I was reflecting on this the other morning around 1am as I pedalled gently home, whiffing the spring air and dodging drunk teenagers in the park. Did anyone try to stop me and my boisterous whistle? They did not. If you tried to detain this strapping 35-year-old in the middle of the night, you’d probably be rewarded with a Nokia that doesn’t work properly, a stack of birdwatching magazines and a sharp kick to the nuts. To look at, I would not be high on the list of detainable females.
I grew up in south-east of Melbourne, around the time when the Safety House and Neighbourhood Watch programs sprang up. At school we’d get regular visits from the boys in blue, who reminded us to be scared of men in long coats (not a deterrent for my later animation career, although perhaps I should have listened). We also watched a video of a girl coaxed into a car by a man with kittens inside his jumper (true dinks) and were told repeatedly, and somewhat tiresomely, not to talk to strangers.
Despite all of these amazing preventative measures, flashers and perverts would abound. Most girls knew someone who’d been grabbed on the way home from school, or had seen for themselves a wrinkled old fella swinging in the breeze, which we considered far more exciting than the magazines we used to pinch from Cilla’s house (whose parents worked for Penthouse). The standard response for this event was hilarity or shock from the kid, followed by extreme anger and panic from the parents. These stories sunk in and became part of the everyday life of being a primary school kid.
Once we all started to grow up these stories changed: STDs, unwanted pregnancies, rape, drugs. Things got scarier out there if you were female. We were reminded in so many ways that as women were physically not as strong as men, then if we didn’t mind our P’s and Q’s we were in danger of all kinds of unnamed threats. To reiterate: I wasn’t brought up in a Brazilian favela, or the projects of Chicago or a Johannesburg township in the ‘70s, it was boring old Burwood.
One afternoon I forgot those two letters of the alphabet while hanging out at a local primary school with my mate Andy. Andy could stand up to the bitchy girls at school, Andy smoked cigarettes and Andy cared very little for authority, rules and all the other banes of my teenage existence. If you fancied a bit of aimless loitering, Andy was your girl.
A bunch of boys a few years older than us were crossing the oval, and upon seeing us doubled back and began to follow. The training we’d received from teachers and parents told us to keep walking at the same pace, not to turn around or run. Running would make things worse, we were told. They yelled out a few things and increased their pace, so we walked faster. With bad timing we nipped around a corner to a dead end. Minutes before we had been wistfully talking of Andy’s love for Donnie Wahlberg and her longing to see NKOTB live Boston, and now we were crouched in the dirt under a Banksia. Andy said, “This is fucking ridiculous”.
We scrambled out with a high wire fence at our back and faced about five boys. Andy crossed her arms and told them to rack off and leave us alone. They jeered and shoved each other, covering our way out. Andy grabbed me crossly and said ‘let’s get out of here’. In a minute she’d clambered over the fence, leaving slow Booey still trying to stuff her sneaker toe into the wire. They shook the fence while Andy screamed and jumped up to pull me over the other side. As I climbed over the top, one of them leapt underneath me grabbing my crotch so I yelped and pitched forward into Andy while the boys howled (a sound I can still hear now). We had to walk home slowly so I could stop crying and her Mum wouldn’t pepper us with uncomfortable questions.
If it was up to Spider Everitt or Kerri-Anne Kennel to judge that story this week, whose fault would it have been? The silly teenage girls hanging out in deserted primary schools on weekends? Or the numbskull teenage boys who thought that picking on two younger girls was all in good fun? Didn’t we have as much right to be loitering as much as those boys did?
I’m sure most women my age can dig up a story or two like that from their past, from a time when they were smaller, or not as confident, or shy, or awkward around boys. And if they’re lucky it was nothing worse than that. Most of us survived that time, and in our adult lives being grabbed, harassed or bullied by men is rare or non-existent. Not only wouldn’t they dare, it wouldn’t cross anyone’s mind in the first place (footballers excepted). We’ve just seen and done too much to put up with it.
Upon reflection all the stranger danger bullshit we were fed as kids was aimed at girls and designed to keep us scared; scared to speak up for ourselves, to fight back, to laugh or talk our way out of bad situations, to use our brains. The more I think about it, stranger danger reinforces the bogeyman and makes us helpless.
This is why I’m going to continue to live alone, continue to wear what I like, and continue to ride my bike at all hours, thumbing my nose at all in my path.