He meant no harm…

I slipped on a slab of wet wood in the dog park the other day and landed on my backside.

I was unhurt. I knew as soon I stood to brush myself off, but a few bystanders came to my rescue.

‘I’m all right,’ I said sweeping twigs and leaves from my clothes. ‘Only I’ve bruised my bum.’

‘I’d offer to rub it for you, but…’ from an older man among the three who came to help.

I laughed it off, but in my mind an instant discomfort.

He meant no harm, but I wanted to tell him it was an unnecessary comment, especially in the light of the current conversations in parliament and throughout the zeitgeist. No more gratuitous sexual references from men towards women however seemingly harmless. 

Was it demeaning? 

If I’d been a younger woman, it might have come across as sleezy. To me it was just inane. As if I’d accept such an offer from a complete stranger.

Did he really want to pat my bum or was it the so-called manly thing to say, to throw in a touch of sexual inuendo to re-settle the situation?  

It can’t be easy being a man these days. Not that it’s ever been easy to be a woman or any person on this earth, but some are more privileged than others, the so-called middle class dead white males and those who are soon to join them, seem to be at the top of the tree. But their hegemony is no longer guaranteed.

What a word, ‘hegemony’. I first heard it when I was at university and it took me an age to get my mind around it. Simply put, it means dominance, but it seems to hold more than power at its base.

As Jess Hill puts it: 

Capitalism with all its problems is rooted in centuries of patriarchy. Patriarchy positions all people on a scale of entitlement to power and control: men have power over women, some men have power over other men, white people have power over people of colour, heterosexuals have power over LGBTQI, rich have power over poor, adults have power over children, all people have power over nature, and so on. Within this system, it is not individual men who have the most value, but men (and some women) who embody patriarchal traits of maleness: control, logic, strength, competitiveness, decisiveness, rationality, autonomy, self-sufficiency, heterosexuality (and – critically – whiteness). Men who don’t embody these traits are assigned less value, and may be persecuted, attacked and shamed. That is how patriarchy polices men’s allegiance: through shame, violence and fear.

Folks might be sick of hearing the term ‘patriarchy’. As much as I might once have resented the notion that a woman’s place is in the home.

Where do we get these ideas and why do they hold so fast?

Power, I suspect. A wish to hold onto it and thereby not have to endure the discomfort of our vulnerability. That awful feeling we have when we fall, when we’re hurt or someone hurts us. When we can no longer stand tall, when our dignity fails us and we’re left feeling powerless or helpless.

Though not everyone becomes powerful or arrogant, at least not towards others.

Some people take it out against themselves. They become self-loathers ready to criticize their every move. Every step they take that is not in the realms of what the higher order critic calls ‘perfection’ is to be condemned.

I remember many years ago the words of Emily Dickinson’s poem, I’m nobody who are you. Are you nobody, too? Then there’s a pair of us. Don’t tell. How dreary to be somebody…

Dickinson goes on to sing the praises of being nobody. Little did she know fame would come her way after death. Huge fame as poet. A quirky and memorable one at that. I could not quite join her praise for the nobody state. I wanted to be somebody. 

As a fourteen-year-old when I pinned clothes to the Hills Hoist from a basket overladen with underpants and socks and shirts from my many sisters and brothers, my parents, I liked to sing full throttle.

I had the fantasy that some famous gentleman walked past our house on busy Warrigal Road in Cheltenham and heard my voice rise above the roof tops.

This gentleman could not then resist making his way down the side path of our house to offer me the opportunity to star in his latest musical.

I sang all the louder in the hope of a discovery that never happened. 

It’s a pleasure to be hidden, writes Donald Winnicott, about the fun for babies and small children with the game peek a boo. A pleasure to be hidden as in hide and seek, but devastation, never to be found. And the trouble with so many of our discoveries as we grow, so many of those hopes to be found especially when you’re a young woman wanting recognition, that it often takes the form of a sexualised recognition, not you the person, but your body that is wanted to give some gratification to the other.

So deeply rooted in the male gaze. So deeply rooted in women’s place in the world as the inferior group there for the gratification of the superior group. 

Sorry to go on about this, but I find myself thinking about war. The stupidity of war. The way young men become cannon fodder. Young men die, but the women get raped as a sign of the opposition’s power. As if women are the chattels of the men. it’s not enough to kill men. The women have to be defiled too. To make the point someone else holds the power.

A rant if ever there was one, this little paean to pain but I can’t stop my angry fingers racing across the keyboard in despair at how subtle and deep-set these notions are.

The man in the dog park, who meant no harm to me, still participated in a centuries old tradition of objectifying and sexualising a woman’s body, as if there is nothing more to her than a bruised bum, that needs his soothing hand. 

Content Warning

It’s cropped up before.

I went to give a talk on autobiography at La Trobe university a few years ago and spent some time rehearsing with my daughter, who warned me I needed to offer trigger warnings to the students before speaking about my encounters with a paedophile in the park or about my experience of my father stalking the house at night in search of sexual comfort with his daughters.

It puzzled me then. It puzzles me less now, only I have trouble knowing when I need to introduce such warnings. Maybe it’s best to do so most of the time, if not simply as a warning to people who might be triggered, but more as a way of protecting myself from the criticisms that follow. Namely that I have added to someone’s load of trauma in speaking about my own experience.

It’s a troubling one. The place today where – over forty years ago I encountered a paedophile.

We’re urged to tell our stories and at the same time to find ways of talking about them that do not stream into the consciousness of another and stir up their memories of hideous experience. A visceral sensation that runs through their veins, as if it’s all happening again. Like a flash back.

At my other writing group last week, we workshopped a piece about my time as a university student when the then renowned Delys Sargeant took us for Social biology, a subject requirement of the social work course.

A few years later she ran a week-long workshop on sex. I was drawn to it like an animal to a water hole in drought, out of curiosity, not because I needed to know about the mechanics of sex – I was twenty-three years old by then and sexually active – but because I wanted to get a deeper understanding of the things behind sex, the stuff about desire.

I won’t repeat the story here other than to say my writing friends in the group were struck by the absence of specificity and detail about what it was like to live through those days of so-called sexual liberation, during the fading glory of the hippy era.

One woman suggested I do a poll within my online writing circles to help ‘jog my memory’.  So, I put up a post within a closed group telling people that I was writing memoir and had been thinking of some of the misogynistic expressions used in my day, the 1970s and 1980s, and how much we then took them for granted.

I asked if others had thoughts about such aphorisms and included two, one an expression used in relation to a woman who had not yet formed a relationship with a man: ‘She needs a good hosing out’.  And the other:‘Turn women upside down, and they all look the same.’

Comments and quotes from other women writers came in thick and fast with other examples. Some protested at the very post itself. That it was distressing to read these words. In the end the moderator, in her wisdom, took the post down because it had been triggering to some who had already been traumatised.

I can understand this, though a pattern emerges for me. One in which I find myself speaking about my experience and many people resonate, while a few others are distressed to the point, they ask me to stop, and then I become unsettled.

Like I’m back at school and have been caught out doing something bad, stealing from someone’s locker. Not that I ever did anything like this though in my primary years I shop lifted lollies from the milk bar and maybe that’s a better analogy.

I begin to feel as though I’ve been caught doing something bad even as I’m talking about the things that people said, not did, thirty, forty years ago, most typically men when I took such comments as givens.

There is a notion in psychoanalysis called après coup, or in German Nachtraglichkeit, meaning ‘afterwardness’, the notion that something can happen to you in childhood or adolescence, at a time when you have not fully grasped the significance of sexuality. For instance, your father can look at your body as you begin to develop breasts and a fuller body, with a particular expression and it means little to you though you register it and you feel uncomfortable. It’s only later in adulthood when something else happens, when someone approaches you in a sexual way and the memory flashes back to you, the leer on your father’s face. In childhood you could not receive or understand the message but in adulthood it makes more sense because by now you know about sex, and you’ve been on the receiving end of men’s sexual desire. Now it can seem all wrong, the thing that happened to you years ago, which you then slid into the box of forgettable events only to have it rear up again triggered by another event or words. Your body feels the effects even when at the time your mind could not comprehend.

So, it has been for me in recent years when my memories of the many aphorisms that men, even good friends, trotted out regularly throughout my teens and early adulthood, even into my thirties, expressions which I now recognise as objectifying and misogynistic.

‘She’s as dry as a nun’s nasty’. Dated now but still in my mind an expression that insults women who, for whatever reason, elect to keep themselves chaste.  And that is somehow seen to be depriving of the men who might lust after such women.

Writing this, the same shudder sweeps over me. Is it okay to be saying these things? These expressions from the past that were once commonplace, and these days are recognised as ‘rape talk’ and part of a culture that feeds the idea that sexual violence and predation is okay.

Perhaps that’s the essence of my struggle.

In raising the spectre of these memories. In writing the words that rattle around in my consciousness and memory like so many loose marbles, I stir up disturbance for people from more recent generations, including my own daughter, who sees things differently. Who recognise misogyny when they see it and call it out.

I’m too late to call it out now after thirty years even as it only now dawns on me, weighed down with the burden of decades of experience in which what was once considered normal is now recognised as anything but.

These things are commonplace and apply in lots of instances. People no longer talk about belting their children for misbehaviour like they might once have done, but men are still killing their women, at least one a week in Australia and still certain attitudes prevail that a man’s wounded pride or hurt feelings are enough to warrant the brutal murder of the woman who has offended him.

To imagine that I’m tarred with the same brush for speaking about the way it was in those days when we did not keep records of how many men killed their women because it was considered an unfortunate incident of domestic violence that couldn’t be stopped, is distressing.

These things can be stopped but only if we talk about them. But how do we talk about them without people feeling we’re doing the very thing they rail against?

Give a content warning, my daughter advises.

In future, I’ll try to remember.