I Can Provide My Daughter With Tools To Be Safe, But It Shouldn’t Be One-Sided
By Chantal Saville
Photo © ksenia_she/Twenty20
Mar 30, 2021
If you were a tween or teen in the mid-80s in Toronto, you probably know about the abduction, rape and murder of Alison Parrott.
I was just finishing Grade 8, at the same elementary school that Alison attended in downtown Toronto, when it happened. Though Alison was younger than me by two years, a lot of my friends were in the same running club as her. Her disappearance and murder lay a blanket of fear on all of us. How could it have happened? How could some random stranger find her and do this? I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I even asked “How could her parents have let her go to meet this guy alone?”
The fear I had in those weeks and months following her murder was ever present, particularly since her attacker hadn’t been caught (and in fact wasn’t apprehended until a decade later, thanks to advances in the use of DNA to identify perpetrators of sex crimes). I thought about it when I got on the subway to go to school and when I walked home from a friend’s house at dusk. But with time and the hubris of the teenage years, that fear faded.
I haven’t thought much about Alison until recently. It was the story of Sarah Everard, the woman who had gone missing in the U.K. and was ultimately found murdered, that got me thinking about Alison again. While Sarah was one of hundreds of women who are the victims of femicide every year, her story stuck out to me because of two things.
"I thought about it when I got on the subway to go to school and when I walked home from a friend’s house at dusk."
The first was the fact that the man who has been charged in her attack and death is a police officer, the visible figure I have always encouraged my daughter to seek out if she were ever in trouble.
But even more compelling to me were the stories that started pouring out on Twitter and in editorial pieces. Women sharing their experiences of assault, near assault and worse. And the replies from men who didn’t know, who weren’t aware, who didn’t see how all women feel, every single day, but who were beginning to.
And then I remembered that Alison had been almost 12 years old when she died. Just the age my daughter is now.
So I started thinking about what I should tell her to help protect herself from being attacked. We’ve always talked about safety, but in the past, it was in a more general context. Now I needed to reframe the discussion to include sexual violence. I didn’t want to end up scaring her, but as a girl and eventually a woman, she needed to be aware.
After all, while not all men are rapists, we don’t know which ones are and which aren’t. Self-preservation instincts at least require us to consider the possibility. Is that something men even think about?
I thought about the tips and tricks I was taught when I was a teen: carry your keys between your fingers at night; don’t walk alone, particularly at night; don’t wear flashy clothes; don’t draw attention to yourself; don’t drink too much when you’re out; always have your wits about you. But that advice doesn’t feel right to me: Alison wasn’t doing any of those things and she was still raped and murdered. How can I legitimately tell my daughter that it’s on her to avoid doing anything that attracts unwanted attention?
"I didn’t want to end up scaring her, but as a girl and eventually a woman, she needed to be aware."
As the amazing activist Julie S. Lalonde pointed out in a post on her blog: “I have never been drunk in my life and a huge reason I never drank was because I was so afraid of ‘losing control’ and being raped. I’ve always been sober and I’ve been raped … A dude with an intention to rape showed up to the bar/party with that intention, long before you took a sip.”
That really struck me.
Before I could even sit down with my daughter and talk to her about any of this, she came to me. She had heard about Sarah Everard on TikTok of all places, and she wanted me to know that she is always very careful when she’s out biking with her friend, or walking home from school. They even have a code name for people they think look suspicious, so they can say so to one another without attracting attention.
I asked her if she thought it was fair that she had to be worried about that, even when just out riding in the park. “No, but what does fair have to do with it? I want to be safe. I want A to be safe. That’s all I care about.”
I asked her how she thought she could help herself be safe and out came the old chestnuts from my youth: “Well, I don’t wear clothes that show too much, I don’t talk to strangers, like ever, and, well … I don’t know. We just ride away if we see anyone sketchy.”
So I asked her how she defined "sketchy": was it just men, or women too? She said both. She had heard about Paul Bernardo at school, and that his wife helped him kill girls. How this conversation even happened on the Grade 7 playground, I’ll probably never know. I asked but got the ubiquitous tween-speak: “I dunno!”
But then she shared something that gave me hope. In class, they had been having discussions about inclusion and what that meant. How the "isms" should always be questioned: racism, sexism, ableism, ageism. There is a boy in her class who likes to stir the pot, and get attention, by saying things that are sexist (“girls shouldn’t play soccer,” for example) and she and her friends have started calling him out, loudly. Apparently, several of the boys have joined them in calling out this behaviour, and that’s part of the key, isn’t it?
Hopefully some of the men on Twitter who are reading the stories women shared and saying they hadn’t realized the extent of what women go through in public, and worse in private, are or will be fathers. Hopefully they’ll share this new found knowledge with their sons.
All that said, as much as we want to hope change will come by engaging men, by educating them to step up and call out behaviours, to change their ways, there isn’t much evidence to prove that this kind of effort has done much to curb violence against women.
So I’m back to putting the onus of protection on my daughter; it feels like victim blaming, because in a sense, it is. But it’s also the reality we live with. We don’t live in Utopia and we never will.
"I’d much rather get up and drive in the middle of the night to pick her up from a party than get up and answer the door at 2 a.m. to find grim looking police officers on my doorstep."
What I want my daughter to learn is to resist and to do it loudly. If someone is harassing her, she needs to learn to not be afraid to speak up, yell, scream, whatever it takes. She needs to never be embarrassed to stand up and say "enough", if her abuser is someone she is in a relationship with, or even just someone she knows. These are skills tied to a program called “emancipatory sex-ed” and if it brings us one step closer to my daughter being safe from sexual assualt, it’s a step worth taking:
“EAAA is also known as 'Flip the Script,' a reference to a default socialization of women that typically encourages them to value the needs and comfort of others over their own best judgment. It also emphasizes genuine risk factors; less the shadowy figure who might pull a young woman into an alley and more the relationships that might gradually or suddenly chip away boundaries. While that reality might seem obvious, such encroachments are harder to guard against than the dangers of late night sidewalks.”
She needs to develop and trust her instincts. And she needs to know she can always, always call me for help, without fear of judgment or punishment. I’d much rather get up and drive in the middle of the night to pick her up from a party than get up and answer the door at 2 a.m. to find grim looking police officers on my doorstep.
Would any of this have helped Alison? Probably not. But remembering her story, and those of countless other women, might help others.
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