I first started to feel unsafe outside of my home when I was eight years old. Every day after primary school, which was only a five minute stroll from my childhood home, I would walk to the end of the oval to sit on this giant rock and wait, nervously, for my older sister to make her way from her high school and pick me up. I remember feeling scared. It was a very isolated place in the middle of average suburbia. I should have felt safe. But I didn’t. Schoolyard tales of creepy older men looking for children plagued my mind. In my childlike innocence I didn’t know what they would do but I knew it wouldn’t be good. So I sat. And waited. And waited. And waited. My sister’s school was a 25 minute walk away and they finished school five minutes later than us. Nonetheless, I waited – too afraid to make the trek home myself. Being home alone also scared me. I didn’t feel safe, alone, anywhere.
At eleven years old, my fears were realised. One summer’s eve my friend and I were walking around my suburb. It was nearing dark and I knew we should head home, lest my mum have a heart attack. My house was closer and around a steep corner from hers and so I was home, safe, before her. I remember, however, when I got home and was inevitably scolded for my post-sunset arrival, hearing my friend’s loud scream. The next day she recounted how an adult man had tried to grab her but she screamed, loudly enough for me to hear half a kilometre away, and ran. Bolted. She was extremely lucky and brave. We told the school. They sent out a letter of warning to all parents. The man wasn’t found. This cemented in me that being outside, alone, just wasn’t safe for us girls.
At fourteen years of age, after watching the extremely upsetting and harrowing scene from the television show The Sopranos – which graphically depicted the horrors of rape when the protagonist’s psychologist was brutally assaulted – I was terrified of going outside alone. I severely dreaded being outside my home, alone, and when I had to endure it I would be in a state of panic. This made catching public transport to my high school an extremely anxious ordeal. Countless times, when I was walking from the train to my local shopping mall to meet my friends or go to work, I was beeped at by mostly truck drivers, well into their thirties and even forties. I was 14. With each beep a piece of my confidence wore away. With each beep, my fear grew. I hated it. It made me indignant and terrified at the same time. ‘I am just 14!’ I would yell in my head. Not that this kind of harassment is ok at any age, but it shocked me that adult men would want to beep at someone who was and looked like a young teenager. I stopped going out more than I had to, or I’d convince my parents to drive me – who, after years of lecturing me about safety, gave me weird and puzzled looks at my evident fear of being out alone.
That same year, my friend and I were walking to the train station after school, in our uniforms. She was 13 years old and in the grade below me. We were innocently chatting when something caught my eye. A car was waiting ahead of us to pull into the main road. An adult man sat in the driver’s seat, looking at us intensely with a disturbing smile. I realised, before my friend even saw him, that he was holding his erect penis in his hand. I had never seen one before. It completely shook me and, wanting to shelter my friend from this sight, I inconspicuously gave him the finger which made him drive off, laughing. I felt disgusted. Again, I was astounded that a grown man would do this to two schoolgirls. Not that this is ok to do to anyone. It further reinforced for me that, as a girl, I was not safe in my own city.
At 15, after working a shift at my casual job on a Thursday night, I was waiting outside the shopping centre for my mum to pick me up. A disheveled man in his late thirties started up a conversation. He relentlessly asked me questions, such as what school I went to, what my name was, what was my casual job, etc. I was clearly uncomfortable. He saw this. But he persisted.
‘How old are you’, he asked in a lecherous way, or maybe my memory has altered him slightly.
‘13’, I lied. Surely he will back off if I say I am this young? I thought.
‘You don’t look it’ he replied, staring at me intently. ‘You’re very pretty’, he continued.
I never maintained eye contact with him. I thought, hoped, that if I appeared to be disinterested he would back off. He didn’t. I was terrified. All the memories of my girlfriends and other women’s stories of how men tried to abduct or sexually assault them ran through my mind. He knew where I went to school. He knew where I worked. I felt like crying. Will I be able to get out of this safely?
He asked for my number. I told him I wasn’t interested. He asked me why not? I gently explained, out of fear of what he’d do in retaliation, that I was too young for ‘dating’. He finally left me alone and five minutes later my mum picked up a very shaken, panicked and terrified me. I told her what happened in the car and she tried to brush off my anxiety. She was trying to help. I felt like she just dismissed my fears instead – painting them as irrational.
The same thing happened at age 17. I was at a train station in the middle of Adelaide suburbia waiting to catch a train home when a drunk or high man in his twenties came up to me and my friend. He was with two of his friends. Again, I looked disinterested but he nevertheless pursued a conversation, because who cares what I think or want, right?! He kept telling me that he thought I was ‘pretty’ and ‘cute’. He asked my age and I lied, again, and told him that I was 15. I was scared that at 17 years old I was technically ‘legal’, but I still thought he was way too old (the ‘legal’ age in my home state of South Australia is 17). So I told him an age that would be ‘illegal’.
Again, he still pursued – not caring that I was underage. He asked if I wanted a boyfriend and I, again, gently told him no. He tried to chat to us for another few minutes until the train finally came. I sat the whole way home with a pair of opened scissors firmly in my hand. My heart beating. My mind panicking. Verging on tears. Stories relayed through my head of women’s tales of harassment and abuse. When I made it home, safe, I cried and cried and cried.
Since my teenage years I have experienced several more instances of casual ‘everyday’ sexual harassment, ranging from being cat-called on Hindley Street (Adelaide’s miniscule version of Sydney’s Kings Cross) or chatted up by random men at clubs. What I have noticed, however, is that there have been a lot less instances now, as an adult, than when I was a teenager. I don’t get beeped at anymore, men don’t come up to me and ask my age and proceed to tell me that I’m ‘cute’, and they don’t flash me their genitals. It is sad to say that I have been extremely ‘lucky’ as an adult, as for every story I have about being catcalled when out dancing, my girlfriends have three. They have been assaulted – groped, spanked, sleazed on, had their drinks spiked, to name a few.
The other week, however, I was ‘put back in my place’. Those old sensations of feeling scared and threatened from a man’s overbearing and entitled presence came flooding back.
Whilst shopping at Aldi, a man came up to me and proceeded to chat. I was in a rush and visibly feeling antisocial, headphones in both of my ears. He, like many men in the past, asked me questions about what I do, what I study, what does that involve, where I study, et cetera.
I, as usual, looked forever uninterested and uncomfortable. What changed this instance, however, was my gain in confidence and right to my own time and space. Wanting to get out of the conversation, I stated, hurriedly, that I was in a rush and didn’t have time for this. Some things don’t change as, again, I said it gently. We have to, as we do not know how men might retaliate.
This instance, though not nearly as scary as my previous experiences, reinforced my teenage fears and notions. It made me remember that society isn’t for us. It reminded me that, apparently, men’s wants are much more important than women’s rights to our own time, space and energy. It cemented the notion that men do see and comprehend our antisocial body language – but they just don’t care. They see that we are uninterested and they pursue us anyway.
And we have to be gentle. We have to kindly ‘let them down’. We are taught over and over and over again, through other women’s stories or through the media and greater society, that if we upset men then we do not know what they might do. There are multiple instances in the USA where a woman has turned down a man’s proposal to go to the ‘prom’, or to date them, or marry them, or even just said the word ‘no’ and in retribution, the man proceeded to abuse, stab, or shoot them. Women are frequently murdered just for saying ‘no’.
Furthermore, women are murdered just for existing. At the time I write this article, 41 women have been murdered in Australia, most by men. In many of the instances, however, the women themselves have been blamed. The other month I read the story of a 17 year old girl stabbed to death whilst walking through a park close to her home. The perpetrator was a man unknown to her. The advice given to women from the Inspector of the crime?
‘I suggest to people, particularly females, they shouldn’t be alone in parks… I’m sorry to say that is the case … but if you’re by yourself you need to be aware of your circumstances and take reasonable precautions … Jog with a friend, make sure your family know your route, exercise in daylight if you can … just be aware of your surroundings’.
But that’s the thing, Detective Inspector Mick Hughes. Women know all of this. We have been told this since the day we were old enough to go outside alone. This has been related to us over and over and over and over and over again! We know we’re not safe out. We take precautions. We text our friends to let them know if we made it safely home. We check the ID of a taxi driver and text it to our partners or friends. We sit there, on that train carriage, holding a pair of scissors so tight it hurts. And it doesn’t matter. These things still happen. I, at the age of eight, still felt unsafe. I, at the age of 14 still witnessed a man exposing his erect genitals to me. I, at the age of 15, felt too unsafe to leave the house alone. I, at the age of 17, was chatted up by a man ten years older than me. I, at the age of 19, was chatted up at my workplace and only when I told the man I had a boyfriend did he back off.
I, at the age of 21, still feel unsafe to walk the streets of my own city. I reconsidered moving to Canberra alone and without a car as it made me feel more vulnerable and anxious that I could get harmed. I still feel traumatised by the figures that one in three women will experience violence by men, and one in five will experience sexual assault. I, at 21 – a PhD candidate, a daughter, a sister, a partner, a friend, a feminist and a badass adult woman – am still afraid that I might become one of those figures, and then be blamed for it. I am sick and tired of people dismissing my stories. Dismissing my fear of being harmed by men as ‘irrational’. I am sick of being ‘gaslighted’ – of being told that I am making things up or that it is ‘not all men’.
When will our society stop telling women that it is our fault, that if we only did x y z we’d be safe? When will we start telling men to not harass us? When will we start telling men to not assault us? When will we start telling men that we are entitled to our own space, time and bodies? When will we start telling men that they are not entitled to anything of ours?
Because I, at all ages, and women, of all ages deserve safety.
Image: Johan via Flickr
Blair Williams is a PhD candidate focusing on the negative media portrayals of women prime ministers whilst writing articles and feminist slam poetry in her spare time. She is an active feminist warrior who is disillusioned with the world.