Op-Ed: If we can stop any aspect of sexual harassment, let’s let it be the age at which it starts
I was in London, on the Underground, not long ago when I heard a commotion down the carriage. “Can I get your number?” a man was saying, with another speaking over him: “You are banging, babe, banging.” Under these voices was a quieter, modulated one: “Please stop. She’s only 13.”
Several men, dressed in disheveled but expensive suits, were leaning over a girl and her mother. The daughter was hunched into herself; the mother was shielding her from the men, who were reaching to touch her hair.
People around them — men included — reacted immediately, instinctively. We spoke up; some of us rose from our seats. Stop, we all said. Leave her alone.
The suited men got off at the next station; the girl sobbed, her hands over her face.
When I got back to Scotland, I looked out the kitchen window at my two daughters, who were racing around the garden dressed in capes. As I watched them scale a tree, leap down off a bench, I found myself wondering how much longer they had before they were exposed to this kind of attention. Three years? Four? The thought gave me an almost physical pain.
Ask any woman when she first encountered sexual predation and you’ll invariably be given a story dating back to the tail end of childhood.
I am raising a teenage son too, and I have noted that his adolescence is completely different from mine. He has no experience of the behavior I saw on the subway. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that male teenagers live without threat; they face dangers of a different kind. They are, however, on the whole, able to move about without people yelling ribald remarks at them, without eliciting comments about their changing bodies. Girls do not enjoy this privilege.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I became aware of the male gaze. I was 12, on a family holiday in France. I had been learning French at school, so I was sent to the boulangerie to buy our morning croissants. As I stood in line, clutching francs and centimes in my palm, rehearsing what I needed to say, I noticed two men, ahead of me, turning around and grinning.
Did I know them? Had I met them before? I didn’t think so, but because I had been brought up to be polite to adults, I smiled back. Then one of the men gestured toward my chest and said, “Deux petits citrons.”
Citrons: the word tolled inside my head. Its effect on me was that of salt on a slug. I curled into myself, lowering my eyes, gripping the hot, slippery coins. I felt branded, stripped, acutely aware of those nascent twin mounds that had so recently appeared on my front. Until that moment, I’d believed no one else had noticed them.
The men were laughing, collecting their baguettes and heading out, already forgetting the 12-year-old girl in the queue.
I never forgot them, though. I can, even now, three decades on, recall their faces; I can feel the scorching shame they instilled in me. I walked out of that shop a different person from the one who went in: My perception of myself, my relationship to men, all changed in an instant.
I remember crossing the sun-shot square, the bag of croissants knocking against my shin, and looking down at myself in something like disgust. My body felt enormous, unwieldy, monstrous. The horror of realizing that the form you live in could attract that kind of attention, that type of interest. And from men the age of my father! The T-shirt I was wearing (white with blue trim, the brand-name etched in silver across my chest) and the terry cloth shorts (striped, side-vented), I never wore again.
My experience was far from unique and fairly benign, being confined to the merely verbal. Since the numerous high-profile harassment allegations began coming to light, I have been involved in many discussions with friends on the topic. The question we come back to, again and again, is: When was the first time?
Ask any woman when she first encountered sexual predation and you’ll invariably be given a story dating back to the tail end of childhood, as if there is something in the pheromones of early female adolescence that makes certain men want to induct girls into the world of gender imbalance. The classmate’s father who stood too close; the relative whose hand reached just that little bit too far around during the family photograph; the bus driver who demanded a phone number in exchange for a ticket; getting hissed at or leered at or ordered to smile as you walked down a street.
I have a friend who was regularly followed home from school by men apparently excited by her uniform. Another who lost count of the times she had pelvises pressed against her on busy trains. Someone else told me that, at the age of 11, while out walking the dog, a masturbating man stepped into her path.
I would like to go to the men in these stories, the ones in the boulangerie and on the trains, and say, “These were children. Do you understand? They deserved your protection, your understanding, your help, not threats and insults and gropes and intimidation. Is it so impossible to respect the final years of female childhood? Can’t you at least give women that?”
If I could change any aspect of sexual harassment, I think it would be this: the age at which it all starts, the way girls are subjected to an abrupt and aggressive shutdown of their innocence. Too often, the fledging sense of our own sexuality is triggered by harassment.
I would like to think that things have improved since the 1980s, when I was growing up. But having witnessed the scene on the Underground, I know with a sinking feeling that, all too soon, I will be that mother. I will need to be poised to defend my daughters from the depressing and predictable onslaught of unwanted male attention. I just hope I can be as fierce and sad and dignified as she was.
Maggie O’Farrell is the author of seven novels. Her memoir, “I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death,” will be published by Knopf in February.
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