My participation has been commissioned by Sue, who instructed me to choose my “earliest and funniest”. (My reputation as
a clown an unparalled humorist preceds me). I tried, but while I have enough amusing tales of wandering fingers and attempted aggressive seduction, ‘earliest’ couldn’t be married to ‘funniest’ in this instance, and picking alphabetically, I decided to go with the former.
My earliest memory of sexual harassment in a public space is on a footpath outside my school, but also in a bus. It was between seven thirty and forty in the morning, the streets were packed with cars, parents, attendants, chartered schoolbuses, and chattering students. ’97 was rolling slowly into the middle months.
A man, shabbily dressed, especially when compared to the smartly turned out girls in crisp uniforms, was dragging his feet approaching the school gates. He wasn’t accompanying a student. My eyes picked him out because he was a plodding island of brown in a bubbling brook of green and white, but they didn’t linger. A classmate and I were at the door of a very crowded, very slow public bus headed towards the stop a few metres down, and my chief concern was resisting shoves from eager slow-speed bus-jumpers.
Suddenly, one of the girls the man was difting past gasped. Then, she giggled uncertainly.
It was this odd combination that caught our attention. We were barely fifteen feet away from the footpath and naturally nosy, so we leaned out and focused on the stretch. And we realised, with a jolt, that the shabby man was lifting his floppy shirt as he approached suitable girls — the ones in white pinafores, between four and seven years of age — and quickly dropping it back as he crossed them. From the girls’ reactions, although we’d never encountered this before, I instinctively knew his fly was unzipped. And then, as our bus trundled past him and stopped at the bus-stand, we got a live demo. Not only was his fly unzipped, it was neatly folded along the zipper line, and tucked away in his thighs for a better view.
It was at this point that I nearly fell out of the bus, because, taking advantage of our distraction and of the almost unbelievably tightly-packed school crowd surging towards the gate, a man had pressed himself, raging erection et al, against my back, and with his free hand he was stroking my right waist, where my thick skirt ended, and my thin blouse began.
I don’t think my classmate noticed. She was confused and furious about the junior school girls’ little morning surprise, and practically ran towards the Man 1. I followed on her heels. On reaching him, however, we realised we didn’t quite know what to say. We hadn’t words to really articulate what happened, and why that was awful, apart from the fact that *everybody* knew you kept your skirts and trousers zipped in public and always decorously drew emphasis away from the crotch region (and the chest region, we were just beginning to realise). The man, I now realise, must have quite enjoyed two fulimating girls glaring at him, then slowly melting into their own embarrassment and confusion, and finally calling him the worst name they knew (“Stupid idiot!”) before scuttling into the safety of the school gates.
And the man on the bus, well, I didn’t even get his face. He could have been any of the many men who scrambled down at my stop — fathers with daughters, office-folks, commuters taking the bus from A to B. Or, he could have been one of the many who stayed in the bus, as it trundled off. But I suspect this wasn’t my first encounter with sexual assault/harassment, merely the first I remember. Because I took the discomfort, disgust and annoyance quite in my stride, and went about my day. The normalisation of violation, of course, is a part of a culture of abuse.
But I was twelve. Later, when I could see twelve in perspective of thirteen, fifteen and twenty, and not merely in the context of eight, nine, and ten, it rankled. Not so much the violation, although that was filthy enough, but the air of icky inevitability about it. Twelve was a little too early — although, to be fair, so is sixty — to learn that for the rest of one’s life, one will be fair game.