the fear of making people afraid

IMG_1872Those who read regularly (hi!) will know I’m a some-times runner.

I’m not that good or that fast, but I enjoy it, and I run. When I travel for work or play, I’ll usually pack the shoes and go for a trot to explore new places. It’s a nice way to start a day, and to get to know the lay of the land wherever I happen to be.  I sometimes do the same with my bike…but it’s not quite as portable as a pair of running shoes!

Those who know me personally will also know I’m a bloke, and a fairly big and tall one.  That matters too, in the context of this story.

A while back I was on the Sunshine Coast, and early one morning laced up the shoes and headed out for a run from Coolum down to Mudjimba. It was a beautiful early morning, and quiet, with not many people out and about yet.  On the return leg I started taking little detours off the main road, into little beachside streets or waterfront walking tracks and then back out onto the main road. It was a nice bit of variety and a few extra metres each time.

The first time I did so, I came back out onto the main running track just in time to see a fellow runner (a woman, and yes, in this story, it matters) join the trail from a side street a little in front of me. I was traveling a slightly quicker, so passed her by, offering a quick “hello” as a greeting often shared by runners, and continued on my way. Soon after I turned off the trail onto another little side route, and when I returned to that main trail found myself just behind the same woman. As I said, I was running a little faster so I went past, and continued on my way. I took the next side-route and on rejoining the main road, once again found myself behind the same woman.

This happened about three or four times before I made it back to my starting point, turned off the trail once and for all and went home for breakfast.

Later that morning (I’m a bit slow to pick up on these things) it occurred to me that I could well have been causing my fellow runner to think she had a stalker…a middle aged, dark-sunglassed, huffing-and-puffing stalker who kept on detouring and then running up behind her.  She could well have been quite anxious about my presence, really worried in the quiet early morning about my motives.

I have to say it was a horrible feeling, that I could have been causing anxiety or fear in another, and even worse that I hadn’t realised the possibility until later (when it was too late to take a different route for example). It matters not that the repeated encounters were totally innocent. It matters not that I was there (on the trail) first. In some ways it matters not whether she actually was afraid or anxious (I have no idea). The very possibility was real.

What concerned me then, and concerns me now, is that we live in a world where the very presence of one (man) can and does cause anxiety or fear in another (woman). We live in a world in which I understand women are continuously targeted for harassment or intimidation. Where men (yes not all men, hopefully including me and most men that I personally know…but surely that’s not the point) continue to inflict violence upon women that they know (and don’t know).

And that my feeling of anxiety and fear about making another afraid and anxious while palpable to me completely pales into insignificance when compared to the experiences and feelings of many women every day.

We live in a world in which this video (released yesterday) depicts an everyday reality for some/many women. I can’t say from personal experience if this is genuinely what it’s like (for as already canvassed above…I am a bloke), but women I know and trust tell me that it is:

And we live in a world in which a well known V8 Supercar driver (my sport of choice, please don’t judge) said today:

Hello Adelaide! In town for the 2015 @Clipsal500 launch. Most pressing item for the day, what do the grid girl uniforms look like?

This is a man with a huge public following, and with a wife and young daughter. And who continues the culture-wide objectification of women. And who is defended in social media commentary as “just having some fun”. And this is the relatively innocent end of the spectrum.

And….I don’t know what to do with all of this. Really, I don’t.

I’m a man. Men cause this.  Maybe not me personally (to my knowledge). Maybe not many of the men who might read this.  But we do, collectively, harass, objectify, instil fear in women everyday.

And that’s just not right.

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on yellow cars and casual, cultural sexism

We play a game, our family.

It’s a driving game, it keeps the kids occupied on long trips, gives us something fun to rib each other about along the way.

We call it “Spotto”.  Maybe you play a similar game, but in our version it’s a point for each time you see a yellow car and call out “SPOTTO!” before anybody else does.  As with any family game there are a few quirky rules, some inside understandings of what is and isn’t yellow (Brisbane City Council buses for example, don’t qualify) and for some unknown reason lost in the sands of time spotting a purple car and calling “SPURPLE!” accrues double points.

Hey, it’s fun, and its in the privacy of our own car…

There’s a problem however, and it’s a big one.

Once you start spotting yellow cars (SPOTTO!) it’s just not that easy to stop.

And so now I find myself even when on my own (that’s right…no kids to use an excuse) making a mental note of every yellow car I pass.  I swear to you I haven’t said “SPOTTO!” out loud on my own….yet….but that’s the problem. To borrow a well known advertising catch phrase…once you pop, you just can’t stop.

At the same time as I find myself thinking about yellow cars (SPOTTO!) I’m become more and more conscious of the casual (and not so casual) sexism that still seems ingrained in so many levels of our society.  Maybe that’s a strange connection to make…but go with me here.

As a father of two girls and a boy, I’m very conscious of the opportunities Sheri and I want our girls to have, of the way we want them to be treated, and of the responsibility of our son to know just how he can and should act with regards the women in his now and future life.

And in our current world….there’s a pretty ugly reality that I’m noticing more and more often (SPOTTO!).

Not with me?

Take a look at any Saturday morning “video hits” TV show, where film clip after film clip treats women as little more than scantily clad window dressing.  Men dress in suits, jeans, shirts and women (even when they’re the star attraction) may as well be in body paint.

Take a look at my favourite sport of motor racing, where start grids filled with heroic male drivers have the decoration of a grid girl in Lycra close at hand (or maybe your favourite athletes are footballers and the grid girls come in the form of cheerleaders).  Ridiculously, sadly, even in my chosen hobby of R/C car racing (that’s right…I race toy cars) we sometimes have the stupidity of “trophy girls” at major events.  How do I introduce my daughters to this hobby when basically this is the image of women perpetuated in even this obscure hobby?

Take a look at any number of magazines aimed at women and perpetuating the stereotypes of make-up, fashion and appearance as underlying all self worth.  Even the recent “no make-up selfie” trend that whilst ostensibly has a cancer awareness message (and at best even cancer fund-raising) at heart underneath seems to be implying “no make-up = courageous”.

No man has to put up with such nonsense.

Women continue to be under-represented in leadership in nearly every corner of our society (Federal parliament?) and even where they are present are treated differently (can I say Julia Gillard as just one very visible example without getting into political point-scoring debates?).

They’re underpaid, misrepresented, rejected. Women are subject to totally degrading treatment on the basis of appearance and they are sexualised relentlessly.  Then there’s violence against women prevalent even in mainstream Australian society.

The more I think of it, the more I see it (SPOTTO!). It’s everywhere.  Even though there’s clearly been structural progress in recent decades, there’s still a lot of pretty ugly cultural sexism.

To be fair, there’s plenty of pretty rough male stereotypes as well (cue the witless, useless, clueless father figure than inhabits so many TV commercials and sitcoms), and there are some pretty serious issues around boys in education or even church models that seem more shaped in a way to which girls respond more readily…..but to my eyes (SPOTTO!) the girls have a much tougher road to walk.

And our daughters are growing up in this culture, and will be victim to it. They’ll face pressure to conform. They’ll face expectations about sex and sexuality. They’ll have to abide by different standards than the boys around them.

The more I see it (SPOTTO!) the more I am conscious of just how far we have to go, and of the fact that I’m only just starting to work this out, see what’s in front of me, and can only wonder at the times I’ve probably been complicit.

And more aware of just how much I want both our girls, and our boy to see through the surface of our culture, to find a different way, to live to a different standard.

The fact is our girls (and our boy) are awesome. They’re smart, funny, committed, compassionate, imaginative, creative and talented.  One is intense and motivated, the other non-stop joyful and social.  That’s the basis on which they should progress in life….not on gender, appearance, make-up, short skirts and photo-shop.

The thing is…while I hope I gradually stop seeing yellow cars (SPOTTO!) because to be honest, it’s an annoying game, I sincerely hope the only reason I stop spotting ingrained, cultural, casual sexism is because bit by bit we find a better way.

Bit by bit.

(spotto)