Stolen Moments

I wrote this three years ago. It's sad in the dusty folder of my archives since, waiting for a time where I felt confident enough to put it out into the world. And now, three years later, I am still, occasionally, confronted by situations that make me remember these fearful moments. I still wonder, crossing the street as a lay-person late at night, how I can truly protect myself. I reflect often on the fact that, at work, I am a doctor and thus protected by layers of societal respect but on the streets I am a woman and subjected to all manner of sexist comments and actions. Some things are sexism coated in kindness, "can I carry those bags for you, they look heavy?" and others are blatantly inappropriate, note every wolf-whistle ever. It doesn't seem to matter that I'm older or wiser, the fact remains that I appear as I identify - a woman. And somehow, that makes a good deal of the population feel like it is appropriate to harass me in public. It could be far worse. It is far worse for many women. But just because it could be worse doesn't mean we should stop fighting for it to be better.

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This time last year, I got off the nightrider bus to make the infrequent but cold speed-walk home after a night on the town. It was late. I was tired. But I was still buzzing with the excitement of good times with great friends.

I’d had all of two drinks while out – one was water and the other was Coke Zero – and was looking forward to curling up in my flannel sheets to defrost from the July chill. There was no alcohol on board to warm me. While many girls would tell you the alcohol makes the journey home in stilettos that much more comfortable, I wouldn’t know. Sometimes I wonder if I should down a few bevvies just to test the theory. My shoes were getting uncomfortable as I rushed, clippety clop, clippety clop.

I had this uneasy feeling going home that night. I’d left my friends behind in the city with a cheery promise of letting them know I’d made it home safely. I’d sworn black and blue that I always trekked home alone, and I was always fine. “Stop worrying,” I told them. “It’s fine. I’m strong enough to take care of myself. Don’t give me that look,” I begged, as their faces fell into concerned creases. My friends worry unnecessarily, I thought. “Sydney is a safe city,” I said. “Why do you always think the worse?”

But as I strode confidently, one foot in front of the other, my uneasiness grew stronger. The one person in front of me had gotten a fair way ahead, and a voice arose from a silver van sitting in the eerie light cast by the street lamp. “Wanna lift?” he asked. Not wanting to anger this voice, and not knowing how to respond, “no thank you” cheerily made it out of my mouth and onto the cold night air. My feet didn’t miss a beat. I hurried to catch up to the traveller ahead of me but he soon turned off to his apartment complex. I heard no revving of an engine behind me. I thought I must have escaped unharmed.

Moments later, I saw the headlights of a silver van up ahead. I scuttled down a driveway, making to go home. My heart rate shot up immediately. Stressed, I stared at my phone, not knowing what to do. The inhabitants of these apartments were unlikely awake. Should I call the police? I wondered. My voice would carry in the quiet night and it would be faster to reach me on foot from the van than for the police to arrive from their station a kilometre away. He, whoever he is, would hear me. Should I pretend to be talking to my housemate on the phone, letting him know I’m right around the corner? Or would that give away how close I was to home to be stalked in the longer term? I wondered if I should sleep in the alcove here, but then feared the man in the van would check driveway by driveway for my existence.

While I planned my escape strategy, I wondered why I was being followed. I’m a successful young woman, I thought. I do good things. I volunteer. I listed off all of my good qualities in some sort of atheist prayer for salvation. And then I cursed myself for thinking that I was somehow more deserving of said salvation than any other person. Why should the fact that I do good things change anything? Why should that make me special? The bottom line is that no woman should ever feel frightened the way I did that day.

Eventually, I made a dash for it home. I spent five minutes hiding behind a bush as the headlights cleared the block again. Each time, I would feel my heart racing in my chest with fear. And then rush home again. As I walked down the final stretch of my street, willing the last 100 metres to carry me safely, I saw the van go past again. This time I glared directly at the driver. I hoped my eyes didn’t show my panic. And as I paused to unlock both of our front doors, I feared being grabbed from behind. That night, I didn’t care if the doors slammed in my haste to get them closed.

I sat on my bed for quite a few minutes trying to assure myself that I’d made it to safety. To my room between those of my quietly sleeping housemates. And I picked up my phone to search for the contact number of the local police station.

The woman on the other end of the phone spoke calmly. She seemed to care. In my fearful and adrenaline-rushed state, I could hardly stutter out the words I wanted to say. I started with my name, and told her that I’d been walking home when someone started following me in his van. I told her I was scared for other women walking home. She asked me if I knew what the person looked like, and I had to explain that it was hard to see at this time of night. She asked me to describe the van, so I did. The licence plate had never been visible, but the van’s appearance has been an indelible memory. She promised me the police on duty would watch out for the van and try their best to protect those walking home.

I told myself I wouldn’t let one incident change who I am. I told myself it wouldn’t change how I lived my life. But as I left the house at 5am that Monday to head off to another early-morning gym session, the shadows had voices. Every crunch of a leaf under my feet made my heart rate triple. By the time I made the ten-minute speed-walk to the gym, I had to calm my frazzled nerves. “You’re safe now,” I told myself. Because, all of the sudden, my crisp walk was a minefield of vulnerability instead of a refreshing start.

I was so angry. How could this stranger make me feel so unsafe in my own suburb? This is where I live. This is my home. These streets are the streets where I pound the pavement. Where my housemates and I lug home our groceries each week. Where we’d nod quietly at our neighbours and make small talk while they garden. How could this stranger than that away from me in a matter of minutes? What right did he have to do this? And why would he want to hurt me anyway? Why would he want to follow me? Did he think he had a right to my body? To me? Just because I was coming home at 3am in stilettos?

I didn’t go out late at night by myself for a long time. And I didn’t come home alone. When friends offered their couch as a potential resting place, I took up the offers. I didn’t want to be stolen. I didn’t want to be scared for my life and my body.

It took a long time for that fear to dissipate.

I had gotten to a point where all of this seemed to disappear into the past. Then last weekend I was chatting to some would-be friends. One of the guys was in his 40s, with daughters my age. He waxed lyrical about their achievements, as you would expect from any father. His friend grabbed my hand in a firm handshake. They congratulated me for a hard day’s work and told me about their own past times. We talked about the rugby and the weather, work and politics. It was, by all accounts, a pretty typical conversation.

As time rolled on, the men drank more of their XXXX Gold. One of the guys grabbed me around the shoulders in a show of camaraderie. When I shrunk into myself and said with just enough force, “I don’t like being touched” he just laughed and squeezed harder. And tried to pull me into a hug, which I resisted thoroughly. The father then decided to sneak his fingers down my back as I continued asking to be let go and reminding them all that I disliked being touched, and that this whole situation was making me feel decidedly uncomfortable. I was starting to seethe with rage. I was in a community venue – a place frequented often – surrounded by people I value. And yet these guys had taken an interest in doing exactly what I didn’t want them to do. The father crept his fingers down further, running them across my backside and giggling. I was in such a grasp from his friend that I couldn’t swat him away, nor could I twist to defend myself. I was so angry.

What right did these men have to my body? To touch me when I specifically asked them not to? And did they really think they could excuse themselves just because they’d been drinking? There’s no excuse at all, but I found it even more revolting that this man had daughters only months away from my own age. Girls I’m sure he’d be horrified to be treated the same way he had treated me. Boys, I imagine, he would tear to pieces for doing anything to his daughters. Yet somehow it was okay to take away my autonomy for a few moments.

Maybe I’m lucky that that’s the worst that’s happened. I’ve been followed home and touched inappropriately. Maybe I can count my lucky stars that only one of my intimate partners took a dislike to my occasional responses of “no” to his advances. Maybe I’m lucky that it hasn’t been worse. Because we all know that there could be a lot worse to happen to any woman – tall or short, old or young. But I don’t want to settle for this being lucky. I don’t want to settle for being scared of anyone touching me because of experiences with an over-zealous, self-obsessed ex. For being scared to drive around town without my doors locked for fear of being jumped. For being wary of new friends lest they take the opportunity to molest me in plain sight. For being scared of travelling by foot in the dark because screams seem to disappear into the darkness in the wee hours.

I don’t want to settle for this fear and anxiety. And I don’t want other women to experience this sort of silent, subtle abuse. Because brush it off as we may, and sweep it under the carpet might they, this is wrong. This is illegal. And these laws exist for a reason.

We aren’t meat. We aren’t free to be touched whenever, by whoever. We don’t have to be in a relationship to deny your advances. In fact, it shouldn’t matter at all. Stilettos and late nights don’t equate to easy. Or stupid. Or dirty or bad or whatever else.

It’s been more than 100 years since women gained suffrage in this country. It’s time people realised we’re equal and equitable members of society. And started treating us with as much respect.

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