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Stop teaching us to be good girls

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Stop teaching us to be good girls

Jessica Vander Leahy

Jessica Vander Leahy. PHOTO: Heather Hazzan 

Jessica Vander Leahy. PHOTO: Heather Hazzan 

There I stood, pressed up against strangers on a packed city-bound train during my morning commute. Arms, heads, elbows everywhere. From the moment his hand brushed my leg, I knew something wasn't right. The feeling of his breath against my neck only confirmed it.

Now I'd love to say that the experience of a clammy hand furtively creeping up my skirt that morning was something that had never happened before. I'd delight in telling you that the forceful push of his palm between my thighs and the fumble of his fingers tugging at my underwear was an accident, but that would be a lie because I, like so many women, am no stranger to falling victim to incidental sexual assault on a semi-regular basis.

My immediate reaction – silence and stillness - told him everything he needed to know about me; she's a good girl, she's not going to scream or make a fuss.

I knew before he got anywhere near my skirt that he was a predator but, strangely I didn't move away or stop him. Not because I didn't want to, but because he hadn't done anything ... yet.

As ridiculous as it sounds, I was afraid of hurting his feelings. What if it was accidental? What if I called him out on his behaviour and embarrassed him? That would only embarrass us both.

By the time I convinced myself my intuition had been right all along, that I had just been sexually assaulted in the most brazen way, the train had stopped, the doors had opened and I had rushed out onto the platform without looking back. No attempt to attract attention. No desire to make a fuss. Just like a good girl should.

Of course I was upset. Of course I was angry. But mostly I was just happy: happy it was over.

I know that this impassive reaction might baffle some but the fact is, when I can walk away relatively unscathed from this type of assault - the kind that regularly happens to women on buses, at bars, beaches, supermarkets or gyms - I mostly feel thankful that things didn’t turn out worse. And so I blink back tears, swallow lumpy screams and quietly move away from the situation, determined to get on with my day.

In Australia 1 in 5 women over the age of 15 have experienced some form of sexual violence, according to the Victorian Centres Against Sexual assault. And our culture seems hell bent on conditioning us to be easy prey. We are raised not to be rude or bossy or difficult but above all else, not to be a bitch. "Be nice" is a well-versed mantra often recited to the fairer sex but it's becoming clear that it is this courteous behaviour that can get good girls into bad trouble.

In 2006, American actress Gabrielle Union, 41, came forward to talk about the day she nearly lost her life at the hands of a brutal rapist. Even when her instincts told her to run from the man who would go on to rape her in the shoe store where she once worked as a teenager, Gabrielle says she stayed because she was raised to be polite.

Left: Actress Gabrielle Union. Right: Writer Estelle Tang. 

Left: Actress Gabrielle Union. Right: Writer Estelle Tang. 

Estelle Tang caused an Internet stir with her Open letter to all my male friends, published by the Guardian. Tang, an Australian expat in New York, talked of "dressing down" and "wearing no makeup" to combat the never-ending stream of sexual harassment she faced on the streets of Manhattan, but said her efforts made no difference and argued it shouldn't be her responsibility to change.

"It should go without saying that I don't want to be the one who has to alter my behavior to go unnoticed, and I hate that I even felt like I should try," Tang wrote.

During an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show Gavin de Becker - a leading expert on violent behavior and author of New York Times best-seller, The Gift of Fear - discussed the innate fears of men and women.

"The fact is, that men at core are afraid women will laugh at them and women at core are afraid men will kill them," he said.

De Becker also poignantly touched on a woman's drive to be nice, even if it means risking her own safety.

"[Women] often believe that if you're not nice you increase the likelihood of danger and risk when in fact the exact opposite is true. I have not heard of one case in my entire career where someone was raped or murdered because they were not nice. "

As a female, how many times can you admit to forcing meek smiles to a group of men catcalling you? Or feigned friendliness to a boss or co-worker who you feel has crossed a line? Or even worse, placated a stranger with polite conversation despite being internally racked with fear? It's in those moments that the CCTV footage of Jill Meagher sends chills down the spines of women everywhere.

To be clear, I am not waging a war on all males and accusing them of being potential rapists, but fellas, just for a moment put yourself in the position of a woman walking alone on a street at night with a strange man walking toward you. As a woman, you can't help but feel vulnerable enough to judge mankind by their worst example and therefore it would be silly not to treat any stranger with the same caution you would a fin in the water, no?

According to a report published this year in the medical journal Lancet, incidents of sexual violence against Australian and New Zealand women aged 15-years or older are more than double the global average with 16.4 per cent of the female population recording assaults. And these findings are based on the reported incidents alone.

So many women, myself included, don't report the kind of incidental sexual harassment they encounter because it happens almost daily. Numbed by repeated exposure to it, it’s become normalized. And that is terrifying.

I challenge you to ask your girlfriends, female co-workers, mother, sisters and daughters if they have ever felt harassed or unsafe but nevertheless slapped a frozen smile on the scenario? If you don’t get one ‘yes’, well I’ll eat my hat because it seems if you simply open up a dialogue you’ll find that the pool of women who breathe that rarefied air of never falling victim to a handsy creep is terrifyingly shallow.

Given all of this, when you really think about it, it doesn't seem fair to raise nice, sweet, polite girls in this wicked-wicked world where they can so easily fall victim to danger. Perhaps it's time for all the good girls to go bad.

A version of this story first appeared in The Australian Women's Weekly magazine in 2015

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