I was first harassed by a boy when I was 6 years old. I was playing with my girlfriends in the playground and some boys came over to suggest we play the game ‘Catch and Kiss’. If you’ve never heard of this game, basically you get chased around the playground until you’re caught and then the person who catches you, kisses you.
Lots of people think it’s innocent fun. Part of me thinks it’s innocent fun. And still my experience was different. It had a side to it that I only remembered recently when I was thinking about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the world.
Here’s what happened; as soon the boys described the game, I knew I didn’t want to play it. I didn’t want to be kissed by a boy and I didn’t want to spend my lunchtime running around the playground.
So I spoke up. I said I didn’t want to play and I went and sat down on a seat (one of those silver aluminium seats that were scalding hot in summer and freezing cold in winter).
I thought that would be the end of it. I didn’t try to talk my friends out of it. I was perfectly happy to just do my own thing and let those who wanted to play the game, play it.
John* had different ideas though. He wanted me to play. He wanted to kiss me.
So he came and sat next to me and told me I’d been caught and that I couldn’t leave without first being kissed.
I sat silently for a while wondering how on earth to respond to someone who flat out refuses to hear you and keeps playing a version of reality they want to see unfold.
I tried to move to another seat.
He followed me.
I said, ‘If you’ll only let me leave after kissing me, then I just won’t leave.’
We sat in a stalemate for a long time.
When I became uncomfortable with him sitting so close to me I thought, ‘Perhaps if I join in and run away he’ll become interested in one of the other girls.’ (Yep, I was that quick to throw my girlfriends under the bus. I feel badly about that. On some level survival instinct had kicked in and it was me or them. I chose me.)
So I started running. I ran and I ran and I kept trying to get away from him. I ran towards one of my friends and said ‘Let’s just tell them we’re not playing.’
We tried asserting that.
‘Yes you are’ they said. We were going to be a part of their game whether we liked it or not.
Eventually I’d decided that the only way out was to run for the whole of the lunch break. I was pretty confident I could keep it up. Still, more than once I thought, ‘This has got to be the longest lunch break we’ve ever had.’
On and on I ran. I was hot. I was bothered. I was scared.
Some might wonder, ‘Why didn’t you just let him kiss you so he’d go away?’
Because I didn’t want to be kissed. I didn’t want him to kiss me.
I shouldn’t have to be kissed by a boy simply because he wants to kiss me. And at the age of 6 I still thought that if a girl said she didn’t want to be kissed, her wishes would be respected.
Eventually I found myself in a far back corner of the school yard and started to feel quite scared. The teachers were far away and none of my friends was nearby.
Fortunately John was persistent but not a monster. I knew from the fact that he’d patiently sat next to me on that aluminium seat and not forced himself onto me, that he probably wasn’t going to give up, but also, that I’d be able to keep him at arms length.
It was also very clear to me at this point that he was a boy who wanted to kiss a girl and he wasn’t taking no for an answer.
So, foiled by my ‘divert him with other females’ strategy, I came up with another idea. ‘I need to go to the toilet’, I said. ‘I’m out’.
I felt for sure that would do the trick. I mean he couldn’t come into the female toilet could he? Surely he’d run off now and join the others.
Alas, persistence was John’s middle name.
‘I’m going with you’, he said.
‘I need to go to the toilet. You can’t come with me.’
‘I’ll take you to the toilet and I’ll wait’ he said as he grabbed my arm and walked along holding it.
(In the times when I’ve reflected on this experience I’ve always wondered what the hell the teachers were doing at this point. I know there are a lot of kids to keep an eye on in a playground, but a boy holding a girl’s arm and marching her along as though she were a prisoner surely draws someone’s attention?)
When we reached the bathroom he released my arm.
‘I’ll wait here’, he said.
I took a loooonnnng time in that toilet. I went into super slow mode. After going to the toilet, I washed my hands for as long as I possibly could, I fixed my hair, and I basically hung out in front of the basins, wondering when the hell the bell was going to ring.
I hung around long enough that I was sure he would have gotten bored and walked away.
To my horror, he was still there when I walked out of the bathroom.
Fortunately the bell rang at that very moment and the ordeal came to an end.
I went back to the classroom and prayed to every deity I could think of that I’d never have to go through that again.
Throughout my life I’ve never thought much about that incident. I downplayed it. I never realised it was sexual harassment until recently. But of course it was.
I know that John was young and some may say, ‘It was just a game’. But it wasn’t was it? Games imply a few things; consent, enjoyment, equality of interaction.
None of these things were present in our ‘game’. I hadn’t consented to play in the first place and I’d only agreed in the end as a way of escaping the game. That’s not actual consent, that’s duress.
It wasn’t a game. I wasn’t enjoying myself and even a blind boy could tell that from my tone of voice and the actual words I was using. Namely ‘I don’t want to play’.
It wasn’t a game. There was no equality of interaction. He had a desire; to kiss me. I had a desire; that he not kiss me. If that had been the end of it, there would have been a give and take in our interaction. He would have wanted something from me and I would have said yes or no and that would have been the end of it. But that didn’t happen. He waited with a patient, menacing presence who refused to leave me alone despite my best efforts to evade his attention.
After that day, I remember popping myself right in the middle of a group of girls in the lunch and recess breaks. I chose girls who wouldn’t say yes to ‘Catch and Kiss’ with the boys. I created a wall around me. A wall of females who would say no in a single unified voice. Then and only then did I feel safe that I wouldn’t find myself running around the playground during our meal breaks, trying to avoid being caught and kissed by a boy. (As an adult I still think this is probably the best strategy we have for protecting ourselves and getting the message through to men about sexual harassment.)
The seeds of harassment are planted from a very young age. Following that incident, many experiences followed where I’d say no to a male and he would ignore it. Many experiences followed where boys and men thought that consent by duress was an acceptable form of consent. Or where they’d exert a menacing presence over me and other females as a way of keeping us in our place. (This still happens every day on some of my social media posts for heaven’s sake.) As to equality of interaction, I’m not even sure that as a society we know what that looks like.
Recently in Australia a man by the name of Don Burke was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and bullying. His response? Since the Harvey Weinstein incident, women have fallen into a victim mentality. I’m not the monster. They’re seeing the world through the eyes of victimhood and complaining about events that were inconsequential.
It’s not falling into a victim mentality to inform you that from incredibly young ages when we’ve said no, you haven’t heard us.
It’s not falling into a victim mentality to explain to you that frightening a female into behaving in ways you want her to will not be tolerated any more.
It’s not falling into a victim mentality to call you out on behaviour which is appropriative and presumptive and bullying.
My hope is that next time anyone says ‘Boys will be boys’ we all think very carefully about the implications of that statement. Sure, many boys are full of energy. Sure many boys learn better through action than through sitting in a class room. Sure, many boys cause unintentional harm with their excess energy and lack of spatial awareness. And whilst there are physiological differences between boys and girls, some girls behave that way too.
Those differences do not however entitle them to grab girls and force them to do their will. They do not entitle boys to disrespect the explicit wishes of girls. They do not mean they can’t learn the meaning of the word no and respect it. Whether that no is coming from their teachers and parents or from the girls in their class. Because if they’re given a leave pass on these things when they’re young, what on earth makes us think they won’t become the next Harvey Weinstein or Don Burke. Of course they will.
*Not his name. I thought about using his real name but he was very young and he’s actually one of the ‘good guys’. I’m not interested in demonising him by telling this story. My intention in speaking about this is to encourage us all to realise just how pervasive this behaviour is. To realise that your Harvey Weinsteins and Don Burkes don’t just appear out of nowhere. This behaviour and this conditioning starts early. Very early. Before boys have a chance to think for themselves and in an environment where they’re not taught to be self reflective, and before girls have a chance to glimpse a world where they’re not the subject of the male gaze and a victim of their harassment.
Every woman I know has an experience of sexual harassment. Those experiences leave wounds. Some wounds are small. Some are large gaping holes. The experiences lead to the creation of stories. Stories that we tell ourselves based on our lived experience. Stories that sound like; ‘Men don’t listen to me. I can’t expect to live free of sexual harassment. It’s just part and parcel of being a female.’
To acknowledge these stories is not to blame the victim. It’s to honour the experience and to offer a way out of the prison that the experience has created for you and for me and for all women.
I know we can free ourselves of these stories and I know we can heal these wounds. What happens from there, I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.