About a million years ago, a very-much-ex boyfriend threatened to come and visit. I’m not using the word “threatened” lightly: he wasn’t welcome, he knew he wasn’t welcome, and he was a genuinely scary guy with a history of violence (not against me) and severely erratic behaviour. So I told my housemates and we got on high alert, which was relatively easy. We had a system already in place because we’d already gone through the same damn thing with one of their exes who came back to haunt her. So we put our standard system into place and our Rottweiler in the front yard, and it all worked out fine in the end. But it wasn’t a fun day, and it made me think, because if something can happen once it can happen again unless the circumstances change.
Not so long ago, a self-defence instructor asked me what sparked my interest in the field. And I mentioned this-and-that, and then I said that my most recent flare-up in training was as a result of the concerns I had around said ex boyfriend. I was fed up feeling under-resourced to deal with him and the likes of him, so I decided to try and take steps to level up the playing field. His response was: “You shouldn’t be worried about someone like that. People that chaotic are unlikely to get organised enough to ever be a real problem.”
And I kept thinking that he has already been a problem. He has already shown up at my door. I have had already to rely on my housemates and a visiting Rottweiler for backup. I have already had to accept that, realistically, in a one-to-one situation between me and him, I’m outnumbered. This is not some irrational fear I’ve concocted out of thin air and the cobwebs in my brain. You are telling me that I shouldn’t have this concern because this is so unlikely to happen, when it already has. But we never got to discuss that, because he was too busy giving me the answer to my problem to actually pay attention to it.
I met my closest childhood friend when I was 6 months old and she was a newborn. We were inseparable through kindergarten and school. Then I left, and she stayed there, and, these being the days before emails and Skype and us having money for phone calls, we lost touch. A few years ago, her older brother was in the news. He’d killed himself in prison, where he was serving 16 years for killing his ex. After an allegedly tempestuous relationship, she’d finally left him. So he waited a few days, then travelled across town to her mother’s house, climbed up to a balcony, broke in, and stabbed her to death. He was the guy who used to give us rides to school in his car when all the other kids had to ride the bus. He was the guy who’d grudgingly let us borrow his records (Mike Oldfield, The Police, The Rockets). The first cigarettes I smoked were stolen from his pockets. He was a feature of my childhood as much as my stuffed toys.
A couple of weeks ago I read a letter to Captain Awkward from a lady who was being psychologically abused and exploited by her partner. The Captain’s response included a suggestion to consider contacting a domestic violence hotline. The rationale was that, although things hadn’t gotten physical yet, “If you can’t say “no” to someone without dreading the consequences, things have already gotten bad enough to be afraid.” I thought that was a clear, succinct way to put it, so I posted it on my page.
And I was told, in no uncertain terms, that it was a crock of shite. That people are often fearful without valid causes. That not wanting to face the consequences of doing something is not the same as not being able to do it. And I can’t disagree with any of that, because it’s absolutely true. But at the same time I can’t disagree with the fact that if you have reasons to believe that doing something will put you in the way of serious harm, or force you to cause someone else serious harm in self-defence, the fact that you technically can do it isn’t much comfort. I can’t disagree with the evidence, statistical and anecdotal, that the worst violence in domestic cases often happens around a break-up. Although that may be a relatively rare occurrence, it’s not statistically insignificant to those people it happened to. And yes, you might be able to resolve all your problem with most people by shooting them inna face… but that is likely to leave you with new problems.
One of the most brilliant, analytical minds I know in the self-defence field wrote an article about catcalling. He came up with a universal response to the problem designed to work in most situations. The problem with it is that, based on the response of all the women I know who took the time to comment (totalling over 180 years of combined experience dealing with catcalling in 9 countries over 4 continents, as well as different subcultures), it is unlikely to work very well. In fact, we all believe it has a very high likelihood of making things worse. We’ve come to believe this because we’ve all tried doing something very much like it, and it made things worse for us.
And we were told that we’re not understanding the issue. That there are so many factors, permutations, and commutations that it’s much more complicated than we’re making it. That we’re being irrational about the real chances of escalation – and what statistics are we offering, anyway? That we should look at it as a systemic problem. That the solution, if applied properly and consistently, would eradicate catcalling over time. So we explained that our main concern was getting home safe. That making the world a better place would be fantastic, but not at the cost of our skins. And we were told that our fears are misplaced, and no thought was paid to asking whether any of us had ever been actually assaulted by a catcaller… which at least two of us have. And yes, two assaults out of 180 years of dealing with a problem is practically nothing… but two assaults out of 6 women isn’t, though you could throw that number out immediately because the sample size is so minute… so we have no valid numbers. And because we have no valid numbers, our combined life experiences are somehow also not valid.
These are three stupid stories that don’t mean a thing. You’d have to be an idiot to extrapolate anything from them. They’re not statistically significant. The plural of anecdote is not data. We know this, because we have numbers and facts and rational, grown-up filters to look at the world through.
They’re also real stories. They have happened. They have really happened to real people who really got hurt, or were really in danger of getting hurt. But this people were women, and that changes everything.
These days, everything that happens to women becomes a feminist issue. Feminism has always been contentious, and third-wave feminism is, well, particularly jarring, so now everything that gets the F label gets treated differently. It becomes a political issue, a polarised issue, a policy issue. It gets caught in a fight between two extremes. It becomes everything but what it really is: the everyday problem of an everyday person.
So many people are so busy slaying the Feminist Dragon that they’re forgetting the real people behind the issues; the people who are getting hurt by those issues. They’re forgetting that, before those issues were made into banners and slogans and sound bites and applications for funding and legislation and less-than-perfect statistical studies and sometimes confusing calls for action, they were issues that routinely sent real people to hospital, or the morgue; that they still do. Worse than that, when those real people try to talk about those issues now, they can’t get heard. Hearing them would mean admitting that that mean ol’ Dragon isn’t all wrong about everything always; that there is a kernel of truth in some assertions. As if finding a middle ground, or admitting that even a broken clock is right twice a day, were signs of capitulation.
The really fun thing is that most of us who are raising those issues aren’t doing so to support the Feminist cause. It’s just not about that. Catcalling is not “a feminist issue” – it’s the issue my friend’s daughter is starting to face walking around town with her mum (oh, and she’s 11). Domestic violence is not “a feminist issue” – it’s the issue a lot of people of all genders face every day because to them “if you try and leave, I’ll kill you” is a creditable threat. Home security against wacko ex partners is not “a feminist issue” – it’s the issue that resurfaces for me whenever my ex’s life goes out of kilter.
Regardless of the genitals we sport, we’re just people looking for solutions to our problems. We just want to get home safe. We just want to feel safe in our homes – not being told that we’re safe, there there, don’t worry your pretty little head about it; but actually know that we’re safe enough, that our dangers have been reduced to a manageable level. We’re just asking for help, for support, for practical advice, and what we’re told is that our problems… aren’t. That we’re somehow misunderstanding the events of our lives. And it’s starting to feel crazy-making, and I don’t know where to go with this.