It was the call you never want to receive from your child’s school.
“First let me reassure you that your daughter is fine…”
It was a heart-stopping moment, right there in the middle of the working day, as I stepped out of the meeting room cradling my phone to take the call. You know there is a ‘but’ coming. Why would she not be fine?
“…but I wanted to ask you if it would be ok for your daughter to speak to the police.”
Thud. The police? What?
There had been an incident as my daughter and her friend walked to school. A man in a car had pulled up alongside them on the street. Something was said. It was a little unclear from the girls’ accounts what that was exactly. That is how these things often go – the retelling is jumbled and confused. Was it half-imagined? Afterwards it is easy to convince yourself that it was all a misunderstanding. That is why these kinds of incidents are seldom reported, and even less often believed.
Maybe the man didn’t beckon the two girls from the car. Maybe he did. But something was said that spooked the girls enough to make them run. A friend’s mother called the police, who were now proposing to come interview the girls at school.
My mind was racing. Was this some paedophile cruising for his next victim? My daughter looks her age – 11. She is drowning in her new school uniform. She has the barest hint of breasts, but you can’t tell from under the enormous blazer. She still looks like a child.
“She’s so young for something like that to happen,” said a friend as we talked about it later. But it does happen this young. This is the kind of age it starts. For some of the unluckiest girls it starts even younger than that, but definitely by the time you are on the cusp of puberty a girl can expect to start being hit by sexual harassment.
I remember how, age 11, I was flashed by a man down at the local shopping mall. It was my first sight of an erect male penis. I had seen them small and flaccid before on my brother and various male cousins, but this was a simply bizarre sight. My first thought was that he had somehow fastened an enormous red salami onto his belly.
My second thought – which came much later, once the surprise had worn off – was that I was never going to be able to have sex if it involved dealing with something that looked like that. I would die of laughter first. That thought stayed with me for many years afterwards and may have had something to do with the fact that I lost my virginity relatively late.
The incident with my daughter depressed me. Luckily nothing much had happened this time. But as a woman I know that this is just the start of a lifetime of fending all all kinds of harassment. A wall of shit is coming towards her: the parties where some boy will pin her into a position she finds uncomfortable, the catcalls from builders, the bosses too free with their hands, the dates that won’t take no for an answer. The number of women posting under the #metoo hashtag has shown, pretty conclusively, how often harassment happens. At US college campuses one in five women suffer some kind of sexual assault. In the UK one in five women between the ages of 16 and 59 has experienced sexual violence.
I have a horribly helpless feeling because I can’t protect her from all that, and I don’t quite know what to tell her. This is harder than those first conversations that we had about sex a few years ago. That was just awkward. This is different – it is telling her about a world that is stacked against her, that wants to hurt her.
On a practical level, I’ve told her about putting her keys in her fist so she can rake them across someone’s face, and about kicking them in the balls.
“Go for the eyes with those keys and scream as loud as you can. This is one of those times when you don’t have to worry about hurting someone,” I told her.
But what about the rest? It is harder to explain that many encounters, like this one, will be ambiguous. Some of them won’t be taken seriously by the police. They may be passed off as “just a joke”, her feelings of fear dismissed. Her side of the story will not necessarily be believed. As she grows into a more womanly shape she will be written off as a slut or frigid, depending on how these encounters go. She will be made to wonder if it was all her own fault, told that she was “asking for it”. I don’t quite know how to tell her about that. I wish I didn’t have to.