Last week, when it all blew up in the media about violence and women, I started reflecting on how many acts of violence I had experienced personally. I was shocked to add them all up and to recognise how these experiences shaped my view of the world.
My mother cautioned me from a young age not to take sweets from strangers, not to talk to them, not to go with them because ‘bad things can happen’. I learned to be fearful of the intentions of others.
Aged 3 – 8 I experienced ‘Inappropriate touching’ by my grandfather – I learned that love comes at a price and that you can’t trust men. I didn’t tell anyone.
Aged 11 A Man stopped his car going in opposite direction, when I was walking 200 yards from a bus drop off to my grandmother’s house, and tried to get me to get in, but I ran. I learned my mother was right, and that it wasn’t safe to be out after dark on my own.
Aged 12 A Man exposed himself to me on a train – I learned not to sit in single carriages, not that they exist anymore, when travelling to school. This happened more than once.
Aged 14 In a Tunisian market – a local man in robes picked me up by putting his arm between my legs and lifting me off my feet and ducking down an alleyway in plain sight of my parents. A tour guide caught him just in time. I learned to fear travelling without chaperones.
Aged 15 – 18 I developed ‘boobs’ on my dancer’s body. I went out and socialised a lot with my older (very protective) brother. Still, men of all age groups repeatedly touched me, groped me, tried to have sex with me at social occasions. I believed this was normal.
Aged 15 I was attacked by a motorcycle gang in a pub carpark. I ran into the road and tried to get someone to stop – they stopped and then drove on despite my obvious distress. I fought, bit screamed and eventually an older girl they knew stopped them. All but one backed off, I bit his hand and he punched me in the face. He tried to attack me again a few weeks later 1:1 in woods. I didn’t tell anyone because I was ashamed it was my fault because of how I was dressed and because I was at a pub my parents didn’t approve of. I was bruised and beaten but afraid of the consequences of speaking up. I learned to stay silent and ‘get on with it’.
Aged 18 – 20 Men repeatedly ‘hit on me’ in bars, or tried to have sex with me at the end of evenings out. Several of my friends were forced to go further than they wanted. One was raped. We all stayed silent. I learned to fight them off with words. I fell in love with an older guy, who slept around and put my health at risk. I believed it was ok to treat me that way and eventually married him.
My 86 year old grandmother was attacked on a bus because she said the wrong thing and was hospitalised. I learned that women of all ages are vulnerable.
Aged 20 working in Turkey on a yacht, a local man attacked me in a Market – he hit me and pushed tomatoes in my face when I wouldn’t buy them, my then husband hit him and was almost arrested. I saw a man abusing some kittens, throwing them in the sea for fun, and terrorising his toddler. Again, my husband intervened, I learned to believe that I needed men to save me. I felt paralysed with fear in the face of so much violence.
Age 23+ finally in the world of work I learned how to hold my own amongst men, despite outrageous flirting, innuendos and occasional put downs or not being taken seriously. I climbed the corporate ladder despite them. I learned to use humour to diffuse difficult situations. I learned to stand up for myself as no one else would.
To summarise, I learned to believe the following :
- It isn’t safe to trust
- Love and affection comes at a price
- Sensible women don’t go out in the dark on their own/to far flung places alone
- Sensible women don’t wear provocative clothing unless with groups of other women or a male protector (and they generally don’t like provocative clothing on ‘their’ women)
- It’s OK for men to say and do things that sexualise me
- It’s OK for men to touch me inappropriately as long as its friendly fun and they ‘don’t mean anything by it’
- Certain men will protect me – but when they leave I feel unsafe.
I have no doubt some of my early experiences wounded and damaged my feelings of psychological safety, whilst others made me more resilient and able to navigate my way. I do believe ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ but why should we have to go through this? Sadly, I know that most women have had multiple experiences of the same sorts of things. I am not unique and many women have endured much worse. Sadly, the things I learned are the messages many women have taken and it constrains our ability to fully experience the world. I now believe it is safe to trust, that love doesn’t usually come with a price tag, that I can wear what I like and will speak up when men overstep the line. I don’t need men to protect me. The only one I do still let constrain me is that I don’t tend to walk alone outside at night and there are definitely places I choose not to go because I don’t deem them safe. I am not sure what would change these perceptions for me as I also don’t want to live in a police state where every move is monitored.
I ‘brought up boys’ and I know they are respectful of women and would step in if needed to challenge the inappropriate behaviour of others. I don’t believe these things are caused by all men but by a small proportion and it isn’t enough to just not do it yourself. Women have to take men on the empowerment journey with us. Men are victims of their personal experiences as well but without the fear of physical violence, or at least to the same degree. Their life experiences and the way they were taught about women, and the interactions they have with friends at school, their parents, the media, all affect how they view the world and their subsequent interactions with women. They may potentially do things that scare women even if its unintentional. I remember once crossing the road to avoid a gang of scary young men in hoodies on a London street and then realised it was my future husband’s younger brother and his friends who were lovely and only 15 but they really scared me. We know that some behaviours are more deep rooted and sinister. Nevertheless, I choose to believe that most men are good and want to do their best in this imperfect world.
This is not a personal problem but a systemic one. Many men are asking what they can do to help. They need to engage in the conversation and actively notice when things are not ok and to say so. To root out where inequality exists in their own worlds. Not to be patriarchal heroes and saviours but just to play their part in societal change.
We all need to watch the stereotypes we are playing into. We need to think about the messaging we give to our children and to the world about how we deal with systemic abuse. I am learning all the time as I unconsciously see the world through the lens of ‘middle class mother of boys’ which is not always OK. I heard a female presenter of my age say on breakfast television ‘I just learned to get on with it but younger women just wont have it will they?’ The younger guest said ‘yes but they shouldn’t have to be the only ones fighting back’. I think she’s right.