To all the men I knew before
Content Warning: Sexual violence, domestic violence, trauma, alcohol abuse, self-harm.
One of my fondest childhood memories is that my mum read to me every night. She used to tuck me snuggly into my warm bed, before lying down next to me with a book in hand. Over the years she read every fairy tale imaginable; Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White… I remember being completely captivated by the fantastical worlds of fairy god mothers, mystical creatures and royalty. My favourite part was always the endings. I yearned for the inevitable ‘happily ever after,’ for the protagonist I had grown to care for. However, I would come to realise three things later in life that would shatter my innocent, naïve adoration of fairy tales. First, that they reinforce traditional gender stereotypes and promote inappropriate ideas surrounding consent. Second, that they mirrored the cultural norms of the patriarchal society I existed within. And third, that I would not get a ‘happily ever after’ because of these two realities. And just in case you were wondering, Prince Charming did not come to my rescue. In fact, Prince Charming was my oppressor, my imprisoner and the reason I was robbed of the chance at a ‘happily ever after.’
The first man I knew was my father. I have infinite love for my father now, but once upon a time, this was not the case. When I was little, my father, like many men of his generation, was not overly present. As the sole breadwinner, he worked up to seven days a week, often interstate or abroad. This limited my childhood memories of him to mischievously hiding in his suitcase in the hope he would take me with him on his travels. One day, this changed. I can’t quite remember when dad became more present. All I do remember was how the world became distant when he began yelling at me. How I lost my voice. How I would curl up into a ball in my wardrobe and cover myself with a blanket in the hope it gave me the power of invisibility. I used to think I was ungrateful. I mean, it was only verbal abuse, right? It could be so much worse. He even told me it could be. He said that he did not hit me because “if he started, he would not be able to stop.” I felt guilty for not feeling safe at home. But what was worse than the guilt, was the complete sense of powerlessness. When it came time to finish school, I knew this would be my chance to leave. And so, I did what any person does, and joined the military.
I always had friends who were boys. When I was younger and boys pulled my hair or made fun of me, my mum told me it was just because they liked me. When I got older, I didn’t need to be told because the hair pulling became non-consensual groping and the teasing was now incessant objectifying and hyper-sexualised comments. By the time I was seventeen, I found it hard to have friendships with heterosexual men. Not due to prejudice, but rather because it was rare to come by one who treated me with respect. In the military however, training and working in close proximity with men was unavoidable. With a ratio of five men to every woman, it was hard to get by without comradery. And just as this was unavoidable, so too was my experience of sexual violence. In the military I became accustomed to ‘locker room talk.’ Being sexually harassed by co-workers and superiors alike was just another day on the job for me. A boss once suggested he would love me to come over and “have a few cold ones so that he could experience how ‘loose’ I was drunk.” Another co-worker said, “he would love to hose me down while I ran so he could see my wet naked body through my clothes.” There was only one thing worse than the everyday vernacular of my co-workers; the lack of consent. My first time getting drunk as an adult started with one drink handed to me by a male friend and ended with me waking up while being passed around a group of guys all kissing me. I could go on, but I am not ready to share that part of my story. All you need to understand is that this life experience left me untrusting and afraid.
I was eighteen when I lost my virginity. It was not to a friend, or a partner. It was for all intents and purposes meant to be a one-time thing. But it become a relationship. My first serious relationship. And it was this relationship, with this man, that undid me. Or maybe it the final blow to an already battered woman. It was emotional abuse. Two years of manipulation, lies and cheating culminated in an inability to love myself. After two painful years, I finally broke up with him…from a hospital bed. I vowed to no longer drink myself into oblivion when a girl messaged me telling me he had cheated on me with her. I promised that I would go weeks without eating when he told me that I was a ‘disgusting human being’ who ‘would never be good enough for anyone.’ I pledged to not scrub myself until my skin was raw when I slept with another man as a single woman. And whilst I can say I have kept those promises for a year now, there is a lot of healing still left to be done.
So, to all the men I knew before…don’t learn from fairy tales. No one, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, should learn from fairy tales. Cinderella may suggest that a person can go to any length to pursue another. I can confirm that it is never okay. Beauty and the Beast might tell you that it is okay to sexually harass people, even employees or co-workers. I can confirm that it is never okay. Snow White might teach you that you can kiss (or sexually engage with) a person when they are not providing clear and undeniable consent. I can confirm that it is never okay. No form of sexual violence and domestic violence are ever okay. No one needs ‘Prince Charming’ to have a happy ending, they just need RESPECT.
If you want to support people living happily ever:
Talk about issues raised in this article with your friends or loved ones.
If you need support (Australia and ACT Specific):
National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service - 1800RESPECT/1800 737 732;
DaisyApp (Designed by 1800RESPECT);
Lifeline Australia Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention 13 11 14;
Canberra Rape Crisis Centre 6247 2525 (7am-11pm) or 131 444 (after hours).