Trigger Warning: this article mentions sexual assault and harassment.
Ever since I was a child I have loved surprises; the anticipation, the excitement, the revelation. Recently, when visiting a relative I was welcomed with “I have a surprise for you…sit down.”
The TV was turned on and there was my wedding day unfolding before my eyes. It was 1971. I did not know the film existed. My cousin had found it in her grandfather’s trunk which contained numerous reels of film. Recently, she’d had them digitalised. In a flash, I was transported back in time from 70 to 22 years of age. There I was in my family home, surrounded by siblings and parents; at the church with my father and husband; amongst friends and family. Pleasure and warmth flooded my entire being.
What a surprise!
My father died 37 years ago. My memory of him has faded and been replaced by the static form of a photo. But there he was alive, walking, talking, laughing, affectionate with his typical warmth. Gentle tears of appreciation filled my eyes: appreciation for him as a loving father, a good man who believed in his daughter’s capacities and potential, always supportive and encouraging.
For days, memories ebbed and flowed. I could see the world once more through the eyes of a very young woman, embarking upon a future filled with possibility and the unknown. Several days later, I watched the film again only to be met by another surprise. Here was footage of a male guest, John, friend of my in-laws, walking across the road to the church, buttoning up his jacket over a rotund belly, exuding a sense of entitlement.
Flashback: It is my father in-law’s birthday dinner. I am 19 years old, sitting next to their old family friend, John. Suddenly, I feel his hand move under my dress, up my thigh to my groin. I freeze in shock and disbelief. Without a word, I leave the table and find refuge in the bathroom. Nothing has prepared me for this moment. Knowing I cannot spoil the party, I quietly return to the celebration, subdued and eager to leave. All I can do is find another seat, far from him.
Fast Forward 50 years: Yet another surprise…a friend had a similar experience with John. She was just 13 when this family friend fondled her breasts. Until now, neither of us had spoken of these unwanted sexual advances. I imagine there is a trail of women who were targeted by John. I wonder how they fared.
I was silenced by the cultural norms regarding women: do not make a fuss, be polite. But what would I do if I were 20 years of age in today’s world? My immediate response is, yes, I would have a voice. But it is difficult not to be influenced by the experience and wisdom accrued over 70 years. You would hope that in today’s world every woman would be free to speak up, remove the hand, disclose to people around them what was happening to publicly shame the perpetrator. Yet the #MeToo campaign suggests not. Numerous women had been exposed to various kinds of abuse and only under the collective cover of #MeToo have they found a voice.
Over the last few weeks I have shared this story with many women: my 14 year old granddaughter, my daughters and daughter-in-law, nieces and friends. They all felt confident that they would have a voice. In my daughter-in-law’s words:
“I would say very loudly: remove your hand from up my dress immediately. And I would probably pepper those words with a few profanities.”
But who really knows how they will react in unwanted, surprising circumstances? Surprises by their nature elicit instinctual responses. These responses are often based in fear, particularly if the advance is unwelcome or threatening, and the context is one in which a hierarchy of power prevails.
To have agency in these unwanted situations, we need to develop a voice and a language as a set of skills. And these skills need practice in a safe environment. A safe place, whether in the workplace, school room, or informally, would encourage discussions regarding unacceptable behaviours; encourage the exploration of ideas and experimentation with language, creating the opportunity for practicing appropriate responses. From this sound base, a voice of clarity and immediacy would be more accessible when taken by surprise.
It is our responsibility to keep the conversation alive and to ask the question: “how do we educate people to respond clearly and immediately to sexism in any form?”