As far as culturally virtuous forms of entertainment go, attending large public lectures sits somewhere between watching Best Picture-nominated movies and finishing a Penguin Classic. Typically, lectures take less time than either of those other activities, and since they’re also more socially acceptable to Instagram, they’re right in my wheelhouse of passive cultural consumption.
I’d love to pretend that my attendance at All about Women, an event held annually at Sydney Opera House, with more than 10,000 tickets sold this year, had motives more pure than ‘I wonder if this panel will get into a shit fight about intersectional feminism’ (They didn’t. Kinda), but the reality is, I watched Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen firmly but fairly take academic, author and foreign-policy expert Anne Marie Slaughter to task for her heteronormative assumptions about the nature of family with the same semi-detached enjoyment I might experience at home, doing a bad job of housework while listening to a podcast.
There is one advantage to watching highly talented, successful and articulate women in the flesh—it has an air of aspiration. As an educated 27-year-old white woman in a corporate leadership position and with a male partner, I’m essentially a liberal feminist’s dream girl. Would that I were above it, but there’s something pretty gratifying about being spoken to so directly that it actively excludes others. Well, the ‘direct’ part, not the exclusion. If I were a woman of colour, I would not have seen so many pathways to success on which to pin my hopes.
As it was, I walked away thinking about my own special projects: demanding my partner take an equal or greater share of our domestic duties (tick); convincing my white-collar workplace to put more value on the role of the carer (TBC); and about how, in the most oft-repeated quote of the day (and the launch dinner the night before and the Maserati-sponsored lunch two days later), it is my job to be ‘brave, not perfect’. None of these things are likely to improve the lot of the women in factories in Shenzhen, toiling over circuitry with tweezers 14 hours a day so that I can read the New Yorker on my iPad; none of these things help the trans teenagers killing themselves because they’re so under-resourced and socially isolated they can’t even dream of a better place. But in my own relatively-light-on-oppression existence, these aphorisms hit the spot.
Spending the day listening to smart and forceful speakers buoyed me. Seeing so many friends in attendance took me higher. Downing two sickly pink Cosmopolitans while participating in the strange and intimate Sex and the City–derived performance artwork by Brian Lobel, You have to forgive me, you have to forgive me, you have to forgive me, lit me up. That night I headed back to the Opera House to catch Sleater-Kinney perform. As I walked across the harbour foreshore, tasteless tourist shops to my right, ferries chugging by to my left, I did something I long ago learned not to do in public. I let a warm, open smile seep across my face.
My retribution came quickly. A few metres ahead of me a friendly looking guy, probably a little younger than me, with shoulder-length curls stood in my path and said ‘Hey! Hey!’ He smiled back at me. I paused to check him out. He looked like someone I might know. He looked like some-one who might be attending a riot grrrl concert too. Just as I figured out this man was a stranger, I saw someone sprinting towards me in my peripheral vision. He slammed his body into me—not too hard, but hard enough—and grabbed me in an embrace, pinning my arms by my sides. He rested his head on my shoulder. I stood motionless, unable to figure out what the hell was going on. As the second man pulled back, his friend, the one who had stopped me in the first place, came closer. I wasn’t smiling any more. ‘Awwww,’ he said to me, ‘do you want a cuddle?’ My eyes widened and I said nothing as he threw his arms around me in the same style his friend had. Pinning me, immobilising me. I moved my forearm over my handbag to protect it. I don’t remember what he smelled like. After a few seconds he backed off, shot a look at his friend, and they both jogged off into the crowds of Circular Quay. I checked through my bag to see if I’d been robbed. I hadn’t. I don’t think the idea that I might have been uncomfortable ever occurred to them.
I continued walking to the punk show. Feeling small now, taken down and trapped within my own body. I remembered what I’d been told that day, women should be brave, not perfect. I hadn’t been brave. I’d been mute and stunned and silenced. A good feminist would have stood up for herself. A good feminist would have asserted her desire not to be touched. I just stood there and took it. Not brave, and certainly not perfect. I turned the incident over in my head. I tweeted about it. One sentence fired off fast: ‘The irony of being street harassed and touched without consent while walking to a riot grrrl gig’.
I wondered if I should tell anyone. It wasn’t that bad. I’ve had worse. Almost all women have. So many have had much, much worse. I told a girlfriend at the show almost the second I saw her. My explanation of what happened was incoherent, but she was very sympathetic. I pushed the incident to the back of my mind and let Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss create a slamming soundscape to my anger, the way I had a hundred times in high school. Later that night, ‘Get Up’ (‘so small / like us when we fall / I am fine’) in my head, I wrote down what happened to me in more detail, and told the internet about it. I received more sympathy, but didn’t feel any better.
I was also told, more than once, that I should have done something differently. That I should have pushed one or both of them off, or that I should have called out. It manifested as dumb confusion, but I have no doubt that, in the moment I was being held, my reptile brain made a quick calculation. It came up with the realisation that, as in so many other situations we’re placed in as women that we’d rather not experience, things will go better if you say and do nothing.
Little of what I heard at All about Women equipped me with a framework for coping with that minor incident of street harassment. It felt like the conversation had moved beyond issues of inconvenience such as ‘feeling safe in public spaces’. That’s a problem for women in dangerous countries, for women in far worse economic situations than mine. At one point, during the ‘What needs to change’ panel Anne Sherry and Anne Marie Slaughter were having a sassy repartee about pulling back from domestic duties. Crystal Lameman, an environmental activist of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, said slowly, with tears in her eyes, that leaning on her partner had never been an option for her, because her partner would have beaten her to death. It was a grinding change of pace for the panel, and an incredibly uncomfortable but valuable moment. It also felt a little inconvenient. The explicitly capitalist liberal-feminist project of remaking the world along gender-equal lines while leaving the system intact would be so much easier if horrible shit didn’t keep happening to women, all women, everywhere, all the time.
Not even liberal-feminist dream girls like me are immune. If what those boys did to me at the harbour was cranked up just a little—let’s say it was a five out of ten, instead of a two—my ability to function easily in public places could well have been impacted for a considerable time. This would, at the very least, have affected my performance at work.
For me, the best solution of the day came from Sleater-Kinney. It wasn’t a directive. It wasn’t something I had to go out and action, in the grand tradition of self-help. It was a plea: Dig me out of the mess, out of my head, out of my body, out of my skin.
Equal representation in a boardroom might be nice for the women sitting in the chairs. Gender-blind caring might be great for the couples involved. But really fighting inequality means rebuilding the world to include expensive, expansive safety nets so that when the horrible things that overwhelmingly happen to women (especially women who aren’t white, straight and able-bodied) keep happening—and they will—they can keep on being. Not brave. Not perfect. Just being.