One billion and one

One Billion Rising on V-Day at San Francisco C...
One Billion Rising on V-Day at San Francisco City Hall (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

I recently saw an interview with two twenty-something women who were part of the One Billion Rising movement. They were asked why they had joined the movement, to which they replied “there was no good reason not to”. They were right. There really is no reason why anyone would or could object to it. Actually, I’m sure there are those that do, but let’s not dwell on those people or sanction their views.

One Billion Rising has made me think a lot about my own experiences of womanhood and I thought I would share my thoughts with you. I’m not going to write about domestic violence (I will save that for another day) but I will share with you my own encounters with the sexual exploitation of women. This is going to be quite long for a post but I’m not going to apologise for that. I feel these things need a voice and to be heard.

I first entered the workplace, at the age of sixteen, in the late 80s. Since then, I have had the grand total of six jobs. Some of these jobs lasted a few months (one lasted a week but that’s a whole different story), and some lasted for years. The longest was for fifteen years. I can honestly say that throughout all that time and all those jobs I never once experienced sexual discrimination or sexual molestation. You may consider me lucky; I certainly do. I have always worked in an office environment where the workforce was mainly women. The managers, however, where, for the most part, men. That said, I was never told that I couldn’t do something or apply for a promotion because I was a woman, nor have I ever had anyone try to shove their hand up my skirt or grab my bottom. Not at work, anyway.

Going for a night out with the girls in the late 80s and 90s was a different matter. It was not uncommon for a woman to have her bottom groped or fondled in a pub, club or, on one occasion, on the night bus on the way home. Just to be clear; the majority of men didn’t do this, but there was always one drunken idiot who thought he was perfectly in his rights to grab your arse or lift up your skirt. I remember in the mid 90s, when A-line mini skirts were all the rage, my friends and I all had to buy big short-like knickers to save our dignity and blushes from such morons.

How did we deal with these imbeciles? We turned around glared, tutted and remonstrated with them, and then we moved out of their way. That was it. It seemed to be part of the trials and tribulations of being a woman. Their was one occasion, in a pub in Wakefield, when I turned around and slapped a guy across his face but I was very irritated as he had made a lunge for me as I was leaving the pub. I was also very drunk which probably made me more ‘kick-arse’ than usual. How did our assailants respond? Did they feel remorse at their actions and humbly beg for our forgiveness? Of course they didn’t. They jeered at us and told us not to be so miserable. These men saw it as their right to fondle our behinds and really couldn’t see what the problem was. I’m sure if some other guy had done this to their girlfriend, wife, sister or mother, they would have been up in arms about it. But, they didn’t see it like that. We weren’t a person to them. We were just young women, and if we would go out in packs into pubs wearing short skirts what did we expect? Does this still happen in 2013? I’m pretty damn sure it does. So, twenty years on and nothing has changed.

My experience of male and female relationships at high school is somewhat skewed as I went to an all-girls high school. The city I grew up in used to have a three tier school system. You went to primary school until you were about nine or ten, then to junior school until you were thirteen, and then to high school. My primary and junior years were in mixed school settings but throughout primary and the first couple of years of junior school boys and girls had very little to do with one another. Boys were a mystery to me. They were noisy, boisterous, silly, and played rough games. I know a lot of girls felt the same; my daughters feel this way about boys now. I also know that girls were equally a mystery to boys. Girls talked too much, were fussy, bossy, and skipped and danced about a lot.

Then, in the last couple of years of junior school, puberty raised its ugly head. It raises its head in different ways and rates. I was definitely a late-developer. I had no interest in boys and still found them stupid and annoying. I know many others in my year felt the same. However, there are always those for whom adolescent hits harder and faster – the early-bloomers. And amongst the early-bloomers, there are always those who are free with their affections. There was a name for ‘girls like that’ at my school. I’m sure there is the same name for ‘girls like that’ now. What always gets me is that there is never a name for ‘boys like that.’ Why is that? Without ‘boys like that’ there would be no ‘girls like that.’ Without girls who are free with their affections, what would boys who want to be free with theirs do? It’s mutually consenting – of sorts.

Before I commit the following story to cyberspace for all to read, I want to be very clear that I do not apportion blame to any of the parties involved. Blame, in my opinion, lies elsewhere and I will address that at the end of this post (which now seems to have become an essay).

In the last year at my junior school a weekend camping trip was arranged for the final year pupils. There were not many of us that went. If I remember rightly, there were just nine children (six girls and three boys) and a few teachers. The children pitched their tents in one part of the camp site, quite close together, whilst the teachers pitched theirs quite some distance away at the other side of the field. I guess that teachers figured we would be up all night giggling and messing around and didn’t want their sleep disturbed. We were only thirteen but this was the mid 80s, and I’m sure this would not happen now. The girls slept in three two-man tents, and the three boys slept in a larger tent.

On the first night, my tent-mate and I awoke to a lot of commotion going on from the boys’ tent. I think they had forgotten that we were all sleeping in tents with walls made of canvas, not brick, and we were all in fairly close proximity to one another. From what we could hear and make out, one of the girls (who was known to be free with her affections) had crept into the boys’ tent. It soon became apparent that she had had some kind of sexual relations with two of the boys (not full blown sex) but was unwilling to do so with the third. To be fair to the third boy, he too was not over keen on having sexual relations with the girl either. However, one of the other boys took exception to this and was trying to persuade the girl into letting his friend have his “turn” as he put it.

To be quite clear, he didn’t force her into doing anything and nothing was done against her will. He was just trying to persuade her. In his thirteen year old mind, she wasn’t being fair and she wasn’t playing by the ‘rules.’ To him the ‘rules’ where everyone gets a turn or you’re ‘not being a good sport’. It just wasn’t British. His emotional response was lacking because he was only thirteen and unable to cope with the feelings and urges his adolescent body were raging with. He didn’t see this girl as a person. He didn’t respect her or her feelings. She was the type of girl who entered boys’ tents in the middle of the night, what did she expect?

Eventually, they all quietened down. I’m not sure whether this poor boy got his “turn” with this poor girl or not. I don’t want to know. All I know is that not only was I shocked but so was every other girl on the trip as their noise had woken us all up. We talked about it, the five of us, the whole of the next morning. We were upset but didn’t know how to deal with it. We were just thirteen and had never once been in this situation ourselves. So we did what do? We did what all children do with experiences they can’t process and deal with and filed it away at the back of our minds, forgot about it and went back to playing. Except, I haven’t really forgotten about it. That incident is still there in my mind and it still upsets me today.

That was nearly thirty years ago, and, unfortunately, I think many teens today will still be able to relate to this story. Again, nothing has changed. Now teenagers have to contend with social media outlets and ‘sexting’ in addition to the puberty-ridden angst I had to. They watch music videos which show gyrating semi-naked women as a matter of course. I am one of the original ‘MTV generation.’ MTV was launched as I hit my teens. But we never saw the sexualisation of women in videos like we do now. When did this happen? It seems to have crept up on us and I, for one, have been sleeping and let it do so.

A couple of months ago there was an incident involving my, then, four year old daughters. It was about ten in the morning and. for some reason, there was a music channel on our TV. I’m not sure who or how it got put on but the girls were happy dancing about to it so I paid it little attention. All of a sudden one of my girls said, “Mummy, why is that lady dancing in her bra and pants?” I looked up to see LadyGa Ga prancing around in what could only just be described as her bra and pants. I hastily switched over to CBeebies and spluttered something about not being sure why she would want to dance dressed like that. I cursed myself for being so stupid. I know the content of music videos these days so why on earth had I left it on?

But hang on a minute, it was ten o’clock in the morning and this channel didn’t have a PIN protected code like some of the others do. This means that any child of any age has access to this imagery. And what are these images telling our children? To be attractive to the opposite sex you need to dress and dance like a stripper, and be overtly sexual? Is that really what we want our kids to learn? We, as adults, have become so used to seeing the sexualisation of women in the media we’ve forgotten its impact. We have become desensitised to it. It’s the twenty-first century and we still have a Page-Three Girl for goodness sake. Come on Britain, get your act together! As for those of you who claim it’s keeping people in employment, well so did hanging but we outlawed that in the 50s.

So, what’s the answer? It’s what it has always been – education. We, as parents and guardians, have a responsibility to sit down and talk to our children about what constitutes healthy relationships and what doesn’t. We need to acknowledge that we live in a highly commercial, capitalist world and that sex sells. We need to show them that the images they are bombarded with are a marketing tool, that’s all. They are not how you are intended to live your life. We have to do this in a calm, rational and open manner. There’s nothing a teenager hates more than being preached to. We have to accept that, at the end of the day, it is our children that are going to decide how they are going to behave and we can’t control this. It is part of growing-up and we have to allow them the freedom to do so. All we can do is show them that they have choices and options, and let them know we will be there for them if something untoward happens.

However, it is not just down to us. We send our children to school to equip them with the skills needed to make it in the world when they reach adulthood. Somewhere along the line, our elected officials and civil servants have decided that this means our children achieving five A*-C GCSE passes. That is the main goal of three to sixteen years education, and if they achieve their five passes they are equipped for the world. Anything else is secondary to the primary goal and is nowhere near as important. Wrong! It’s no good churning out A* students if they are emotionally fucked up over something that happened on a school camping trip in Year 8. We need proper relationship education not just education about the mechanics of sex. We need sufficient time to be devoted to it in the curriculum and timetabling. Anything less, and we’re selling our kids short. In thirty years time, I don’t want my girls to be telling their kids that nothing has changed.

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