This week I went on a first aid course. I was looking forward to learning the techniques that would prolong the agonising suffering of one of my biro stabbing victims, as well as how to administer the most British of recovery positions – that is, to administer stiff brandies all round and politely ask the patient to jolly well live. What I instead learnt was that I allow the fact I’m a strong, confident woman turn me into a victim of sexual harassment.
In spite of my own fears and insecurities, when placed in a room full of strangers, I project the persona of a confident and humorous female. To all concerned, I am a vivacious and openly friendly woman and this, in many ways, serves me well. I’m not unusual in these character traits – there are women all around the world who are a charmingly affable force to be reckoned with and in fact, I come from a long line of vivacious and openly friendly women.
My mother will happily chirp away in an amusingly forthright “known-you-all-my-life” manner to any unsuspecting shop keep or street busker, who were blithely minding their own beeswax. My grandmother’s weapon of choice was to sing at you, if you were unlucky enough to have mentioned any word resembling the lyric of any number of random ditties from her worldly repertoire. I, for my part in this gobby family tree, see everyone as a potential new best chum and I crack jokes. Whatever way you look at it, we are far from the shy simpering wallflowers that you imagine when you hear the word “victim”. But that’s exactly what I turned myself into, and it was because of, not in spite of, the fact I am a “strong, confident woman”.
The first aid course went, as all first aid courses go, tediously slowly and with that annoying girl who always asks way too many questions of dubious relevancy and seems to misunderstand everything, turning the cursory “any questions?” into an investigative debate on exactly what brand of sticky plasters you should have in your basic first aid kit. You know the one, she’s on every corporate training course ever, and the muscles on one arm are vastly over-developed from it being constantly raised in the air. So there I was, launching the odd jovial quip with my answers to some very dull primary school style teaching, and enthusiastically throwing myself into all the demonstrations of how to
physically assault a corpse place someone into the recovery position, when the metaphorical rug of my self assuredness got whipped right from under my well shod feet.
I had been asked to practice some life saving techniques on the David Brent-esque male course trainer, and as I tentatively knelt over him, holding my ear close enough to his mouth to feel his breath, he whispered something in my ear. It wasn’t something grotesque, it wasn’t anything lewd or crude. It was a “cheeky” comment about whether I was looking for a husband. It was enough.
I wish I had got up from my knees and informed this man that I did not enjoy his comment. I wish that I had given him a stern faced rebuttal and a firm ticking off, but I didn’t. I carried on with the life saving techniques that we had been asked to practice and with my guts rising in my throat, I ran my hand down his limbs and torso to check for hypothetical blood, my entire being willing my hands to withdraw from this wholly awkward physical encounter. In spite of the fact he was the one lying prone on the ground, I was the one who felt, in some way, no matter how large or small, violated.
It wasn’t so much that this man had made a hugely inappropriate comment, it wasn’t that he had hit a raw nerve with his choice of topic (I think we all know that I’m more likely to take a holiday than a husband), it was the fact that while a student on his course, and being required to practice intimately physical techniques that I was unfamiliar with in order to pass, I felt vulnerable.
What’s worse, I let his comment slide because I blamed myself! I actually held myself accountable for this man acting in a way that was not only inappropriate for a near stranger to behave, but for someone in a position of professional responsibility, because I felt that I had acted in a way that had made him feel this was acceptable. The fact I had been cracking jokes and behaving in an amiable, confident fashion, as is my character, had been misconstrued as flirting and an invitation to whisper personal comments in my ear, right before I had to stroke the entire length of his body, and I was sorry!
I spent the rest of the course unable to look him in the eye and had to work hard to keep my attention on the words of life saving advice drifting through my ears, as my brain paced over and over every action and move I made from then on, in a bid not to give any further invitation for this unhealthy exchange to continue. It didn’t work. Merely applying my lipstick opened the window for a wisecrack about it being smeared on “course trainers”. My cutting repost, barbed with shards of frozen venom, wasn’t enough to stop me from willing my female form to be swallowed up by the coffee stained carpet. From the look on his face, this was all merely flirtatious banter.
Did I confront him there and then about his behaviour? Did I point out that my jocular comments at the start of the day bore no sexual undertone and that my being able to hold a conversation with any person you care to throw at me (not literally, although I’m now qualified to deal with any injuries they may sustain if you do) was not an open invitation for innuendo and coquetry? No, I blamed myself and I suffered in silence, berating myself for both the blame and the silent suffering.
As the end of the day made its merciful approach, we were presented with a feedback form to share our thoughts on the course and the staff who had taken us through it. Now was my chance, an opportunity to make it known that I was not willing to suffer the retarded social skills of this blissfully unaware letch. But he was right there, he was going to take the forms from us and he would know that I was the one who had made a fuss about a “harmless” joke he had made, a joke that was all my own fault because I had left myself wide open to it with my gregarious character, right before he decides who has passed and who has failed the course. Disappointed in myself and full of repressed anger, I walked away, making empty passive-aggressive threats of grand violence on Twitter and text to my friends. Oh hang your heavy heads, feminists of the world, for I truly let you down. I accepted my fate with such weakness and defeated pity. I wasn’t a strong or confident woman; I had turned myself into a victim.
Later that night while sulking, I had a revelation. I wasn’t at fault here and I’m not a victim! I could try to excuse his behaviour as being a mere misunderstanding and I could try to convince myself that I would get over my “silly” feelings of awkwardness, but hang on, if he was making a “harmless” joke, why had he waited until I was leaning but 2 intimate inches from his face? If this behaviour was professionally and socially acceptable, why had he not shared it with the entire class?! I was not the one at fault, no matter how cheery my disposition may have been in the lead up.
And now the tricky part. I didn’t want to make a fuss. Why? Well, if I was so outraged, surely I should have said something at the time, but for my own reasons (as discussed above), I didn’t. I also acknowledge that what he had said contained no explicit or threatening words and that he didn’t actually lay a hand on me. However, what he did was not appropriate and actions should be taken for two reasons; the first being so that he won’t do this again, and the second so that I can claw back some of my self-respect and control over the situation. My decision, rightly or wrongly, has been to consult the HR department of my employer for sage impartial advice, with a view to contacting this man and his superiors, in a polite and professional manner, to let them know, without making a formal (potentially career damning) explosive complaint, that what he did was not acceptable. I’m being generous and giving him a gift – the opportunity to change, and I’m giving myself a gift too, my voice back.
It turns out I am a strong and confident woman after all and I’m never going to be sorry for that again.