They didn’t ask for it

Sometimes, you just have to take a stand! Sometimes, enough is enough! How many times do we read about lawyers –or even judges- wondering about the effect of clothing on sexual assaults?

And it’s not just the criminal justice system that asks the question; I fear that it is a question that floats just beneath the surface of many a speculation –voiced or silently implied.

Blame seems to be a requisite component of justice however, and although it often is a focus for vengeance –sorry, punishment– it is always more satisfying if a reason for an action can be found. After all, an effect requires a cause, does it not? And post hoc, ergo propter hoc makes it even sound erudite. But, although it seems a logical outcome, it is a spider’s web that can be terribly difficult to disentangle unless we are motivated to take the counterintuitive step back from the seductive fallacy.

Admittedly, there are cultural differences that play a role in a society’s willingness to accept or at least tolerate excuses for behaviour, but in terms of the reasons for sexual assault, I would suggest that they are less cultural and more gendered. Excuses, not reasons. And, in these cases,  it is the action that must be examined, not the justification.

I found myself drawn to an article reporting on a woman in India who found an innovative way to draw attention to the issue: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-42408844 ‘Indian artist-activist Jasmeen Patheja collects clothes donated by victims as testament to the fact they are not to blame […].’  Her project is called I Never Ask For It. And while the collection may seem a bit creepy, she maintains, ‘”It’s got nothing to do with what you’re wearing, there’s never any excuse for such violence and nobody ever asks for it. […] The project wants to contain and hold space for our collective stories of pain, and trauma.”’

It was a time when ‘[…] street harassment was being dismissed as just ‘eve-teasing’, something that boys do and girls must experience. It was being normalised. There was an environment of denial and silence around the issue, which made it okay to continue it. […] harassment in public places is all too common and almost every woman has experienced catcalls, lewd remarks, touching and groping. And anyone who questions it is told that the fault actually lies with them – she may have done something provocative, she may be wearing clothes that showed skin, she may have been out late at night, she may have been drinking, she may have been flirting: in short, she may have asked for it. “Girls are raised to be careful, we are raised in an environment of fear which is constantly telling us to be careful. We are told if you’ve experienced assault, then maybe you’re not being careful enough, that’s the underlying message we’re given.”

‘She set up the Blank Noise collective in 2003 to “confront” that fear. […]The first step to confronting any fear, Ms Patheja says, is to start a conversation around it and one of the things that Blank Noise does as part of the “I Never Ask For It” project is to gather testimonials from women. […] Almost all women chose to describe what they were wearing at the time of the assault and, Ms Patheja says, that’s what gave them the idea about the museum of garments.

“We found women often wondering about their garments. They’d say, “I was wearing that red skirt’, or ‘I was wearing that pair of jeans’, or ‘I was wearing that school uniform’. So it became a deliberate question at Blank Noise and we began asking, ‘so what were you wearing’? [..therefore..] we ask people to remember their garments, bring them in because they have memory, and in that memory it’s been a witness and it’s your voice.”’

I found that article very moving –especially that the clothes women had chosen to wear with pride at the time of the assaults had become forever tainted by the attacks –that those colours, fabrics, and even styles now made them feel sick. Guilty… Ashamed. They had expected admiration, approval, compliments, for how they dressed –or maybe hadn’t even thought much about their clothes beforehand. But, planned or not, a simple smile would have sufficed to indicate that they, too, could be beautiful. We all have a need for more than the mirror can say; most of us not only dress for ourselves, but in hopes our tastes will be vindicated. That we will be vindicated.

Yes, we often dress for effect, innocent or otherwise, and yet does the first chirp of the stirring robin cause the sun to rise? Are we looking at it the wrong way? Does attraction necessitate response? License behaviour? Does it even necessarily modify it? For some men, that is a vexing question, no doubt –and yet there it is. It has to be confronted. It is not enough for the man to say he was beguiled. That her clothes spoke for her –said what she chose not to say. That they told him all he needed to know… That they asked him and he merely accepted the invitation. Really?  He felt not only that entitled -that privileged- but also that omniscient? Stuff and nonsense!

Of course, how silly it all sounds divorced from the situation. After the fact. Even to other men, it would be difficult to argue his ability to know that he had been granted permission to violate someone else. To be assured that he could really see the world through his victim’s eyes…

As the Scottish poet, Robbie Burns put it: O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!

Because, no, they didn’t ask for it. And they certainly didn’t deserve it.

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Does the Best Safety Really Lie in Fear?

There are many unheralded benefits of age, one of which is invisibility -changing from a potential threat into a banality. A non-entity for whomever might otherwise be at risk. I can watch from shadows while the world strides past –on the street, in a bus, in a coffee shop. Wherever.

Men, until they age it seems, can be a liability to women –but I never thought of it like that, of course. Few of us ever do. I never thought I was a threat, but now I see I was wrong.

Does danger evolve, or is it the perception? The perceiver? Has its essence been reinterpreted, or merely renamed? Now that I am rapidly becoming a befrailed bystander in my retirement -background noise- I am also subject to harassment I never thought existed.

It’s not the same, I know. It’s not something I have had to endure throughout my life. Something woven into the fabric of each day that hides in the warp and weft of life until the pattern suddenly surfaces from the chiaroscuro like the shark’s fin in Jaws. Knowing the menace is always somewhere beneath the surface, and yet having no choice but to swim above it…

Watching from the shore, where the danger is rarely seen and never felt, it is all too easily dismissed. Maybe that’s why I’m trying to draw a parallel with the tide of years. I’m trying to understand something new to me. Frailty, thy name is Age.

For me, it’s not sexual pestering, of course, and usually not a threat of bodily harm –it’s more of a dominance thing… And yet, isn’t that what the gender divide can be about? Power? Identity insecurity? Role playing…?

I’m not even sure what role hormones play anymore –not all men are provocateurs. Not all men are cursed with the need for entitlement or the fear of losing status . Not all of us are insecure. But I think I can see what is going on –if only through a glass darkly. I think I can understand the gist of the article I found in the BBC news about women worrying about the ‘right’ amount of fear to show in public: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-41614720 The appropriate balance between sensible caution and the avoidance of a perceived threat.

Until I read it, I’m not sure I would have put it as forcefully as Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray, a researcher at Durham Law School, specializing in violence against women, and one of the 100 Women BBC named as influential and inspirational. But, I’m not a woman quietly smothered by the social blanket either thrown over my protests, or wrapped securely around my screams of dissent much as it might around a tired child’s body. It is hard to shift perspective like the article demands.

Dr. Vera-Gray had been speaking to women about how they change their behaviours through fear of sexual harassment and assault for her new book The Right Amount of Panic: How women trade freedom for safety in public. But I have to say that I had never thought about the need for the tactics she has identified that are outlined in the article. 

For example, she outlines conduct I’m sure we’ve all seen in streets and public transit –all seemingly innocuous, innocent, and yet all purposive: ‘Maybe, like Delilah, a black British woman in her early 20s who I interviewed, you stay away from wearing the colour red, to avoid standing out. Or like Shelley, a British Asian woman in her 30s, you’ve developed a death stare, looking tougher than you feel. Maybe like Lucy, a white British woman in her late teens, you’ve pulled out your phone and made a fake call with your battery long dead. Or like Ginger, a white Latvian woman in her 20s, you’ve kept headphones in without playing music so you can hear what they think you can’t.’

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights report (FRA) in 2017 on sexual harassment in Europe found that ‘almost half of the 42,000 women surveyed had restricted their freedom of movement based on the fear of gender-based violence.’

‘Liz Kelly, one of the world’s leading sociologists on violence against women, coined the term “safety work”, to describe the habitual strategies that women develop in response to their experiences in public. We perform safety work often without thinking, it becomes part of our habits, or “common-sense”.’ Peeking over my own male-built walls, I had no idea this was going on.

‘The vast majority of this work is pre-emptive, we often can’t even know if what we are experiencing as intrusive is intrusive unless it starts to escalate: he speeds up and crosses the street when you do, he moves from staring to touching. But as this is the very thing safety work is designed to disrupt, success becomes the absence of what might have happened. […] we know that it doesn’t, it simply can’t, always work, and those are the only times we can count. So women are stuck, made responsible for preventing harassment at the same time as unable to know when we’ve been effective.’

But, as Dr. Vera-Gray seems to conclude, ‘[…] there is no “right amount” of panic, there’s only ever too much or not enough. And with no way to know when we’re getting it right, we’ve learnt to just keep quiet.’

I don’t want to seem like a gender apostate, but I find the conclusions very troubling. As Robbie Burns put it O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us! But, alas, we see the world, like we see the reflections in a mirror, only through our own eyes. And that’s not enough –we share the same journey, albeit sometimes on different paths. And that’s why there’s a need for signposts along the way. Conversations about the route. We all have to know where we’re going.

Maybe I will never understand; maybe I can only approach it vicariously, but at least it’s a start. I can stand in shoes that will never fit, even if I can’t walk without discomfort.

But maybe that’s what it takes –a sort of self-empathy, before it finally sinks in…

The Tales We Write in Water

We are all stories, aren’t we? Largely untold, and seldom transcribed, we travel through our lives like cups filled to overflowing, spilling drops like patterns on a dirty tablecloth. It’s often not so much a reticence that keeps our information bottled up, as opportunity to share it. It’s why, I suppose, there is such a need for counsellors. Therapists. Ears, not just to hear what we feel is important to us, but to listen. Someone to understand our need for time on the pedestal…

Diaries do that as well, albeit with little feedback unless they are publicized. No feedback in fact if they are left unattended and unnoticed in a drawer somewhere for fear of discovery -disclosure of inner secrets too personal to admit, embarrassing moments too painful to discuss, dreams we fear are out of reach. And yet the very act of writing them down may not be wasted: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170601-can-writing-about-pain-make-you-heal-faster

Okay, I don’t really buy the premise of the article suggesting there may be something immunologically regenerating about writing, that healing occurs faster, or that there may be beneficial effects on health in general –and yet I readily admit that, as a sometime writer myself, it intrigues me. I’ve always thought about it in terms of catharsis, but now I’m not so sure. In 1986, a psychology professor named James Pennebaker asked his students to ‘spend 15 minutes writing about the biggest trauma of their lives or, if they hadn’t experienced a trauma, their most difficult time’. Six months later, he discovered that this seemed to have had an effect on their general health as measured by fewer visits by them to the health center. A bit tenuous, it seems to me, but it was his subsequent analysis that interested me more.

‘What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing. He found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions.’ The students ‘[…] began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative.’

The perspective change that evolved in their writing is fascinating. As I write this, I’m reminded of a fragment of a poem by Robert Burns (To a Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church): ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!’… But, come to think of it, isn’t this very non sequitur an example of how the act of putting down words unlocks unexpected doors? Could writing be the Power to which Burns was referring…?

Well, perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, I’ll admit, and yet…

I had travelled into town to buy a piece of technological kit at a store in a huge mall in the center of the city, when I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the noise, the movement, and even the smell of the thronging crowd flowing over and around me like a debris-strewn river. I wanted to sit down somewhere, but it was lunch time and all the benches were full, so I headed outside to a little dog park I’d noticed on the way in. Even there the pews were occupied, although admittedly, not by dogs, but people eating fast food out of wax-paper wrappers. I felt a bit nauseated and I didn’t think I could handle sitting beside one of them, so I chose a seat beside a young woman who had eschewed her stomach for a little notepad on which she was furiously scribbling. A thin woman, with short blond hair and a blue business dress, I thought at first she was just catching up on office work; the fact that there was neither a laptop nor a phone in evidence, seemed only passing strange. Her face, young and unblemished, was somewhere else – certainly not here, despite the soft breeze that rustled the leaves, and the sound of birds flitting from branch to branch above our heads. But she looked happy. Content. Absorbed…

It was pleasant sitting outside, and the trees that ringed the tiny urban meadow seemed to keep the more annoying attacks of traffic noise at bay. After a while I became aware of something I hadn’t heard since I was at school, I think: the sound of pencil hurriedly scraping across paper. There was something atavistically soothing about it –something that brought back childhood memories: the sound of walking on fallen autumn leaves maybe, or the soft hiss of bacon that my mother was frying in the kitchen… Sounds totally unlike what I was hearing, to be sure, and yet compelling. Comforting.

In my reverie, I’m afraid I began to stare at her –or rather, at the notebook on her lap. Eyes, when left unleashed do things that are hard to explain. Hard to justify. And because of my unsolicited proximity to her on the otherwise crowded bench, she noticed. At first it was a scowl that tried to shoo my eyes, if not my very presence away, but then, seeing my embarrassed smile at being caught in flagrante delicto as it were, she smiled.

“Just writing down some thoughts,” she said glancing at her watch and then carefully closing up the notebook as if it were a bible.

In some way exculpated by her words, my face relaxed.

“Sometimes I just have to write them down before my office thoughts take over,” she added, shrugging contentedly as she stood to leave. “Helps me cope somehow…”

I saw her walk away along the wide gravel path, stopping from time to time to stare up into the trees, oblivious, it seemed, to the city that roared around her. And as I watched, I have to admit, so was I.