A Teachable Moment

30 December 2015
A belated Merry Christmas everyone. Like many of you I've been eating, drinking and spending time with family, including my 60ish, conservative leaning, Liberal voting, talkback radio listening father. Now, he knows I'm a massive lefty, so keeps most of his views quiet when I'm around (and certainly I like to avoid political arguments at Christmas, in front of Mr G) .

Nonetheless, in a discussion over coffee and cake about the changing face of Sydney, Dad did mention that he finds the full face burqa confronting.

And as a straight white middle aged man, he's probably never been confronted by anything in public.

So I said "it's interesting that you find yourself confronted by someone in public, because as women, we are aware of risk and danger when we go out in public all the time, constantly, every single time. Because the risk of something happening is real, and that's why you don't sit next to the lone man on the bus, or cross the street when you see a group of guys you think have had a few drinks."

I could see he was incredulous, so I told him. I told him of some of the instances of street harassment and assault that I, my sisters, and women I know have faced over the years.

The man on a crowded Sydney New Years Eve who stuck his hand between my legs than vanished before I  could confront him.

The Seven-Eleven clerk who pocketed my sister's keys when she held out a loyalty card on her keyring to be swiped.

The stranger at Strathfield station who called me a "lezzo" when I refused his invitation to go home with him.

The time I was pulled into a laneway in Newcastle and groped.

The man on the bus who groped my sister, underage at the time.

The many times I was called some variant on "ugly bitch" for politely declining to talk to strange men.

That this sort of thing has died down for me in recent years as I've gotten older and worn a wedding ring, but there was the Saturday morning a year or so ago I was taking the bus to uni to get the peace and quiet studying that having a small child in the house does not afford, and a guy sat next to me despite that there were lots of empty seats available, pressed his body up against me and said "I just want to take you out of your comfort zone". I climbed to an empty seat and when I arrived at the university library, sat too shocked to study, tears of indignant rage in my eyes, thinking how dare you do that to...anyone.

And as I told him all this, I could see my father going from incredulous to shocked, and angry.

I explained this is what happens, in a culture that still sees women as a commodity of men. Which asks what a woman was doing out at that hour, or wearing that. Which will apologise to the male partner of the woman he has propositioned, not the woman herself. Which angrily accuses women of destroying the joint. Who points to this or that politician's untrustworthiness as being emblematic of her sex, not her character. In that culture, it's hardly surprising that so many men feel they can get away with harassing and assaulting women. It's not like they'll be called out on it. It's not like they'll be reported to the police.

"Why don't women talk about this?" Dad asked.

Well, women are starting to talk about it, now, finally; I've noticed a real increase in women sharing their experiences of street harassment since I wrote the post I linked about in December 2012 (not saying I had anything to do with it of course, just that the dialogue has opened up since then).

Let's talk about it more. Let's not be ashamed. If we're groped on a bus, let's stand up and shout "hey everyone, check out this creep". Let's talk about it, so we can all - men and women - be aware of what goes on and be able to step in to support anyone we see facing this. Let's make perpetrators know they can't do this, they can't harass and grope women in public, that they will be called out and shamed and held to account. Let's make them think, and stop before they even start.

Anyway, I wrapped up my teachable moment by saying "you know, next time you hear someone say men and women are equal under the law so we don't need feminism and feminists just want superiority, remember this is why I'm a feminist, this is what feminism is fighting for, because women are still facing this shit everyday".

I'm glad we had this conversation.

Edit: I received this message from a friend who read this post:

Every woman has these stories. The time I was called a slut in year 9 (I was 14) because I wouldn’t have sex with one of the boys. The time I was verbally abused (called an ugly cunt) at Summernats because I wouldn’t have sex with one of the men. The countless times where I’ve been felt up in clubs & bars. The times men have walked out of their way to come & sit next to me when there are other seats around. When I am at the shops & I’m leered at by other customers. When I am in a shop & the assistant stares at my breasts while putting my items through the till.

Every woman, I believe. I'd like to share our stories, so if you'd like to share, drop me a line. Of course you can be anonymous if you wish.


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