First the leopard-print undies with the froth of lace vanished from my line. Then a few pairs of plain Bonds, a must in any Aussie girl’s top drawer. The beribboned duds with ‘Lucky’ scrawled across the bum disappeared and finally, one of my bras.
I lived with a bunch of other expats in Singapore, and replacing stolen frillies was not as simple as nipping down to Target. In this tiny equatorial country I was a Gorgon, a Charybdis, a female monster of inconceivable proportions; simultaneously too gigantic to escape from yet invisible to the naked eye. I’d been ignored or tutted at in a hundred clothes shops, and once even shown the door with directions to a “caucasian store where they can help you”.
In addition, in Singapore’s 99 per cent humidity everything grew a flounce of mildew, like a closeup in an Attenborough doco. Sluiced daily in waterfalls of sweat, even my back went mouldy. The only non-revolting clothing I had was jealously guarded, hand-washed and mended. The stolen bra (of a magnitude only useful to locals as a baby sling or maybe a potplant-holder) was a bridge too far.
This meant war.
My tale of being snowdropped in Singers embraces all the complexities of living as an expat woman in a tiny enclave: sexual harassment, lad culture and racism. Ugh, what a time! It also describes the gender politics that exist in contained spaces, and how the culture of ‘not speaking out’ can have unexpected consequences.
Sir Patrick Stewart is being joyfully paraded around the web at the moment for his beautiful, personal and eloquent speech about his own experiences with domestic violence. His speech to Amnesty International (delivered in pleasing Picard-ish, throttling tones) contributes to a long-overdue discussion about the role men can play in preventing the culture of harassment and sexism that leads to violence against women.
His point, about how men need to consider their own reactions when a woman is threatened (even if it’s just ignoring it), keeps surfacing. As Ben Atherton-Zeman says, speaking out is not acting like everyone’s white knight or pushing the responsibility back to the victim, but acting as women’s allies.
When my bra was pinched I made my thrilling announcement to the group email (we expats communicated thus in the olden days), and after the hilarity subsided we tried to crack the mystery. Most thought that with the tropical drenching we got every arvo that they’d probably blown off the side of my balcony.
But I’d already imagined my lacy dacks rappelling into the Apocalypse Now-style tropical wilderness below, and had scoured the muddy ground. I’d also put out a string of saucepans as a kind of booby-trap, and amused myself by hovering near the peephole at my door at odd hours. This was to no avail, and didn’t answer why my sordid tea towels and saggy tank tops remained unmolested.
To most of the blokes in our group (largely expats in their mid-20s without a care in the world), my being snowdropped was an amusing blip in the daily email round of jokes, teases and digs, and they clamoured laddishly to claim responsibility. (This awkward and in no way charming interview with Mila Kunis tells you everything you need to know about lad culture: the interviewer draws all attention back to himself. He talks about where he drinks and what he drinks and how. He has no interest in acknowledging her good-natured replies; she’s just a backdrop to the many ‘lad points’ he scores, and as the words leave his mouth he’s already laughing at the group reaction back at the pub.)
We girls, on the other hand, put our heads together. Something creepy was going on in our building, specifically, with one of the security guards.
One girl had been bailed up on the top floor, where he’d turned off all the lights and tried to kiss her. Managing to shove him off she’d raced down a few floors, quite scared. Other girls said the same guy was overly chatty and weird and that he’d tried to score a few phone numbers. No one liked his casual manner with us, or the way he swaggered about. It wasn’t security guard-ish enough. We felt threatened, not protected, and most thought it was just an everyday irritation until we started talking about it.
The lads stayed hands off. Everyone knew they were not perpetrators, it was the ladies’ problem and we’d deal with it. In this raucous environment, the quieter minority of blokes was often drowned out by the voice of ‘the group’. These blokes did verbally show their support, but directly to the girl who’d been harassed.
Like most very young, newly-graduated Americans in the building, she vacillated between the poles of prudery and promiscuity. Beige pleated skorts and bum-revealing hotpants. Bible study groups and bar-dancing at Carnegie’s. Long phone calls to college boyfriends and urgent one-night stands. Being so free and so far from home proved irresistible and confusing for a lot of us.
This highly educated girl could have spoken to hundreds of her peers to persuasively argue any point of religion, economics or law, yet felt too intimidated to take on harassment one-on-one. Not wanting to make a fuss she hadn’t told the building manager about the upstairs grope, and we all said the same thing: why haven’t you said something?
I dare say she felt like shit at this point.
We argued about what would happen if we did speak out. We weren’t in our home countries where these things seemed clearer-cut, we were in a place where you could get four lashes of the rattan for spray-painting cars (amongst other weird laws about chewy and porn and wandering about your flat in the nude). And would it stand to reason that a serial pest and casual strutter would want to steal my titanic underthings as well?
It was time to call in the big guns: Ho.
Our building manager Mr Ho was the sort of excellent chap who’d turn a blind eye to any amount of parties or extra tenants with the delivery of a juicy durian or a moist mooncake to his desk. Unlike most Singaporeans (who rugged up against the ‘chill’ of their ‘winter’), Ho had the vast, sweaty bearing of a kind and flabby toad. He also had very wide, very flat feet. They were as big as two dessert plates turned upside-down, and needed two loafers cracked open at the heel to get around. He deposited these amazing items at my front door and delicately edged in.
“I’ve come to talk to you.. ah….about the ah… panty problem,” he whispered anxiously.
I squashed a grin as I tried to relate the facts with the stern delivery of a TV detective. The crime scene was here and the front door was there. Yes, I’d checked the ground floor and no, I hadn’t heard anything suspicious. I had, however, talked to a few of the girls in the building about a certain security guard. Mr Ho became instantly grim.
“Is it the young guy? The Indian one who sits out the front?”
“Ummm…I think so, the young guy.”
“He’s Indian, yes?”
I failed to see what his ethnicity had to do with things; all I knew was that my DDs were missing and that I’d heard there was a possible creep bothering people. I’m also a bigmouth with the unfortunate habit of speaking out about things that are ‘not right’.
Despite his bulk, Mr Ho moved with the speed of a nighttime assassin. After a brief sting, the boastful security guard was gone within a day, and the expat grapevine lit up. I was also roundly congratulated for my part in ‘catching the pervert’, a role I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with. I don’t think I do to this day. I wanted my finery back and for all women to feel comfortable in their own space, I wasn’t calling for anyone to be marched off the premises. (My thoughts on racism in Singapore are a whole other screed.)
Now, with sites like Everyday Sexism and Hollaback! hammering home the worldwide problem of daily harassment, I can’t help but think that as a group we all could have reached a middle ground somewhere. Mr Ho’s job was to ensure security, a job he did very well. But why did he have final say on the outcome? Perhaps he knew something we didn’t, and that it was an escalating problem that needed to be snuffed out. Maybe not.
After this incident my washing line was left alone, and only the scungiest scungies remained. I lived out the remainder of my Singaporean contract, tenderly hand-washing my last shapeless beige horror as it rotted gently in my dank shower stall.
For some reason this story has stuck with me, and I wonder what would have happened if we’d said something. Could we all – as residents, not just ‘the guys’ or ‘the girls’ – have let the security guard know his behaviour was unacceptable? If one or all of us had spoken out sooner, working together as a community, could this have had a different outcome?