IIt must have been around 1991 that a police officer visited our school and stood on the main stage in the hall. She was a Lady policeman, which we found slightly strange and also signaled the nature of what was to come. A year earlier, a male officer had come to our single-sex high school to talk about bullying and civic responsibility. It was different. As we sat cross legged and giggled, it was clear that she was there to talk to us, woman to woman.
For many of us, the news of Sarah Everard’s disappearance and death earlier this month sparked public horror and private awareness with our decades-long deep conditioning about personal safety. In the event of an attack, the WPC said that day, we had to put our fingers in his eyeballs. We had to take the heel with one hand and push it hard into his chin. We had to grab his nose and kick him in the shins. If all else failed, said this brave woman looking at the embarrassed Grade 11 girls, we would have to dig deep and throw up on him. That was it. Huge laugh. She had lost the room.
When I think back to this scene, I am struck by the tone of the laughter. It was a genuine laugh at the absurdity of imagining that one could vomit on demand. It was also a release of tension in the room. By the time the girls arrive in high school, they have, in all likelihood, already had an idea of what to expect. You don’t think about it for years, and then you do.
I told a friend about it last week when, again, the women tried to talk to men about this thing in our lives. I was nine and I was on vacation with my parents in Portugal when a man came up to us on the street and, to put it politely, offered to buy me for sex. It wasn’t traumatic – we’re forced to point it out, both to emphasize how universal these things are and out of fear that anyone who thinks we’re looking for attention – but I haven’t forgotten about it. And, of course, that was just the start. All very sweet, nothing too upsetting, a little bit of verbal abuse and a few ass pokes, plus a guy who to my amazement started to strip after I interviewed him for this diary.
And then we have kids and the problem changes. I don’t know what advice personal safety guards are giving in high schools these days, but in elementary schools in New York City kids are much more savvy about abuse than we are. At school or on YouTube, one of my six-year-olds picked up the phrase “you don’t know my body” and uses it extremely annoyingly whenever I tell her to do something. “You are tired, go to bed.” “You don’t know my body!”
It’s a superficial defense. With the threat level elevated to paranoia this week, I went back for another try against an alien danger. No one talks about cars and puppies anymore, not least because no one lets their six-year-olds walk anywhere alone. The word that I have heard parents use is “delicate”. You tell your children to watch out for “difficult” adults. They understand this, having already, in first grade, encountered difficult children whom they do not trust. You tell them to never worry about making noise if they don’t feel safe.
And you try to get ahead of any potential manipulation. What do we know to be true if an adult says – about anything, ever – “Don’t tell your mother, she will be mad at you”? Dutifully and with a hint of rolling their eyes, my children respond, “We know he’s lying! And then what do we do? “Tell our mom!” I ask about bathroom protocols. I jump on anything resembling resistance to go somewhere with adults that I don’t know. I try to control my anxiety so that it doesn’t turn it into excessive worrying. Parents of boys also have these conversations, of course, but at some point it stops. Looking to the future, I feel nuclear rage.
All the lessons, all the years, and here I am, exactly where I was 30 years ago, only now I look forward to having this conversation with my daughters. Don’t take the shortcut. Stay in well-lit areas. Tell your friends what time you’ll be home. Don’t hitchhike unless you want to get murdered and never take an unlicensed minicab. There is something else, something that I am not saying, but that in weeks like these many of us look at our children and consider, with horror and rage, the important thing above all else: to have luck.