Friday, 10 February 2017

Melbourne loveliness, picnicking, music, enjoyable comrades, feminism mansplained, sexual harassment, and the approaching darkness.

Yes, a really dissonant day or two. At the outset I will say that I doubt I'll be able to make the coherent sense of it that I feel is potentially somewhere in there. Doesn't really matter.

Last night I went with work colleagues to an open air concert at the Myer music bowl. I don't work closely with this group. I like them though. They appear to be quality human beings, decent and interesting, and with good durable long lasting productive working relationships with each other, which as everybody knows, is incredibly rare in any context. Also there was a four month old baby in the party. I wanted to hold her and eventually I did get a cuddle. She was fretful at first but settled into being rocked and swayed and soon went to sleep in my arms. Just the best, to sit on the ground, in the warm air and fading light, surrounded as far as you can see by people on the hillside, laughing and relaxing, and stare into the tiny squishy yawning face of someone who's just beginning to become a person - no words, just feelings and sensations and taking in the big world. It was very very hot in the afternoon sun, but in the way that doesn't really matter because you're already sprawled on the grass, and there's no reason to fight gravity. Melting. I got slightly drunk very quickly - warm blood - and that felt very good too. We sat there for two hours before the music started, talking, drinking, eating, watching the sky change. Delightfully effortless and effortlessly delightful.

But why did I do what I did next? I think I had a little go at breaking the idyll, or at least, I sought to augment my pleasure with another and less simple kind of enjoyment. Sitting just behind us on the hill was a young man, alone, reading a book. I saw it was The Road to Wigan Pier. So, as I sort of noted a few posts ago, I'm somewhat sceptical about George Orwell, especially his dystopias, for some reasons that aren't relevant and some that are, and all of which I haven't got the strength to go into now. Nevertheless I said to the man, I noticed your book. I think everyone should be reading the anti-fascists now. We then chatted a bit about the challenges facing the left, clashes and divisions among progressive movements, attempts like the progressive stack to tackle these problems. All this was interlarded with a lot of information about Orwell's other works, none of which was remotely new to me, which he was unaware of because he did not ask anything, only told. And yet, I could easily and gently have clued him into the fact that he didn't need to provide me with this information. Instead, I let him make a fool of himself, which he proceeded to do with great alacrity. I had a few ciders inside of me by this point, this is probably relevant. 

Next he gave me an example of what he thinks needs to be happening now. The left needs to be inclusive and accepting of a variety of voices and perspectives. You know the women's marches the other day. Yes, I knew of those. Well the organisers turned away some feminist groups, and rejected their donations to the campaign, because they are pro-life feminists. Okay, I said, they are not really feminist if they are pro-life, are they. He said, But this is precisely my point. Feminism needs to accept that there are different points of view and welcome the dialogue. Well no, I said. If they don't support womens' freedom to control their own bodies then they aren't feminists and they are calling themselves that for dishonest reasons. He said, no, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt. What doubt I said. On it went. I can't speak to the expression on my face, but the look on his was smug. He also informed me that he is a postgraduate student of history and knows a lot about the mistakes that have been made in the past. We talked a little more about the current situation, and I finally pulled the plug when he informed me that it was too early to make the call that Trump is shaping up to become the most reckless president in American history, on the basis that he (PoTUS) is just an ordinary person and should be given a chance to prove himself like everyone else. Yes, it was just like that. All at once, a classic mansplaining, of feminism of all things, and also and equally a young person out of his depth and making noob errors in the conversational game against an opponent who's done this so many times before that I'm now feeling unkind for blithely handing over the shovel and showing him exactly where to dig. I didn't offer him a rice paper roll, either, even though I'd brought way too many. I ended up eating five of them myself.

Something that has become a regular feature of my life recently is being the recipient of sexualised attention, harassment, by random strangers in public places. I just don't know where to start with this, but start I must, because it is happening, and often. I almost wrote 'inexplicably often', but what I need to do is try to piece together an explanation. My feelings about it are mostly in the baffled/bemused/incredulous zone, although sometimes I also feel scared. There is a lot to understand here and it is none of it good. Before I wade into the swamp, how I understand the connection between the scene last night and this other matter is that there I am, in both scenes, doing my own thing and feeling pretty happy about it too, and then there's suddenly this whole other type of encounter, and while I think I have enough of an idea about what motivates the other party, I am curious (if a little frightened to contemplate it) about the nature of my own role in the scene. 

Just today, three separate incidents. The first was the most stupid and extreme. At 7 am this morning I was in the southbound bike lane on St Kilda Rd just where the hammer thrower statue is, when a man began to walk across the road ahead. We made eye contact, and he smiled and began to rub his hand up and down over his penis, through his pants. He was wearing dark trousers, a light shirt, and looked like he was on his way to work at a totally normal job, not in the pervert factory at all. I just kept moving. I haven't seen anything quite as full-on as that for a while, but the gist of it is really common. I estimate every second day, on average, a man does some sexually suggestive movement, or leers, or yells out something, or some combo thereof. On the way home today, I paused at the bike refuge in Glenlyon Road where John St crosses it, and while I was there the driver of a car approaching stared, stuck his arm out the window, and shouted something which I couldn't hear because I had Frank Ocean keeping me company. Roughly ten minutes later, going over the pedestrian crossing near Lenny's school, a motorcyclist put out his tongue over his upper lip and sort of flicked it like he was doing oral. It was the last one that bothered me most, although I didn't realise it until I got home and saw the front door had been left open and I felt shaky and a bit frightened momentarily to go inside. 

So my chief curiosity here is about what my role in all of this might be. I'm definitely not blaming myself for the way other people are behaving, it's more that I have a reasonable idea of the range of motives that drive this sort of stuff, and also, after a certain point it's of no interest why some people are arseholes. They just are, and the only thing to do is get as far away from them as possible. Further inquiry is an utter waste of time. (This story on This American Life late last year is well worth listening to, on that question. It's short and it is about street harassment and assault in Sydney.) There is a set of questions I run through mentally - uncomfortably - around whether it's some sort of signal I'm sending: eye contact (necessary for safety reasons when you ride a bike), exposed skin, and clothes that are loose or tight, sweat, a warm, moving body, the probably quite obvious pleasure I take in feeling good and being in motion. I don't know. My body has changed a lot over the last year - I've got thinner, fitter, and much faster on two wheels - and I'm enjoying it. Surely a person in the cab of a truck or standing on the footpath can't detect and respond to all of that?

At play in all this is that I don't clearly understand what sexualised harassment like this has got to do with sex as such, and with sexual attraction. My experience of the latter I take to be pretty normal: there is a big difference between noticing that someone is what you might call "objectively attractive" (hilariously/sickeningly, some friends on facebook were alleging that this is a valid way of describing Cory Bernardi) and actually being attracted to them which has a lot more to do with intimacy, closeness, just liking them etc. I can't imagine how anyone could be so stimulated by the sight of even the most built individual that they'd feel the need to begin this sort of carry on. Now I have never been able to grasp how I look to other people, but I'm pretty sure I'm nothing special. I gather that there is something a bit frightening about my face, or I have been told so often enough that I think it must be true. I would rather not have to think about these things, but the lasting effect of the harassment is that I do think about them. Regularly. At length. Uselessly.

And I don't even think it's a gender thing. The men I know who I've talked with about this behaviour are clearly as baffled by it as I am, if not more so. The differences between arseholes and non-arseholes far outnumber the differences between men and women.

Well, it's late and I don't know if I can come back to this again. It's been very, very difficult to write. So I'm publishing.  Here's a photo of a pillow I saw poised on the corner of a roof this morning not long after sunrise.

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