Guest column: ‘As girls, we are taught to stay silent’

Cayman has a responsibility to create a safer society for young people coming into the working world, argues Compass guest columnist Aleigha General.

Aleigha General
Compass guest columnist Aleigha General.

Often when people hear the phrase ‘sexual harassment’, things like late nights and alcohol are immediately added to the image forming in their minds.

For them, sexual harassment does not exist outside of a carefully curated biome of irresponsibility, promiscuity and the cover of night.

But my classmates and I know personally that, more often, the real mixture is that of men’s entitlement, underage girls and gut-wrenching fight-or-flight situations – often in broad daylight. To properly understand sexual harassment and its implications for its victims, we have to look closely at what we have taught our children in relation to bodily autonomy, purity culture and the hushed nature of sexual harassment in general.

From a young age, girls are exposed to a cautionary aspect of life that, for the most part, their male counterparts don’t have to deal with. Not being able to stay home alone, always walking in well-lit areas on the way home from school (if you were allowed to walk at all), making sure you were hyper-aware of your surroundings at all times, all while never being completely sure what it was you were scared of.

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Our existence quickly becomes a constant cycle of checks and balances of our own appearance, behaviour and mannerisms, seemingly for our own protection. But by teaching us to walk on the eggshells of potentially alerting a man to our presence, we are also subliminally taught to stay silent when we face potential threats. Even in schools, where young people spend most of their time, there is rarely ever a constructive and continuous conversation about the experiences women and girls have with unwanted advances every day. Starting this discussion in younger age groups is crucial to breaking the cycle.

I can remember just a few weeks ago walking through town on my way to work and being approached and followed by two men who seemed to be in their mid-30s. Only one of them engaged with me verbally but that didn’t slow the racing of my heart or the cold sweat that started to form beneath my uniform. He spoke to me, ‘complimenting’ my body in a lewd manner and repeatedly asking for my phone number, all while smiling, as though he enjoyed seeing me uncomfortable. With adrenaline coursing through my body, I stayed strong, just like I had seen my mother do many times, and kept on my path with as little communication as possible until we parted ways.

It wasn’t until I reflected on the situation that I realised just how quickly I had compartmentalised that situation and proceeded with my day as though nothing was amiss. I got away without being assaulted so that should be enough for me, right? Wrong. I should have been able to express to this man that I did not want his attention without fearing for my physical well-being, but that wasn’t (and has never been) a safe option. Now imagine having to deal with that on top of the stress of exams, scholarship applications, work and so much more that young adults, specifically, have to carry as we transition into the working world.

Our learned silence is what we think will keep us out of trouble in our 9-to-5s, but based on the anecdotes from working women in the Compass articles, our silence only makes us sitting ducks. Until we deal with the entitlement issues that many of our young men (and women) have in how they see another person’s body, we can’t hope to make our streets, let alone the corporate scene, a safe place. Men with power, money, influence and status make their power known each and every day to women who are told that they can’t and won’t do anything about it.

For too many generations, we have allowed young girls to grow up believing that when a boy hits her or is rough with her that’s his way of showing affection, or that when a girl expresses to your son that she is not interested in his advances he shouldn’t take no for an answer, that her rejection is just a friendly game of cat and mouse. And yet we are surprised when our children become involved in domestic abuse cases and sexual assault charges. They were never taught to respect another person’s boundaries because the conversation surrounding consent and bodily autonomy is not taken seriously or is not seen as necessary because ‘boys will be boys’.

How about we educate our young men on how to properly manage their emotions when they do begin to feel romantically for another person, and teach them that a woman’s rejection of you is not a signal to try harder. That kind of energy should be reserved for passing CXCs. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed, welcome to the existence of most of the women in your life.

It is time for Cayman to wake up and recognise the privilege that men live with and the responsibility they have to check their own behaviour, as well as the behaviour of their friends and colleagues. So I implore you, Cayman, if safety is truly what you want, think harder about the behaviours you accept from your friends, your children and even yourself, because if you refuse to do so, you are just as much a part of the problem.

* Aleigha General, 18, is a recent graduate of John Gray High School and Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong. She currently works part-time with the YMCA in the extended after-school programme as she waits to study sociology in the United Kingdom in September.

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