TARA PENNY: Why I will scream ‘fire’ when I need help
One of my friends was recently called a "dickhead" for refusing to meet a man at his house for a first date.
Now, this is not her first rodeo in the often-frightening online dating game. She’s been called a "prude" for refusing to send strangers nudes and has been sent porn links by people she’s never met.
But this time seemed a little more sinister, with elements of gaslighting.
She obviously turned him down and thought that would be the end of it. But just a few days later this man - a practicing Johannesburg advocate in his 30s - sent her a message asking why she disappeared so abruptly, and insisted he was only joking and insinuating she should “lighten up”.
When she relayed the exchange to me, what struck me most was this man’s attempt to excuse his behaviour and put all the blame on her for “misunderstanding”, “being too sensitive” and “not being able to take a joke”.
It got me thinking about how often women are made to feel uncomfortable and are then expected to just laugh it off and accept the age-old notion that “boys will be boys”.
A colleague of mine recently told me about having to leave a 40th birthday party with her husband when a man there thought it would be funny to unclip her bra.
The “party trick” that many tried to dismiss as just a joke was clearly designed to humiliate my colleague, who suddenly had to drop everything and run to the bathroom to reassemble her outfit. I’m pleased to say she and her husband have cut ties with this particular clown.
Another colleague returned from a high-profile interview the other day feeling uncomfortable. She and the CEO of a major company she was interviewing got on famously in the pre-interview, but as soon as the camera started rolling, he took off his wedding ring and stashed it in a drawer. The CEO and a male colleague shared a conspiratorial laugh over this smooth manoeuvre while my colleague looked on in shock.
Everyone knows a guy who’s really nice when he’s sober, but gets “a little handsy” after a few drinks. And when it’s brought up, many rush to his defence, insisting “he’s just having a laugh” and “it doesn’t take away from what a nice person he is”.
As a former bartender, I grew used to unwanted advances from drunk men who made me very uncomfortable in my workplace. Not willing to lose my job (initially), I employed a strategy to flip the script: I would play dumb until I made the customer feel uncomfortable.
The exchanges would go something like this:
Creepy man old enough to be my father: “That’s a nice top, it would look great on my bedroom floor.”
Me, blinking and pretending to be confused: “What do you mean?”
Creepy old man: “You know, when you come home with me.”
Me: “Why would I want to do that?”
It would carry on until his friends felt uncomfortable and I would be labelled a bitch.
(P.S. This tactic works beautifully when dealing with racists and homophobes too.)
When the owner of one of the pubs I worked at made his unwanted and inappropriate advance while I was locking up one night, I walked out and never returned - forfeiting my last wages in the process.
While I was raised by a lioness of a mother with strong views on equality, some patriarchal social norms were drilled into me by other people, the sort of nonsense that includes “good girls don’t make a scene” and “no one likes a tattletale”. And the one I hate most that still comes up on a daily basis: “boys will be boys”.
The default response that girls are taught when they are made to feel uncomfortable is to smile sweetly, giggle and act confused, which is often the safest course of action. But staying safe doesn’t make it right.
I think these messages teach girls that it’s more important to make boys and men feel comfortable than to speak out when they’re mistreated and address the abuse.
I recently watched in awe as a journalist in New Zealand interviewed a man about his dismal track record in office.
She asked him if he had regrets. He discarded her question and rattled off a list of his achievements instead.
I expected her to giggle awkwardly at this point. But no. Calmly and with a straight face she asked if he would like “another crack at answering the question?”
Many watching that interview attacked her, calling her a bitch saying she was rude and didn’t allow him to speak. While I’ll concede one or two of her remarks were unnecessary, I was deeply impressed by her ability to do her job and stick to her line of questioning - even though she was clearly making this man uncomfortable.
Sadly, society teaches girls to dismiss their early warning system or inner voice that tells them when something is off. Instead they’re told they’re being difficult, paranoid, sensitive, or a prude.
The truth is, that inner voice sometimes precedes a rape or a murder.
Over the years I’ve stockpiled an immense body of mental armour when it comes to protecting myself and doing my job. I’m not very good at the giggling bit, and I’ve not mastered the art of smiling sweetly when I’m uncomfortable. My face usually gives me away. So, without these safeguards, I’ve had to work hard to minimise the danger.
Some the parts in this armour include:
• When I climb into an Uber, I pretend my handbag is stuck in the door so I can re-open it to make sure it’s not kiddie-locked.
• I walk to my car with my keys interlinked between my knuckles.
• I’ve learnt to nod politely when I’m pulled over en route to work at 4am by JMPD officers wanting to know “if my husband knows where I am”.
• I check to make sure my Bear-Claw knife is with me before I leave the house (your forefinger links through the shaft, making it very hard for someone to take it from you).
• When I’m approached, I’ve learnt to be forceful and even rude if I have to, even when the man is just offering to help with my bags etc.
• I’ve mentally rehearsed scenarios where I’ll scream “fire!” as loud as I can, instead of “help” because I’ve read, and so many women have told me, that very few people actually react to “help”.
So, while we both dismissed the dickhead Joburg advocate as an immature waste of time, my friend and I both agreed that she’s clearly dodged a bullet. While she’ll never have to scream “fire” in that creep’s house, there’s no guarantee for the other unsuspecting women in his sights.
Screaming “fire” may seem alarmist to some, but it’s a very difficult thing to ignore, especially in a genuine crisis.
I’d rather be labelled alarmist, a bitch or a prude while living to tell the tale, than have people wonder at my funeral why no one responded to my calls for help - in the uncomfortable echo chamber where women's voices seem to reside.
Tara Penny is a news anchor at Eyewitness News based in Johannesburg. Follow her on Twitter: @Starrrra