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It’s time for them, too

January 30, 2018

One Sunday afternoon when I was 14, I went to a museum with my best friend to do some research for a joint history project. When we left, the normally thronging street was Sunday afternoon empty. As we were walking towards our bus stop, we saw three lads walking towards us on the same side of the road. My friend said we should cross to the other side. I told her not to be silly, that we had as much right to this side of the pavement as they did. I was right, of course, but it turns out she was, too.

As we were passing them, two of the lads grabbed me and started dragging me down the drive of a grand old building. The immaculate lawn of said building was surrounded by a high, wrought iron fence. I managed to grab one bar of the fence, pulled myself towards it, wrapping my arms through two of the bars and clinging to them for dear life. Out of the corner of one terrified eye I spotted my friend legging it down the road. I couldn’t believe she’d abandoned me. Actually I could believe it. What would I have done if it had been her they grabbed? Lovely to think I would have started smacking the third lad and screaming bloody murder, but I might have also run. The fight or flight urge is strong in everyone.

Did I scream bloody murder? No I did not, because every fibre of my being, every thought in my head, every ounce of strength in my body was concentrated on clinging tightly to those two bars. I could not loosen my grip, nor did I as one of the lads tried to pry my fingers free. If I lost my concentration for even a fraction of a second I knew I would be dragged behind that building, where something awful would happen to me.

Did I whimper? Plead with them to leave me alone? I don’t remember, but I’m sure I did. Bastards.

How long did this terrifying tug of war go on? It seemed an age to me, but it was probably no longer than a minute or two. The time it had taken my friend to run up to a woman who was walking up the road and beg her for help. After what seemed to me an eternity, I heard a voice calling, “You boys! Leave that girl alone!” And just like that, they were gone, running away up the road. The woman consoled me. I’m not sure who was crying more – me or my friend.

I wish I could say this was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it wasn’t. It was simply the first.

I did not report this incident to the police. I did not tell my mother what had happened. Would those three lads, no more than a year or two older than we were, have taken turns raping me behind that building or did they just think it would be a laugh to terrify me? I don’t know. I’ll thankfully never know. But I did know this: It was my fault. My friend had wanted to cross the road, but I’d said no. She’d been right and I’d been wrong, so what happened was my fault.

That taught me a lesson. Every unknown male was a potential threat to be avoided. Roads must be crossed. My guard must never be lowered. Any bloke who tried to chat me up at a party or when I was old enough to go to pubs got bloody short shrift. I only talked to males I knew and trusted.

Ah, there’s the rub. Trust can be misplaced.

Again there was no report to the police, even though this, much worse time, I could have provided name, address and telephone number. After all, it was my fault. I had accepted the lift home. I had agreed that stopping along the way to smoke a joint was a good idea. And apparently I had been flirting with him all evening. The term ‘date rape’ hadn’t even been coined back then. And ‘no’ certainly didn’t mean no that night. What happened to me was my own bloody fault. Trust no one.

And that, of course, is how sexual predators win. Over and over and over again. Because their victims all too often blame themselves. I shouldn’t have been there. I shouldn’t have been wearing that. I shouldn’t have had so much to drink. I must have done something, sent the wrong signals. It’s my fault. Mine, mine, mine.

Until not that long ago, victims weren’t the only ones assigning this blame. On the rare occasions that sexual assaults were historically reported, unless the victim had been beaten black and blue, police wanted to know why they hadn’t fought back. (Because you can’t, you stupid bastard. Because you are completely frozen with terror.) And, in the even rarer occasions when a sexual assault case went to court in those days, it was the victim who was on trial, not the bastard who’d raped her. No wonder so few women reported assaults, particularly if they’d been attacked by someone they knew.

Much of that has changed for the better. Police procedures are more sensitive. The previous sexual history of the victim is no longer admissible in court. Still, the conviction rate is appallingly low and deeply discouraging.

The first time I saw a mention of #MeToo posted by a friend on Facebook, there was a longer message about sexual assault and harassment before the final two words. The idea was to copy and paste the entire thing as your status. I didn’t want to copy and paste it all, so I just wrote “Me, too” as my status. By the time I went to Facebook the next day it seemed every woman (and some men) I know had said them, too. It was staggering. And rather inspiring.

I thought about writing this post then, but there were so many women’s stories appearing in the mainstream press and online that I didn’t see what difference one more would make.

I’m glad I waited, because, as pleased as I am that women are speaking out en masse, I fear the pendulum may be swinging too far.

I have never been sexually harassed at work. (I have been told by a number of men with whom I’ve worked that I scare the shit out of them, so that’s probably why.)

Although the thought makes me want to weep (or shoot someone), I cannot really imagine what it must be like for a woman to be told that, if she wants to keep the shitty minimum wage job that is barely keeping a roof over her children’s heads and food in their mouths, she is going to have to give some dickhead a blow job. It goes on every day. It is happening to at least one woman somewhere in the world as I write these words. It is wrong, wrong, wrong and, yes, the entire bloody world needs to be turned upside down and shaken until it stops.

Nor can I understand what it must be like to be a woman police officer, soldier, firefighter (or a woman working in any traditionally male-dominated profession) who is regularly subjected to insult, innuendo, threats and even assaults based on their gender. It is also wrong, wrong, wrong and has to stop.

That said, if my male boss or a male colleague slips a friendly arm around my shoulders and it doesn’t bother me in the least, is it, if they never slip arms around each other’s shoulders, demeaning me? I don’t think so. What if a female colleague, seeing the half hug, tells me (as one once did) that it was demeaning and I should not tolerate it? If I laugh it off, say I am perfectly happy to have anyone throw a friendly arm around my shoulders, am  I enabling demeaning behaviour? Seriously, am I? Feel free to use the comment section to offer your opinion.

Sexual assault, whether by force or coercion is unremittingly black.

But we surely must agree that there are some grey areas in the conversation we are currently having. And that’s where it gets tricky and opens the door for the inevitable backlash. There is a lot I could say about that, but frankly I’ll never say it better than Samantha Bee recently did.

Despite my own experiences, I freely admit that not all men are rapists at worst, misogynists at less worse. There are many good men (dare I suggest possibly the majority?) who have never, would never sexually assault or harass anyone. Good men who would intervene if they saw it happening. Not that they are likely to see it. The office groper keeps his hands to himself when there are witnesses. The predator hides in the shadows.

Any attempt to exclude good men from the conversation because “they could never understand what it’s like to be a woman” is a mistake. Good men are powerful allies. If they really don’t understand, help them.

Shortly after the Me, Too hashtag exploded, a friend of a friend posted the following quote from anti-violence educator Jackson Katz’s book The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help:

“I draw a line down the middle of a chalkboard, sketching a male symbol on one side and a female symbol on the other. Then I ask just the men: What steps do you guys take, on a daily basis, to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted? At first there is a kind of awkward silence as the men try to figure out if they’ve been asked a trick question. The silence gives way to a smattering of nervous laughter. Occasionally, a young a guy will raise his hand and say, ‘I stay out of prison.’ This is typically followed by another moment of laughter, before someone finally raises his hand and soberly states, ‘Nothing. I don’t think about it.’

“Then I ask women the same question. What steps do you take on a daily basis to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted? Women throughout the audience immediately start raising their hands. As the men sit in stunned silence, the women recount safety precautions they take as part of their daily routine. Here are some of their answers:

  • Hold my keys as a potential weapon.
  • Look in the back seat of the car before getting in.
  • Carry a cell phone.
  • Don’t go jogging at night.
  • Lock all the windows when I sleep, even on hot summer nights.
  • Be careful not to drink too much.
  • Don’t put my drink down and come back to it; make sure I see it being poured.
  • Own a big dog.
  • Carry Mace or pepper spray.
  • Have an unlisted phone number.
  • Have a man’s voice on my answering machine.
  • Park in well-lit areas.
  • Don’t use parking garages.
  • Don’t get on elevators with only one man, or with a group of men.
  • Vary my route home from work.
  • Watch what I wear.
  • Don’t use highway rest areas.
  • Use a home alarm system.
  • Don’t wear headphones when jogging.
  • Avoid forests or wooded areas, even in the daytime.
  • Don’t take a first-floor apartment.
  • Go out in groups.
  • Meet men on first dates in public places.
  • Make sure to have a car or cab fare.
  • Don’t make eye contact with men on the street.
  • Make assertive eye contact with men on the street.”

The stunned silence of the young men in that room is the place where many good men live. It’s time for them to park in well-lit areas and accept that fact of life their parents didn’t think to tell them: Women are afraid and have every reason to be.

It’s time for them to make sure their sons know that sex is nothing like internet porn (which they shouldn’t be bloody watching) and should always be consensual. No means no. An unconscious girl cannot give consent.

It’s time for them, as many have been doing, to take a long, hard look at their past behaviour. And hold their hands up if, on reflection, they realise they could have done better.

It’s also time for that exercise to repeated in every teenaged classroom on the planet.

“Time’s Up” is a good message. So is “It’s Time”.

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