrosanct. The first time I was groped I was twelve, and already I knew to feel dirty and shamed by it – already I had subsumed liability for avoiding sexual assault and thus, by default, liability for the act itself.
“YOUR SAFETY IS IN YOUR HANDS”
So we voluntarily tighten the restraints; if we play by the rules we’ll be safe, right? We don’t yet realise that all we’re doing is increasing our margin for blame. Now any omissions mean you were playing fast and loose with your safety – that you willingly chose to put yourself at risk. Consequently, growing up a girl means more and more things are off limits. As the world opens up for men it shrinks for women, to a space the exact size of your body and no more. Because, first and foremost, a body is all you are.
To the builders and passing motorists who catcall their appreciation of your tits, the tightness of your arse, and speculate if you’d prefer to be penetrated by their finger, fist, cock or random foreign object. When you’re fourteen. Still a child.
To your teenaged male peers who assert that a girl with a stiff gait or bad skin just needs ‘a good fuck’ to sort her out.
To the employers who hire you based on your youthful naivete and the assumption they can brush up unnecessarily close in empty spaces, whose fingers graze the inside of your leg under the table and slowly slide under your skirt while everyone else in the room is oblivious to your fixed stare and clenched knuckles.
To the strangers who are affronted when you’re not appreciative of their leering at your body, making suggestive remarks or buying you a drink. If it’s so well-intentioned why don’t they tell other men to smile?
“GOOD GIRLS DO…”
Experience has conditioned me to see men as a danger, and the lessons my parents taught have been validated over and over again. I grew up with domestic violence. I endured abuse at the hands of a man who, bizarrely, viewed his actions as a teaching aid, a perverse illustration of the dangers I faced.
Playing with make-up as a seven-year-old, my adolescent choice of clothes, walking the dog in the wrong place – all were construed as ‘acting like a slut’, ‘a bitch on heat’. I was ‘asking for trouble’ and all the awful names he called me and blows he struck were ‘for my own good’. The spectre of being raped by a stranger and ending up ‘dead in a ditch’ was a threat that could not be impressed upon me enough. And of course the anonymous gropers, entitled bosses and mouthy van-drivers all drove the message home: you live under constant threat.
You learn vigilance, staying tense and alert, suspicious of familiarity, analysing conversations for double entendres, innuendo and hidden meanings lest you be accused of inviting sexual assault. You lock the doors immediately you get in the car. You memorise self-defence moves and study TV crime reconstructions as though they were ‘How (not) To’ guides.
I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that?
Like Jason Bourne you know where your exits are, who’s walking behind you, and what you have on your person you could use as a weapon. Hyper-conscious when you’re the only woman in the room, when you’re outnumbered, or when you’re somewhere remote, like a soldier with PTSD you can’t always switch out of combat mode. It’s no exaggeration to say you exist in a state of undeclared war. And the ‘enemy’ is half the population.
Men like the two cyclists who accosted Brock Turner make me cry with gratitude, then ruefulness when I think how different the world would be if I could count on that from every male. It’s not my desire to tar all men with the same brush. I think most are simply oblivious because they have no comparable experience. But too many of us grow up learning that if we let our guard slip, any man could become someone to be afraid of. Just ask yourself: if this was your experience, if this was everyday life for you, how do you think you would feel?
I’m married to a hard-working, genuine, thoughtful man who is involved with the kids, the house, and is an amazing cook. Yes, it’s corny, but he really is my best friend. I have three children I love to death. I’m happy in my life.
Most of the time I can compartmentalise the messages from Hollywood, music videos, the beauty industry and crime stats – but not always. There are times when I simply can’t handle being intimate with the man I love, when I have to make an excuse, or leave the room because I just cannot override the need to protect myself from men.
How is that okay?
When everything in your upbringing, education, and experience has schooled you for this it’s a while before you question it. And when you do you’re told “This is just how it is.” (“deal with it”)
“We don’t live in an ideal world, honey.” (“how naive are you?)
“You just have to accept it.” (if not you’re one of those girls who are just ‘asking for trouble’)
Becoming a mother to two daughters taught me how fucked-up it was to accept that reality.
And why should they?
teach them to fight, not fear
Title image courtesy of shutterstock.com