The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Guest Post: On Harassment, Conditioning, and Silencing

Big old trigger warning for sexual violence on this post. Seriously. [Also, a note from Tallulah - we'll be being very careful on the comments with this one. Go easy.]

I could talk about the PE teacher in my town who was asked to resign due to his harassment of female students, who was then hired as a school bus driver for a rural route with both primary and high school students. I could talk about how, from the age of seven, I refused to wear skirts or dresses, and from the time I entered high school at 10 to when I moved at 16 I always wore bike shorts or CCC shorts under my dress, because he was not particularly subtle about the way he looked at us – and those bus steps are high. I could talk about how this was common knowledge and was never denied by any authority figure we ever raised it with, but rather we were just kind of brushed off. I could talk about how, sometimes, I was the last person on my bus in the afternoon and I was never quite sure if something bad would happen to me, even though for a long time I probably couldn’t have articulated what it was that I feared.

I could talk about how I spent ten years of my childhood believing it was perfectly normal and acceptable for a seven year old child to stop wearing her favourite clothes because a grown man she relies on to get to and from school from a relatively remote location gets a thrill from looking up her skirt.

I could talk about the art teacher at my high school who used to run his hands up and down our backs, right along the spot where your bra sits. Considering most of us were fairly new to wearing bras in the first place, this was a decidedly uncomfortable experience. I could talk about how he used to get just a little too close for comfort in the supply room. Nothing overt, nothing nameable – just enough to make you drag someone else along with you if you needed a fresh piece of paper or you ran out of ink. I could talk about how the odd comment or complaint that was made was completely handwaved, that we were told to be very careful about what we were saying, that we could get someone in a lot of trouble by “starting those kinds of rumours”, and did we really want to be responsible for that?

I could talk about the first time I was made to feel ashamed of my body, at twelve or thirteen, getting into a water fight with my stepfather and uncle in the height of summer. I could talk about my grandmother completely flipping out, talking about how disgusting it was, how grown men should be ashamed of the way they were behaving with a girl. I could talk about how she then spent the next few hours trying to convince me I was being somehow victimised, while I was mostly confused about what had taken place – it took me a long time to work it out. I could talk about the unvoiced but ever-present fear for months afterwards that my grandma would bring it up again, that she would bring it up in the wrong place or to the wrong people and that my uncle, a schoolteacher, would suffer for it.

I could talk about how that destroyed what had been a fantastic relationship with my uncle, and how, ten years later, he still won’t hug me at Christmas.

I could talk about being called a frigid bitch and a slut in the same breath in high school. I could talk about multiple instances of sitting in a big group of friends, hearing someone trying to get into someone else’s pants, starting off sweet enough but quickly descending into emotional manipulation and thinly veiled abuse. I could talk about the time I went off with someone willingly enough and being followed by someone I considered a friend, someone who would not leave no matter how many times I said “no”, who only went away when the person I was with said that he “didn’t feel like sharing”.

I could talk about the family friend who always made me feel a little bit off for no discernible reason. The one who if I was left alone in the room with him, I would always find an excuse to leave. The one time I expressed this, I was told I was being a drama queen, and that I needed to grow up and stop being so precious, that one day I was going to have to deal with people I didn’t like and I might as well get used to it. I could talk about how he never did anything untoward, never gave me any specific reason to feel unsafe – but years after I last saw him, when he was  found guilty of four historical sexual assault charges, one of rape and three of indecent assault on girls under twelve, I was, for reasons I still don’t entirely understand, completely unsurprised.

I could talk about my boyfriend justifying his rape of me with “you could have fought me off if you really wanted you, you slut”. I could talk about how, when I tried to tell people, I was told I was being a nasty, spiteful, vindictive bitch. I could talk about how selfish it was of me to say such things, that he’d overcome such a hard life and was going to go on and make something of himself, who the hell was I to try and stand in his way?

I could talk about how my response to being raped was to sleep with anyone and everyone because I rationalised that if I never said no, then no one could force me. I could talk about how I have been told time and time again, by people who should know better, that this is a sign that I wasn’t really raped at all.

I could talk about how, when I finally worked up the courage to make a formal complaint of sexual harassment against my boss, I was asked why I had let it continue for so long, and what I had done to make him think his behaviour would be welcomed.

I could talk about how when a much later boss got me completely wasted at my leaving party, to the point where I couldn’t walk, and fucked me in a back alley, he waited until I was sober the next morning to tell me that he had a pregnant wife, because he heard through the grapevine that I was very strict about not sleeping with married people or straight women, and he thought I should “learn my place” and realise that I’m “not such a high and mighty bitch with a moral high ground after all”.

I could talk about these things, but I very rarely do. Since I was seven years old, I have been told that my body is not my own, that my consent is not my own, that my feelings of discomfort are not my own. I have taught myself to suppress my gut instinct upon meeting people. I have been taught to smile, to be polite, to suck it up if I feel unsafe. When I complain, I have been told I’m being irrational, oversensitive, and selfish. The underlying message is, how dare I try and ascertain any kind of control over my own body?

I should talk about it. But I don’t actually know whether I can.

15 responses to “Guest Post: On Harassment, Conditioning, and Silencing

  1. tallulahspankhead December 8, 2012 at 8:48 am

    For what it’s worth, I think we NEED to talk about these things, when we can.

    There’s been a post floating around on Tumblr, about how women live in a culture of fear, and I think our guest has illustrated it perfectly.

    We need to talk about these things, so they we can stop them happening. But, yeah, I don’t know how we do that either. I can barely talk about the things that have happened to me to the people closest to me. I don’t know how you talk about them publicly.

    So, thank you, guest poster. You are amazing, and brave.

  2. Emma December 8, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    So much awfulness.

    I could talk about how, when I tried to tell people, I was told I was being a nasty, spiteful, vindictive bitch.

    I have seen so much of this over the last year or so, this attitude that it’s worse to tell people what someone did to you than for them to do it. Don’t talk about it. You’re over-dramatising. It must be more complicated than that. Two sides to every story. Because nobody wants to deal with the idea that someone they know, their friend, their colleague, their boss, is an abuser, or a rapist. I’m so tired of keeping quiet.

  3. MJ December 9, 2012 at 11:30 am

    Because nobody wants to deal with the idea that someone they know, their friend, their colleague, their boss, is an abuser, or a rapist.

    In the same way we are told what a Real Rape Victim (TM) looks like, we are also spoon-fed a lot of preconceived notions about what a rapist is. It’s always a man — an unattractive, unkempt man who can’t get a willing woman, someone who gives off that creepy vibe, someone who hangs out in seedy bars preying on drunk strangers. And if that’s what a rapist is, then of course it can’t be your articulate, well-groomed boss whose girlfriend is a model. Of course it can’t be your brother who has always looked after you and threatened to beat up the guy who dumped you because you wouldn’t put out. Of course it can’t be your female friend. Because that’s not what a rapist is, so it must be, as you say, more complicated than that.

    Thank you so, so much for posting this, Tallulah. I absolutely agree, we need to talk about these things — but it’s bloody hard to do.

    • tallulahspankhead December 10, 2012 at 7:24 am

      And of course, Rape Culture, you’re soaking in it. OF COURSE a rapist can’t be a nice guy, who wears a suit, and has good hair. As the controversy around this piece (from the &*^%ing Good Men Project, printed at XOJane, so trigger warnings for sexual violence and general fuckwittery) shows.

      It tries to be a good piece. We live in a culture where sexuality is commodified and the signals are confusing and how can a dude possibly understand that sometimes a woman flirts just because she can. And all of that is true. And worth examining in the endless task to dismantle rape culture. But when a woman wakes up being penetrated by someone she didn’t consent to having sex with, that is rape. Whether the guy is a nice guy or not. That piece is rape apology at its best. SIGH.

      • MJ December 10, 2012 at 6:29 pm

        Ugh, I had to stop reading that article when I got to the line “the problem isn’t even that he’s a rapist.”

        …I’m pretty sure that IS the problem, actually.

  4. Rebecca December 9, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    I have been the victim of emotional and verbal abuse at the hands of a family member and only now am telling those closest to me about it because it is impacting midlife choices and behaviour. Most have been responsive to my coming out but there’s still the odd one that wants to sweep it under the carpet.

    • tallulahspankhead December 10, 2012 at 6:56 am

      I remember being told “why would you say that? He’s such a good guy.” So I just shut up and stopped telling anyone.

      Kia kaha, my dear. Much Lady Garden love to you.

  5. juliefairey December 10, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Thank you for writing about this, guest poster. And thank you for sharing it, Lady Gardeners. Very powerful stuff.

  6. Ben Wilson December 10, 2012 at 11:48 am

    The one time a girl told me about having been recently raped, I really didn’t know how to deal with it. She was 14, I was 15. It was a party, she was drunk and flirting with everything, and pretty much passed out and woke up with a guy raping her. Not violent, but not consensual. She was telling *me* this, before anyone else, weeks later. I asked her a few questions, as we sat in the dark by a tidal pool and she smoked furiously, shaking as she told me the story, partially from the cold but mostly from suppressed tears. She had a slightly wry smile and told it with a catch of sarcastic humor in her voice, her way of hanging tough.

    But she said afterward that it felt really good to tell *someone*. I guess we feel when someone tells us a huge secret like that, which she couldn’t tell her parents, or even her sisters or girlfriends, that we should have advice to give. But I don’t think I had any, because to me there was simply no crime or even shame in what she had done. I didn’t try to hug her, might have held her hand, but can’t really remember, it didn’t seem necessary. Indeed, it would have been out of place because I really fancied her, and she knew that. It seemed that to get it out was enough, to have someone bear non-judgmental witness that even if the crime would go completely unpunished, at least I acknowledged that it was still a crime, that she was not a bad person, not a slut. Not even, really, a foolish person. More, an unlucky person.

    I still wonder why she chose me. Non threatening, a nerdy family friend from a different town who was a virgin, perhaps? Or maybe someone whose good opinion she didn’t really care about? Or the opposite? It must be very hard to find people that one can safely talk to about being raped.

    • Emma December 10, 2012 at 12:09 pm

      It is, often, enough to just talk about it, to just be listened to. Because the two other common reactions from People You Tell are “Something Must Be Done”, which is often retraumatising for the victim, or “Advice on What You Should Have Done”, ie, why were you there, why were you drunk, what did you say/do to cause it.

      The best response for me has been someone saying, “If there’s anything I can do to help, just say,” and meaning it.

    • Valis December 12, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      I hope your friend is OK with you sharing this story in a public forum to strangers.

      If she’s not, perhaps she shouldn’t have told you, huh?

      • tallulahspankhead December 12, 2012 at 6:05 pm

        Valis, I let Ben’s comment through, because I didn’t think the person he was talking about was identifiable.

        If we want to make a culture where people are comfortable talking about sexual violence, we also need to talk about how to support victims.

        Having said that, if anyone is uncomfortable with it, I am happy to take it down.

    • Yisheng Qingwa December 16, 2012 at 6:03 pm

      [PER THE NOTE AT THE START OF THIS POST, WE ARE NOT PUBLISHING THIS COMMENT. I THINK THAT IT WILL DERAIL THE THREAD. THE COMMENTER HAS BEEN PLACED IN THE MODERATION LIST SO THAT ANY FURTHER COMMENTS MUST BE APPROVED BEFORE PUBLICATION. DEBORAH]

  7. TL December 10, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    All of these things are so (sadly, heartbreakingly) common. The first person I told about my brother raping me told me I was selfish if I made a fuss, because he’d already had enough to deal with (Background: physically and verbally abusive alcoholic father). I was 10 and, hell, I’d had to deal with that stuff too.

    It’s devastating to be told you’re being paranoid about someone, or something, when your instincts had been proved right in the past in the worst possible way.

  8. Yisheng Qingwa December 16, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    bllt fr vry rpst.

    [DISEMVOWELLED: ADVOCATING VIOLENCE]

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