For the past five years I've been working on a memoir and during this process I wrote a piece titled Rules to Unlearn about some of these episodes and the learning process I went through in these situations. I attempted submitting this piece to a few places, but it didn't get picked up, and over the years I've returned to it, wanting to find some way to bring it to the world.
Tonight after watching this show I feel like I want to publish it on my blog. It's fairly long, nearly 3000 words, probably the longest thing I've ever published on my blog. It details my experiences of sexual harassment in the public and private sphere so it might be a trigger for some victims, so please keep that in mind before continuing reading.
It doesn’t matter what cultural background you come from or your socio-economic tier, girls are expected to follow unspoken rules of behaviour. A girl is supposed to be polite and courteous. She is to be feminine and pliable, and it is these same qualities that place her most in danger. No one seems to know what these rules are until they break them, no one except for Emily Post, a 20th century etiquette writer. The only way a woman can keep herself safe is to unlearn these rules. This is my journey.
Rule 1: ‘Nothing could be more ill-bred than to treat curtly any overture made in spontaneous friendliness,’ Emily Post.
I am eight years and living in Bosnia with my grandparents. My Nana, grandmother, sends me to the granap, the Bosnian milk bar. It is a warm summer day and I walk down the long stretch of unsealed road by myself. The road is quiet with hardly anyone passing each way.
On the way back I am carrying a bag over my wrist as I laboriously fight the wrapper on a chewing gum. The stick gum is shaped into a cylinder like a cigar and the wrapper is cigarette like and I have to tear it off one small peel at a time. A boy appears next to me.
‘Where do you live?’ he asks.
‘Down the road,’ I wave, not looking at him, still consumed with my wrapper. I am 500 metres from my grandparent’s house, on a stretch of road where there is a pasture on one side, and only one small farm house that I’d long since passed on the other.
‘Who do you belong to?’ he asks, the Bosnian version of identifying family connections.
I give him my grandfather’s name as he is the one who is known by all in the neighbourhood.
My eyes are still locked into the chewy that is five centimetres from my face and I see the boy is fiddling with his zipper as we talk. A tingle of awareness nudges into my consciousness, and I finally look up at his face. He is looking away, his head turning in one direction and then the other like a bird, as he scopes out if anyone is coming.
‘I’d better get going,’ I say.
He looks at me and our eyes meet. I read the intent in them. He pushes me to the ground and lies on top of me. The chewy falls as I fight him, the hard rock of the asphalt pushing into my back.
I am wearing a skirt and he tries lifting it. I fight like a trapped animal, my struggle becoming desperate. Just as my strength is failing he gets off me and runs in the direction of my grandparent’s house. I stand up shakily, my hands trembling as I scoop up the shopping bag, my feet kicking the chewy further away as I run in the opposite direction back to the granap.
Terrified I stand next to the door of the shop, trembling as I relieve the encounter, fearing he will come back to find me. After half an hour the shop owner’s glare becomes difficult to ignore and I venture out. I run to my grandparent’s house another way, along the canal, and get there sweaty and feverish. I never tell them what happened.
Over the next few days I am terrified to venture out and run any of the numerous errands my grandparents pass on to me. In desperation I confide to my cousin when we are alone in her room.
‘What were you thinking you stupid girl,’ she lectures. ‘You know that you have to keep your eyes open.’
My eyes smart. She’s acting like it was my fault.
‘You can’t tell anyone,’ she says, gripping my hands. ‘You know what people are like.’ She looks out the window.
I do. The year is 1985 but in the village my mother comes from time stands still as if we are in 1955. Attitudes are old fashioned. Girls have to be modest and careful with their reputation. If they are compromised, even if it is through no fault of their own, they are forevermore seen as damaged goods and will be the source of perpetual gossip.
From now on I am always on guard, scoping out my environment and males in my vicinity. I won’t be caught out again.
Rule 2: ‘Do not attract attention to yourself in public,’ Emily Post.
I am thirteen years old and on a bus that is taking me to Keilor Downs Shopping Centre. The centre has the only bookstore within travelling distance to my house and this is a bus ride I have taken regularly in the past year since I discovered Johanna Lindsey, my favourite romance novelist. I am collecting her backlist and each time I save up $12.95, I undertake my trek and add to my collection.
The bus is crowded and a man sits next to me. I am staring out the window, fixated on the vision of my latest novel and the desperation with which I want to read it. Usually I run from the bookshop and begin reading the minute I am at the bus stop, pausing to get off and walk home is agony as I wait with anxious anticipation to get back into the world of cynical heroes and dainty heroines.
It is a warm summer day and the man is wearing shorts. I am wearing a skirt and short top. His hairy sweaty knee presses up against mine and I shift away. I glance at him and see he is staring straight ahead. The aisle is full of people holding onto the seat handles behind us, slightly leaning in, pushing him towards me.
I begin to feel uncomfortable. I don’t like men sitting next to me, especially not so close, but we are turning into the road where the shopping centre is. I have only three stops to endure and then I can get off and get my book.
I turn back to the window, when I feel it again and glance at the man again. He is still staring straight ahead, his face blank and uninterested. I frown. Then I feel it properly. There is no mistaking what it is. It’s a hand. A hand is on my knee. I glance at the guy, he is still staring straight ahead, blank faced.
I don’t want to believe it. I am imagining it. It is a hot day. There isn’t really a hand on my knee. The hand moves up. I begin hyperventilating. I don’t know what to do. Should I shout? Should I scream? There are all these people around, but I feel alone and so scared. Why is this happening to me?
He takes my lack of movement as approval. The hand moves again. I snap out of my inertia. It is just a hair’s breath from touching my vagina. I jump up and pull the cord, running out of the bus like I am being chased.
As I watch the bus drive past me my fear retreats as anger takes its place. Now I have to walk an extra 15 minutes to get to the shopping centre. I am angry with the man who molested me, but I am more angry with myself for sitting there and taking it. Why didn’t I speak up? The bus was full of people. All I had to do was shout and scream so everyone knew what he was doing, but I’d been too scared of the embarrassment I would cause. I didn’t want to face the truth of what was going on and rather than accepting it, I tried to talk myself out of it.
I learn another lesson. Trust my instincts and don’t be afraid of making a fuss to keep myself safe.
Rule 3:‘When giving and receiving gifts, it is most important to remember that the spirit of the gift is more important than the gift itself,’ Emily Post.
I am fourteen years old and baby crazy. As soon as an acquaintance has a baby I become a daily visitor after school or all day on the weekend. The mothers don’t mind. They are usually lonely, home alone all day and they like having me around. I give them a much needed break while they go to the shower or toilet. Sometimes they even have a lie down while the baby sleeps under my adoring eyes in a bassinet in the living room.
My latest baby love is Beatrix and her mother is Tess, a neighbour. Tess’ husband Roy has very firm ideas about a man’s place. Tess asked him to stop at the shops and buy her pads and nappies on the way back from work. He returned with the nappies, but his face is screwed up in disgust about the embarrassment he endured in attempting to buy her pads.
So she went herself after she settled Beatrix for a nap. I remain alone in the house with him and am sitting on the floor watching television, while he sits behind me on the sofa drinking beer.
He starts telling me stories about how he took care of his sister. ‘I taught her to drink at home,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want her to be vulnerable when she went out at eighteen years old so I gave her a little bit of beer at a time. Do you want some?’ he offers.
I shake my head. I’ve had the chance to taste alcohol and I know that I don’t like it.
‘I had to teach her all sorts of things to keep her safe,’ he says. ‘A girl needs to know things about sex.’
I begin feeling uncomfortable at the turn the conversation has taken. I want him to shut up so I can watch television, but feel obliged to be polite and turn towards him every once in a while.
He leaves the room, I assume he’s going to the bathroom and breathe a sigh of relief.
He returns and stands beside me. ‘I wish I’d had these sorts of things in when I was young.’
I look at the box he is handing me. The cover features naked women with breasts and penises. I don’t know what I am looking at and look at him in confusion.
‘They’re lady boys,’ he tells me. ‘They’re actually men who make themselves look like women. You can take that home with you. After you watch it you can ask me any questions.’
I nod and put the video in my backpack. He returns to the sofa behind me and sits. I keep glancing at my backpack. I don’t want to take the porno. I have no intention of watching it and I know that if I do take it, I will be sending a message to him. A message that I wanted to have further conversations about his ‘training.’
My instincts are screaming that I have to return it, that I have to end this now, but I am scared of being impolite. I am blind to the television screen I was consumed watching a few minutes before as I wrack my brains for a way out. I have only a few minutes until Tess returns to deal with this.
‘I don’t think I should take this,’ I say, taking the porno out of my backpack. ‘My parents might find it.’
He takes the porno without a word and leaves to return it back to its hiding place.
When he returns he stands beside me again. ‘You know you deserve a reward for helping babysit Beatrix,’ he says, reaching for his wallet.
He holds out a $50 note. I look at him uncertainly. I don’t know if I want to take it, but I also understand why he is giving it. It is a bribe not to mention anything that happened.
‘Thank you,’ I say as I take the money.
After that my love affair with babies ends and I stop visiting Beatrix and Tess. But I’d learnt another important lesson. Trusting my instincts and not being afraid of speaking out is the only way to protect yourself. I’ve found my voice and I’m not going to be afraid to make noise to keep myself safe.
Rule 4: ‘After twilight, a young lady would not be conducting herself in a becoming manner, by walking alone …’ Emily Post.
I am fifteen years old and walking home at night by myself from Veronica, my best friend’s house. She lives a kilometre away and we don’t go to the same high school so we visit each other nearly every day after school and have sleepovers most weekends. It is summer and school holidays and I stay later and later, sometimes until 9 o’clock when it is pitch black at night.
I am walking down Veronica’s street toward Main Road when a boy rides past on a bike. He passes me and goes up the street, before doing U-turn and returning to ride beside me. My instincts kick in and unease fills me.
‘Psssst,’ he calls.
I look over. He is riding slowly, one hand holding the handlebars steady, another on his penis as he masturbates.
I speed up, but he continues shadowing me.
Fear grips me. The street is dark and deserted. We are the only two people around. The streetlights barely penetrate the gloom surrounding us. I am on the left-hand side of the street walking beside my former high school that stretches for most of the block. All the houses are on the other side of the street, and are shrouded in darkness with thick dark curtains closing them off from the outside. No one will hear me even if I scream.
I reach the gym building and car park, and am a few steps away from the great stretch of oval. I can hear the boy’s thoughts as if they are floating in the darkness with us. There is no one around, and there is nowhere for me to run. All he has to do is jump off the bike and throw me over the waist high mesh fence, an easy feat for my slight build. Then we are on the grassy oval, hidden from view from anyone who passes by.
I only have a minute or two until he makes his move. I look around for options. If I run I will incite him more. He is on a bike and will chase me down. I can run to someone’s house, but they are all on the other side of the street, and I have to pass him. Time is running out. Another step or two and I will be completely open to danger.
A light comes on down the street. There are voices. A family is seeing out their guests. The boy stops. All the lessons I have learnt have led to this moment.
I shout at the top of my lungs, ‘Get away from me you pervert.’ I keep shouting even as he rides off.
As soon as he is far enough away I run. I run every single step home, bursting through the front door out of breath and in a panic.
‘A boy attacked me,’ I gasp. ‘He was on his bike and he flashed himself at me.’
I finally found my voice. I learn that when I am in danger I have to go on the attack to protect myself. Being a girl is dangerous and there is no place for etiquette when it comes to my safety.
It is a lesson that will hold me in stead as I become an adult. When I go nightclubbing and a boy tries to lift me out the back door, I will fight and run back to the dance floor where the crowd provides safety. When I am at work and a co-worker starts massaging my shoulders, I will push his hands away without apology. And when I am on a tram and a ticket inspector begins questioning me about where I live and who is meeting me there, I will ask him why does he need to know when he’s already checked my ticket.
I will no longer ignore my instincts and be pliable and polite. I will fight, I will scream, I will shout, and I will rage, and I will try and keep myself safer in a world that wants me to whisper.