I learnt it wasn’t OK for me to eat ice-cream in public when I was twelve. That’s when I realised it, anyway. It might not have been OK for me way before then, and I missed it because I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t really understand what was going on even at twelve; I just noticed that, when my mom took me out in the evening for an ice-cream and a stroll, men were looking at me weird. Grown-up men, not kids like me. Where in the past they might smile and ask me if my ice-cream was nice, now they stared intently. Hungrily. As if the sight of me eating ice-cream was something extraordinary, entrancing. I didn’t understand it, but it made me very uncomfortable. Then there was a time on the bus when this guy sat right in front of me and my mom and stared at me all the way home, and when we got off the bus looked as if he might follow us, and I decided that ice-cream was just too stressful. So I stopped eating it.
I didn’t discuss the problem with my mom. I’d already learnt that some guys were not OK, and I’d already learnt that I couldn’t get any help about it at home. The year before, when I told my mom that one of the teachers was weird, that he kept making the girls sit on his lap to talk about our homework even if we didn’t want to, she told me that I was wrong. That he couldn’t mean anything by that. Later on he pushed it a bit further with one of my classmates who’d been held back a year and was starting to wear a bra already, and her mom descended upon the school baying for blood. My mom convinced the school not to do anything – not only to not punish him, but to not investigate the incident, to pretend it never happened, because “it could ruin his career.” And who’d want to ruin a paedophile’s career in education, hey.
The year after I quit ice-cream, I went back to school with a bra of my own, and that’s when the problems really started. My schoolmates couldn’t get enough of talking about my boobs. The men who spent their lunchtimes hanging around the bar I had to walk past to get home couldn’t get enough of talking about them, either. Then again, I was starting to look like those ladies in the comics that the newsagent in front of the school displayed next to the kids’ comics – those other comics, with the really poor quality cover art and a lot of sound effects like “sssssssssslurp!” I really resented my body then; I hadn’t asked for this. All I wanted was to stop these changes; to reverse them, if at all possible. I thought all the bad things that were happening were my body’s fault. My body was making the bad men do the bad things. I tried to cover it all up, but it didn’t seem to help.
That year a schoolmate decided that he was interested in me. I wasn’t interested in him. I wasn’t interested in anybody – I was still playing with My Little Ponies. He kept trying to grab me and I kept scratching his hands off me, so one day he got mad and decided to push me down a flight of stairs. It didn’t work very well for him: I stuck my nails in the back of his neck, so as he pushed me four ribbons of skin came off him, and he screamed and let go. That was before the start of class, when we were still outside. When we got in, the first teacher spotted the bleeding, and my schoolmate started screaming and crying because I’d hurt him for no reason, and I narrowly avoided getting suspended. Nobody asked me why I’d “attacked” him – not in school and not at home. I think they didn’t want to know, because then they might have to do something about it.
The experience was useful, though, and not only because all the other schoolkids learnt to leave me alone. A couple of years later, when it turned out that one of the local catcallers had found out where I lived and was waiting for me in the empty parking lot in front of my house, and he jumped me, and I scratched his eyes out, and he started to scream and cry because I’d hurt him, that didn’t bother me one bit. The police bothered me, later on, when they told me that I couldn’t make a report because “nothing happened.”
Turns out that screaming “I’LL LET HIM FUCKING RAPE ME NEXT TIME THEN” in the middle of a crowded police station is not OK, but they’ll let you get away with it if you’re fifteen.
They didn’t even take me home. On the plus side, they didn’t contact my family, either, so I didn’t get into any trouble. Walking home from school after that was scary for a long time, though.
That was also the year I saw my first adult penis. I saw it on the train, because a guy decided to take it out so he could masturbate in front of me. That was my first introduction to the fact that sitting down pretty much anywhere was not OK, either. Although standing up on public transport isn’t safe, because people’s hands have a way of landing where they shouldn’t, sitting down seems to make you more of a target. Public parks in particular seem to sprout as many penises as they do flowers.
And so it carried on. Over the years, with practice, I learnt how to deal with it. I moved to a better place. Now, on the rare occasions when some guy decides that it’s meant to beeeeee and doesn’t seem to believe that I’ve also got a saying in this, it’s usually more of an inconvenience than a cause for serious alarm. If they catch me on the wrong day, then it’s free target practice on my part. But the awareness that this could be a bad one who could catch you out never goes away; it’s always there, in the background.
I’m routinely told that my problems are made up. That my concerns are either imaginary, or my own fault. That I’m overestimating the danger I’m in, or underestimating my abilities to manage it. That the way I present myself to the world is causing the problems. If I looked less feminine, more confident, more formal, more traditional, less pugnacious, less in-your-face, less obvious, more feminine, then the problems would all go away. I imagine complete invisibility would be the silver bullet. I point out that these are not just my problems – that scores of women experience the same issues day in, day out. But apparently this is a shared daydream we’re living through. All of us women insisting that this is an issue, we’re just all equally confused about our own experience. And it could be so much worse for us… do we know what it’s like in Saudi Arabia?
I’ve taught myself to give up on those conversations, because what’s the point? Then last week happened. I had to watch a prominent wannabe world leader reveal more of his views on women than he ever intended. That was bad. And then I had to watch regular people, including people I know, rush around to justify and forgive him and explain it all away. That was much worse.
Yesterday a friend wrote this:
Woke up this morning to questions from my eleven year old daughter about the news yesterday. I had been trying to ease toward some of those hard truths – we’d talked about boundaries and the right to enforce them, etc. – but thanks to Mr. Trump we had to have the discussion about sexual assault and certain words and it turned my stomach to see the look on her face when I had to explain what a presidential nominee meant when he said what he said. Maybe it’s for the best – this is the world we live in after all. But I sure would’ve liked to buy her a few more months of believing that our leaders might not act like that and millions of people might not make excuses for it. If you want to vote for him for whatever reason that’s completely your business but can we please not pretend his comments (these and many others) are ok?
I’ve had enough of this. I’ve had enough of being told by people who could never be affected by my problems that they are imaginary. I’ve had enough of listening to why I should excuse and forgive and forget and accept and tolerate and go along with all of this.
And now I want to tell those people who keep explaining my existence to me, right here and now, that they’re talking to the wrong person. They need to talk to my friend’s eleven-year-old daughter. They need to talk to my twelve-year-old self. They need to explain to us why can’t just go for a walk with our moms and eat an ice-cream. They need to tell us that it’s just the way things are, just the way men are, just the way the world is. And they need to tell us, clearly and to our faces, that they have no intention to help us change a damn thing. That they have picked a position in this conflict, and it’s that of defending sexual harassment of women; it’s natural, after all.