Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Constant vigilance

One of the first things I remember learning as a child was that people, likely men, might try to hurt me. It was all around me. From learning about sexual abuse and inappropriate touching in elementary school, to absorbing the cultural reality of the prevalence of sexual abuse and assault, it seemed inevitable.

I was about five years old when my father started teaching me self-defence. Just little things, such as using the palm of my hand to strike an attacker in the face. But beyond basic strategies, what he actually taught five-year-old me wasn’t how to fight, but that there might be a need to fight and defend myself. There is a distinct moment when a child discovers the possibility of violence in their lives. I learned it was connected to the fact that I was a girl, and people could try to take me or hold me down or hurt me. I knew then that it would be wrong, but that it was still possible, even likely.

The author, age 5.
My dad told me of a family friend’s child who outran a man who tried to grab her. I started running. By age 9 or 10 I was really into track and other sports. I was faster than all the boys, and felt I had to be.

In grade 3 a boy in my class told people that we had sex. Obviously this wasn’t true. But I learned that something that made this boy sound cool and grown-up made me look bad, that the same thing affected us differently. I learned then that my reputation was something else I was expected to protect.

In grade 9 I starred in the school play. Boys talked about catching a glimpse of my exposed body during a scene. It spread around the whole school that people saw my body, even though I knew it was made up. Still, I felt mocked and embarrassed. I learned then I had to be constantly vigilant about covering my body from leering eyes, should they try to humiliate me. I learned people would try to make my body something to be embarrassed about.

When I was 25, I finally revisited driving lessons in order to get my licence after years of not even practicing. The first (male) driving instructor sat so unnecessarily close to me, I was uncomfortable and couldn’t relax and focus. I was so embarrassed I got my mother to call on my behalf and request a new instructor without specifying why. The second (male) instructor started out OK for the first few sessions. Leading up to my road test, he was so vocally delighted to be teaching an adult, as opposed to the typical 16 and 17-year-olds, he thought this was a great opportunity to make sexual remarks, random strange and inappropriate comments, and generally make me extremely uncomfortable. He also interrogated me on why I changed instructors. I learned to stay silent to cope. I needed to get through this and get my licence and be done. He had all the power, and I needed to get this over with. I got my licence on the first try, and was free.

It wasn’t until 2-3 years later that I really thought through how it was sexual harassment, and I should have complained about him to his company. I learned how we, as women, often stay silent because we need to achieve something and can’t take on the fear and emotional burden of a confrontation. Were just trying to live our lives.

When I’ve travelled and when I lived in a bigger city for a year, I’ve been constantly vigilant. I know many boys and men have not been successfully taught to respect women, value consent, and resist entitlement to women’s bodies, as much as I’ve been taught to be vigilant and safe. We continue to teach women it’s their responsibility to avoid violence.

These are just a few things I learned, as a girl and a woman, in my society in which patriarchy and rape culture continue to have a foothold. There are other things I’ve learned and close calls I’ve had, too personal to discuss.

Now, at age 28, I’ve learned that, statistically, I’m so fortunate I haven’t had worse experiences. I see aspects of my gendered experiences as things to be grateful for, rather that deserving of.

 What is it like to not have to be constantly vigilant?