IIt must have been around 1991 when a police officer visited our school and stood on the main stage in the hall. She was a Lady police officer, which we found slightly outlandish and also pointed out the nature of what was to come. About a year earlier, a male officer had come to our single-sex high school to talk about bullying and civic responsibility. This was different. As we sat, cross-legged and laughing, it was clear that she was here to speak to us, woman to woman.
For many of us, the news of Sarah Everard’s disappearance and death earlier this month triggered public horror and a private reckoning with our decades-long conditioning on personal safety. In case of being attacked, the WPC said that day, we should stick our fingers into his eyeballs. We were to take the palm of one hand and hit it hard on the chin. We were going to grab his nose and kick his shins. If all else failed, said this brave woman looking at the embarrassed year 11 girls, we were going to dig deep and vomit on him. That was it. Huge laugh. She had lost the room.
When I look back at that scene, I am struck by the tone of the laughter. It was a sincere joy at the absurdity of imagining that one can throw up on demand. It was also a relief from the tension in the hallway. By the time the girls get to high school, chances are good that they already have an idea of what’s coming up. You don’t think about it for years and then you do.
I mentioned it to a friend last week when, once again, women tried to talk to men about this in our lives. I was nine years old and on vacation with my parents in Portugal when a man approached us on the street and, to put it politely, offered to buy me for sex. It was not traumatic, we are obligated to report this fact, both to emphasize how universal these things are and so that no one thinks we seek care, but I didn’t forget. And of course, it was just the beginning. All very soft, nothing too disturbing, a bit of verbal abuse and some ass pounding, plus a guy who, to my enduring amazement, started taking his clothes off after I interviewed him for this newspaper.
And then we have children and the problem changes. I don’t know what advice personal security officers give in high schools these days, but in New York elementary schools, kids are much more sophisticated than we are about abuse. Through school, or through YouTube, one of my six year olds has taken hold of the phrase “you don’t know my body” and uses it in tremendously annoying ways every time I tell him to do something. “You’re tired, go to bed.” “You don’t know my body!”
It is a superficial defense. With the threat level raised to paranoia this week, I circled back to try stranger danger again. No one talks about cars and puppies anymore, especially since no one lets their six-year-olds walk anywhere alone. The word I heard parents use is “misleading.” He tells his children to beware of “cheating” adults. They understand this as, in first grade, they encountered cheating kids they don’t trust. You tell them never to worry about making noise if they feel unsafe.
And try to anticipate any possible manipulation. What do we know to be true if an adult says – about anything, ever – “Don’t tell your mom, she’ll be mad at you”? My kids respond, obediently and with a hint of rolling their eyes, “We know you’re lying!” And then what do we do? “Tell our mom!” I ask about the bathroom protocols. I jump on anything that looks like resistance to going somewhere with adults I don’t know. I try to control my anxiety so as not to turn them into excessive worries. Parents of children are having these conversations too, of course, but at some point it stops. Looking ahead, I feel a nuclear rage.
Every lesson, every year, and here I am, exactly where I was 30 years ago, only now I look forward to having this talk with my daughters. Don’t take the shortcut. Stay in well-lit areas. Tell your friends what time you will be home. Don’t hitchhike unless you want to be killed and never take an unlicensed minicab. There is something else, something I am not saying, but that in weeks like these many of us look at our children and consider, with horror and anger, the most important thing above all things: being lucky.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism