“You fingered my profiterole!”
Was it a joke, or had I been affronted by somebody touching the food on my plate: the ultimate invasion of my personal space?
Was I talking loud enough for all to hear because I wanted them to be amused, or because I was looking for support in a situation I found untenable?
How would you know?
A child growing up in a ‘shut up or put up’ household, usually learns how not to be a victim. No point complaining if there is no sympathy, so you have to make sure nothing becomes a problem. Best and worst case scenarios: child grows into a capable manager, or a bully.
On the other side, a sheltered child soon learns that a good complainer gets attention. The louder and longer they cry, the more likely that somebody will sort their problem for them. Then, we end up with a sympathetic team-player, or an adult who justifies emotive lobbying as activism.
Here lies the dilemma for our leagues of justice, whether it’s friends, police, criminal lawyers or innocent bystanders: is a cry for help real, a mischievous joke or a disgruntled foot-stomp for attention? Usually, we don’t have months of deliberation to decide. A call for help requires split second decisions.
Let’s use some specifics. A young boy, let’s call him Andy, is flattered when a family friend (male) praises his tennis playing and offers to coach him. One day, the adult takes Andy’s face in his hands, kisses him on the lips and says, “You are a beautiful child”.
Andy thinks that’s a bit strange, but is also a little thrilled. After all, he has been called beautiful. What pre-pubescent child doesn’t want to hear that from somebody who isn’t their mother?
Mother gets suspicious of the attention Andy is getting from “Uncle Jed”, whose sexuality has always been a bit suspect. When Mum discovers that Andy has been getting kisses and cuddles, she goes to the police. Andy discovers that loving attention is wrong. Jed’s life is ruined.
Now, let’s visit Julie who is huddled in bed, her arms around her little brother, waiting for the crash of the front door to announce her father has come home. She says a little prayer, “Please Mum, don’t make him angry.”
It’s not the bruises she’s afraid of. They don’t really hurt because her body goes numb. It’s the helpless frustration that she can’t stop the beating. She worries what will happen when her brother gets big enough to fight back.
Julie’s mother finally goes to a woman’s refuge and the family receives counselling. Julie goes on to become a fearless entrepreneur, supporting her mother, brother and women’s rights. She doesn’t have the energy to find the support of a life partner.
Somewhere within these extremes are young girls trying to get ahead in a man’s world, or women using sexuality instead of skills to break down barriers to advancement. Caring men are afraid to show affection for fear of being labelled “pervert”, while other men celebrate the aphrodisiac powers of wealth and fame.
No wonder bullying and sexual harassment are such a minefield of opinion. Every example rips open the baggage of claimants, witnesses and judges.
When my profiterole was fingered, everyone laughed. There were plenty more, so I could choose to ignore the affront to my personal space, eat the abused desert, or give the tasty morsel to the perpetrator. If it was the last piece of desert, my choices would be to ignore the implications and eat the sullied treat, or go hungry.
I must have been the protected child. I ate the profiterole. It was delicious.