You are six when he hits you in the playground and knocks out your front tooth. You spend ages searching frantically in knee-high grass because the tooth-fairy won’t come if you don’t find it and you really need the money. You are saving up to buy Barbie’s horse. He laughs while he watches you cry so you punch him in the stomach. He drops into the dust like a dead weight. The teacher on playground duty sends you to the principal’s office and him to the sick bay. No-one saw you get hit. He says he didn’t do anything. It’s your word against his, they say. And even though you’re missing a front tooth, no-one believes you.
A few days later, he brings a fake knife to school. It’s one of those cheap plastic toys with a pretend bloody blade that retracts into the handle when you press it against something. He stabs you repeatedly in the shoulder and says he’s going to kill you. You think he’s joking. He has to be joking. But you’re not sure he’d know the difference, if he was holding a real knife
You change schools the next year and are relieved to be free of his constant harassment. But soon you will learn that he was just the first. There would be other ‘he’s’.
You are nine and playing hide and seek with your friends at the new school when he catches you and pins you against a tree by the fence. He is a few years older and more than twice your size. His hands are everywhere and his mouth is slobbering on yours. You are screaming and he is laughing. Three road workers look up from their pothole, lean on their shovels, and cheer from the other side of the street. You wonder why no-one is trying to help you. When you wriggle free, you run and tell the teacher. It’s not his fault, she says. He has special needs and doesn’t know what he’s doing. She tells you to forget about it and just to stay away from him. You don’t bother telling anyone else. Because if it’s not his fault, then it must be yours.
You are fifteen when your friend’s classmate is abducted. She was walking home from your favourite shopping centre where you hang out on Thursday nights with your friends. Her picture is all over the news for a few weeks and it’s labelled a Teen Tragedy. Some boy was bothering her at work all the time. She asked him to stop but he didn’t so she had to quit her job. People say she probably ran away with him. He only pursued her because he liked her. But those who knew her say she was scared. Someone calls it stalking. Her body is never found.
You are seventeen when you are grabbed at knifepoint and sexually assaulted by five males while on a family holiday. Your uncle overhears your cryptic conversation with a friend about it and says, You shouldn’t have been talking to those boys anyway. I saw you say hello to them when they walked past you yesterday. He also says, It never happened, you’re making it all up. You never report it to the police because if your own family doesn’t believe you, why would anyone else?
You are nineteen and working at a summer camp in the USA when you are advised to buy a fake engagement ring to wear during the adults only ‘singles’ camp. It’s supposed to prevent the older men from hitting on you. You buy a $5 cubic zirconia the size of a small country and wonder two things. One: why would anyone believe it was real? And, two; why do you have to pretend to belong to someone else, just to be treated with respect?
You are twenty-six and working in a technical role on an industrial site. One of the work crews has a swimsuit calendar on the wall in their workshop. You think it’s tacky but don’t say anything because most of the men are your friends. And they’re not bad guys. Another female staff member complains that it makes her feel uncomfortable and the calendar is removed. The next time you go to the workshop, you notice that the calendar has been replaced by two National Geographic images.
The first is of a beaver.
The second is a giant clam.
You realise that equality in the workplace is still only nominal.
You are twenty-eight and your husband has a work friend and his wife over for a BBQ. You are all enjoying the sunshine, laughing, and drinking margaritas in your pool. Your husband’s friend makes a rape joke and everyone studies the clouds awkwardly but no-one says anything. Not his wife. Not his friend. Not you. You have to get out of the pool and away from him for a while.
Later, you ask your husband if he thought the joke was funny. It’s just a joke, he says, boys will be boys. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. You ask why he didn’t stand up for you when he knows your history. He asks why you didn’t stand up for yourself and you don’t have an answer.
You are thirty-one when you leave your husband after finding out he cheated on you. When you tell your family, your father says people will say it’s your fault. He says they will call you the Wicked Perpetrator. It’s always the woman’s fault, he explains to you, even if the man cheats or leaves. Of course, he tells you, he doesn’t believe that. He’s just preparing you for what everyone else will think. But you’re not so sure.
You relay this story to a male friend who calls himself a feminist. He asks which century your father is living in. You’ve never heard a man call himself a feminist before and you like it. You begin to believe that everyone should be a feminist because what it really means is equality.
You are thirty-four when you start dating a friend of a friend who you’ve known for about a month. You have so much in common, he insists, because he believes in equality too. Soon, though, the facade begins to crumble. You are ignored when you speak. You are accused of lying. You are told the way you see the world is wrong. You are accused of cheating. You are too emotional. You are not emotional enough. Your emotions don’t match your actions. (You don’t even know what that means.
You turn your phone off for three days because you are afraid he’s placed a tracking device on it. You find out he has two previous apprehended violence orders and a conviction of assault against him. All from different women. You try to remove yourself from the relationship for months but each time you do, he shouts and swears at you. You wonder why he won’t just let you leave when he spends so much time hissing that you’re worthless.
He abuses you if you do not respond to his phone calls. He abuses you if you do not respond the way he deems acceptable. He abuses you if you do not respond at all. You cannot be certain that he won’t show up at your house and hurt you.
Two years after the last time you see him, and after you have blocked him via every method of contact that you can, he tracks down your work phone number and leaves an eight-minute voicemail. He says he’s been sending you messages. He says he’s sorry. He says it was your fault. He says he’s been trying to find you.
Even though you’ve moved interstate, you are terrified to be alone in your house. You are terrified to leave your house. You are terrified.
It’s your word against his.
It’s not his fault.
He only pursued her because he liked her.
It never happened. You’re making it all up.
They’re not bad guys.
It’s just a joke.
Boys will be boys.
It’s always the woman’s fault.
The way you see the world is wrong.
In every aspect of your life, you have been harassed and blamed for the harassment. At school, at work, at home. Catcalled on the street. Groped on public transport. Hassled in bars and clubs. Assaulted in public. In broad daylight. Dressed in long pants and a t-shirt. Not that it should matter. You wear your car keys like knuckle-dusters. You look over your shoulder. You listen for footsteps behind you.
You are scared. You are scared because you’ve been taught to be scared.
One day, you decide that if you’re going to be scared anyway, then speaking out and being scared is better than staying silent and being scared.
Today, you tell people I am not a wicked perpetrator. I am a feminist. And this is why.
Image: ‘Shadows’ / flickr