I was a child who had a natural curiosity about how the world worked – especially how people worked, the social order of things. I remember how my grandma, close to her death, recalled a memory of me as a five-year-old at our annual Christmas do. She said I’d sidle up to someone like the great aunt tucked away in the corner of the room and strike up a conversation/interaction with her to make sure she felt included. I don’t remember doing it, but I remember feeling a wave of emotion as Grandma recounted this story to me as a twenty something.
It was this curiosity that made me pick up a badge in the sand as I was going for a surf down at Pt Leo in Victoria – The badge said, ‘Surf against Sexism’. I was about seven years old and didn’t know what sexism was, so I pinned it to my boardies, went for my surf and then asked mum and dad what it meant when I got home. That conversation was so interesting to me that I kept that sea rusted badge on my bedside table for a few years until I became a teen and it was lost amongst the mess! It obviously left an indelible mark.
It was around 1976 when I picked up that badge in the sand. It was a mere eight years earlier that women were fighting for the right to be paid equally to men (recently watched a great film, ‘Made in Dagenham’ that follows such a group of women working in a Ford factory in England for exactly half the wage of the men). It would be another five years before rape was fully criminalised within marriage in Australia. Such recent history! Weighed against thousands of years structural, economical and political power imbalance between men and women in so many cultures around the world – is it any wonder that we are left with a society that still struggles with attitudes and actions of violence towards women that need to be challenged and changed?
Fast forward forty years (OMG that time went quick!) and I’ve been facilitating these cultural change conversations for around twenty years. It’s now 2018 and I’m walking my dog Max through the bush out the back of Burleigh Heads. It was days after the rape and murder of Euridice Dixon in Melbourne as she was walking home at night after performing a comedy gig. In Burleigh that night I was struck profoundly by how safe I felt as a heterosexual white man walking alone at night through urban bushland. Something is desperately wrong with the picture when more than half the population can not feel this way. We had a community meeting/conversation about it in the Tugun Progress Hall a couple of months later and posed the question, ‘what would it take to get there – for 100% of the population to feel safe?’ It became a conversation about micro moments of challenge and support.
Euridice Dixon and all the women of Melbourne/the world were told in the ensuing days by Victoria’s top policeman that they needed to have ‘situational awareness’ to avoid being raped and killed. This message was swiftly challenged by the premier Dan Andrews who said:
“Our message to Victorian women is this: Stay home. Or don’t. Go out with friends at night. Or don’t. Go about your day exactly as you intend, on your terms. Because women don’t have to change their behaviour. Men do.”
The hard work of women’s advocate groups who had been campaigning against victim blaming for decades had finally begun to bear some powerful fruit.
At the community meeting we spoke about how men who are wanting to see this change needed to adopt a greater situational awareness ourselves. All the women at the meeting spoke of the regular situations where they haven’t felt safe, but the aggression/abuse is so subtle that nobody has noticed. One woman recounted a story of being harassed by a group of young men on public transport. Another man moved from where he was sitting a fair distance away to sit beside her. Didn’t say anything – the abuse ceased. When she went to get off at her stop, he walked with her to the door and asked quietly if she was OK and if she wanted him to walk with her until she got home or not? This man’s situational awareness and quiet intervention still made her emotional to that day – it had had such a profound effect.
About a week after the meeting I was having a cuppa in Coolangatta and in the distance, I saw two young women jump and hold their hearts as they crossed the road. I knew something had happened, but I wasn’t sure what. Feeling like I was about to potentially make a fool of myself, I approached them and asked what had made them jump. Visibly relieved to have a witness, they recounted how a man in a car had swerved to almost hit them and shouted sexual obscenities at them as he drove off. I was able to say, ‘that’s not ok what just happened to you and I’m sorry that happened’. Coming from another man in this moment such a simple statement can be a powerful counterpoint.
Situational awareness and any ensuing actions don’t need to be a big deal or grandiose or ‘rescuing’ – they just need to counter the aggression and create a different cultural norm. This is how change happens, in the micro moments of challenge and support. I owe my awareness in this sphere to the women of the 60’s and 70’s who challenged the male dominated surf culture by making a badge that said, ‘Surf against Sexism’. My curiosity has led me to a much more nuanced understanding of this complex sphere and I strongly believe that if we continue to grapple with and challenge the cultural norms, both women and men will benefit.
And that’s another whole conversation for another time..
Stephen is a MATE facilitator, he and fellow MATE facilitator Michael Jeh are hosting a webinar as part of our DFV Prevention Month series. Register here.