It seems to me that the high level of intuition attributed to women directly relates to the level of awareness we are socialised to operate at; and that this heightened level of awareness is a direct consequence of maintaining personal safety in social situations.
It would be hard – impossible, even – to find women of my generation who have not been affected by #MeToo issues: the saddest thing about that is how normalised it has been, and how powerless we were to combat it.
When I was in my first year of high school the year 7 lockers were at the bottom of the stairs. We had to walk up the stairs to get to our classrooms. A particularly odious male teacher stood at the top of the stairs and said, as we approached, “Do you want a screw?” Then he opened his hand to reveal a silver screw.
Even though this teacher was short in stature, most of us had not had our adolescent growth spurts so we were shorter: he towered above us, leering menacingly at us as we approached.
I recently recounted this story to a 20-year-old: appalled, they asked, “Did you kick him where it hurts?” The reality is that I and my friends did nothing about this teacher, because we were unable to, we were voiceless … and because, despite other teachers having seen him do it, he continued this every day for many weeks until we year 7 girls built enough of a network to have the strength en masse to walk out the bottom door and right around the building to our classrooms, purely in order to avoid him.
The most distressing thing about stories like these is how normalised such incidences were: girls growing up in the ’70s and ’80s learned that unwanted sexual attention was all part and parcel of the experience of being female. We learned this in the legacy of the era of “free love” and “sexual freedom” where women were (supposed to be) equal partners, no matter whether we were experimenting with our first kiss or fully sexually active. That’s not how it happened in practice, as the enormity of the #MeToo movement can attest to.
The Grim Reaper and other advertisements of the AIDS epidemic of the mid-to-late ’80s, which were truly frightening, had a significant role in reducing people’s engagement in one-night stands. However, these public service announcements didn’t eradicate the relentless sexist slurs, ogling and inappropriate touching. Every time there is a new TV series set in the ’80s – which happens more and more frequently, the timespan of 30 years caching that period firmly into “the past” and therefore deserving of “historical viewing” – the topic is raised again … and I am amazed at what was accepted as normal then, looking back as I am with my increased maturity, as well as the hindsight of a later century with decades of social progression in between.
Refreshingly, even though such incidences as my powerlessness to combat Mr Stewart still occur (far too often), they are at least talked about now. No longer are they swept under the carpet (with silence normalised). Rather, they are increasingly called out for the damaging experiences they are.
Our 2021 Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, has brought great attention to that focus through her fabulous and committed work. Awarded on her platform of advocacy for survivors of sexual assault, she has stridently and compassionately called out sexist and misogynistic behaviour, all the way from the leaders of our land – our elected parliamentarians – down. She has created the space for people to talk about harmful sexual behaviour … and that has been healing. Consent training will now be systemically placed into all Australian schools, instead of the hotch-potch hit-and-miss approach that currently occurs across our nation’s different sectors and states/territories. If staff are supported with training and time to deliver this curriculum compassionately and sensitively, this will be a great achievement which will educate young people of all genders and arm them with the understanding, skills and strategies to stop unwanted sexual attention in its tracks, thereby reducing trauma in upcoming generations: that is nothing short of admirable.
What I have noticed is how much hurting remains in the space of consent and respect by women of my generation: old wounds resurface, long-dormant experiences are unearthed – often not yet reconciled and far from forgiven – to be examined through a different lens, with the perspective of a new generation who talk about such wrongs much more freely than we ever could at their age.
In the meantime we women continue to develop the “sixth sense” of “women’s intuition” because we have had to, to protect ourselves … while (herewith, an overt generalisation) the menfolk of the world continue to wonder how we get to be as observant, as tuned-in to microaggressions and as hyper-vigilant as we are.
On the day of writing this post, as I drove home I passed a P-plater1 – who I’m guessing proudly self-identifies as a “red-blooded Aussie male”2 – with this personalised numberplate:
What chance have we got to change societal attitudes when government authorities continue to allow the prevalence of such messages, in the world around us?
GLOSSARY OF AUSTRALIAN TERMS:
- P-plater: a probationary driver in their first two years of having a driver’s licence. In my state, red P-plates are displayed for the first year, and green P-plates for the second year. The P-plater I passed was on his red Ps.
- Red-blooded Aussie male: an arguably-endearing term for a testosterone-fuelled young buck (usually late teens to early twenties) who assumes he can take sexual advantage of women “just because” he is male and young (customarily, also because he is entitled due to the colour of his white skin). This term was regularly used in the decades of my youth to excuse abhorrent sexual behaviour, increasing the unhappy dichotomy of standards by shifting the blame from HIM (the stud: a man to be admired and emulated) to HER (the moll: denigrated for having sex at all, and especially denigrated for daring to have multiple partners – the precise thing that makes HIM even more “worship-worthy” as a stud).