Threats of violence
‘We’re talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.’
- Slavoj Zizek, Violence: six sideways reflections.
This is painful to write. I know my memory distorts things, switches events around, takes moments and enlarges them, forces them into shapes they never were. But this is still the truth, even if some of it isn’t remembered correctly.
I’m eight. It’s hot. The window is open but gives little relief. I move red and green Christmas crackers up and down the table. Drum my fingers on an empty plate. I think I’m wearing pink nail polish. My grandfather smiles at me, his eyes shrugging up and down across my body. He looks confused and his arms swing gently by his side. I don’t wonder what he’s thinking because I assume he has the same thoughts as me. That he’s thinking about new toys and Christmas cheesecake and playing in the sun. When I gaze up at him, he nods and looks away quickly.
There are many taboos surrounding masturbation. From an early age girls, in particular, are taught that is wrong, that it is impure and shameful. Certainly, I was never encouraged to find sexual pleasure, to understand or engage with my body. Sex education at school focused on men’s pleasure, on sliding a condom over a phallic shaped object. I was taught about unwanted pregnancy and STI’s. The teacher discussed wet dreams and spoke about male masturbation as being part of finding oneself. The female body was discussed only in relation to pregnancy or sexual intercourse with a male. I left class with little understanding of what my body could do, or the kind of pleasure I could find from engaging with it. In fact, I barely even understood that there was pleasure to be found. But as long as a man ejaculated, as long as he reached climax, everything was fine.
I’m handed a present. Eagerly I lean forward and take it, peeling wrapping paper away, and tossing it onto the floor. Maybe this floor is the only image I have in my head, the only image I can trust, the only image that seems clear. It’s a grey floor, with speckled coloured dots. If I lean down and touch it, it feels like burnt summer grass. When the carpet is covered with wrapping paper, I hold up a box set of the Chronicles of Narnia. My heart thumps in my chest. I take out The Magicians Nephew, and thumb through the pages. My grandfather touches his glasses, pushes them down onto his nose. He shakes his head, stands, and makes his way to the computer. The computer is in the same room where we eat. It’s set up at a little wooden desk. You can see his browser screen from the dining table. Grandfather sits in a blue computer chair. My aunt, a robust woman, with long hair that falls down to her bum, looks at Grandfather, wrinkling her nose. Grandfather types something into the computer, dragging his fingers across the keys slowly and deliberately. I want to ask her why is he over there and isn’t dinner about to start, but I don’t say anything. Instead, I push my hands over the books and stare at all the colours. The spines make up the colours of the rainbow. They will look nice on my bookshelf.
Grandma brings out the meal. Cold meats and salads. I am a given a pineapple juice box. I suck from the straw quietly. Grandfather makes no motion to move, just spreads his fingers out across the keyboard and types. Images flash up slowly. Aunty Erica makes a joke about something and I pick up my fork and push it into a piece of ham. People start to talk louder, their voices clattering and clambering over one another. I glance back at Grandfather. He’s shifting in his seat, hands somewhere I can’t see.
‘Katie,’ Aunty Erica says, over and over. ‘Do you want some more salad?’
I remember dad standing up, dragging his body across the room, suddenly standing beside Grandfather. The images on the computer screen disappeared, dissipated, fell back into the Internet world. I remember Grandfather standing up. I remember a conversation that wasn’t a conversation. Words heavy. Piercing the air.
‘What are you doing?’ dad says, although that’s probably not what he said. But even if my memories betray me, the feelings are real and maybe it’s the feelings that matter. Grandfather makes shapes with his hands and sits down again. For a moment, I wonder if dad is going to hit him. But dad is a gentle man, doesn’t believe in violence, is no Malcolm X.
‘Your pants are undone,’ he says and Grandfather nods, touches his plastic zip fly and stands up. The two of them look at one another, their eyes rubbing up and down one another’s bodies. They come back to the table. I speak loudly. I remember the way my voice stretched out in the air between everyone.
‘Why were you looking at naked girls?’ I say. Nobody responds. And then suddenly, everyone responds, and I can’t hear anything. Grandfather eats his meal and leaves. I don’t see him again that night.
Now I’m twenty-six. Sometimes I wonder about Grandfather’s awareness. Did he even know what he was doing? I wonder if he thought about himself as a male, positioned around so many females. I wonder if he saw masturbation as the ideal form of pleasure. Or maybe he just wanted to share his most intimate self-experience. It sounds perverse, and it is, but these are some of the questions I find myself asking late at night. And sure, maybe it’s none of these things. Perhaps Grandfather was just indulging in a grossly inappropriate, violent act. But who decides what is inappropriate? If male masturbation is a form of self-expression, of self love, like I was taught back in high school, how then, if masturbation is a joyous celebration of ones self, is it an act of violence? But violence exists, whether you want it to or not, whether you acknowledge it or not.
I believe Grandfather’s violence, or at the very least, his threat of violence, arose from his social understanding as a male. In a world dominated by males, Grandfather held power, and had always held power. He did not know any differently. And I knew, somewhere, deep down in my childish head, that not only a child but also a female child, I had no power. It’s true, as a female I have always been at an inherent disadvantage. People try to deny this but it is the truth. Every female understands this. Knows the pain of being told that they are not good enough, not strong enough, not good looking enough, not thin enough. The power is stripped away from us before we even have a chance. Grandfather was just continuing what he’d been taught, what had been ingrained into him. Can I blame him? Absolutely, because not all men behave in this fashion, not all men objectify women and believe that women exist for their pleasure. However, I think it’s interesting to consider how far this kind of thinking stretches back, and how difficult it must be to break the chains of patriarchal thinking. This doesn’t mean I excuse the behaviour of my Grandfather, or that I believe he is not responsible for his acts. Of course he is.
As a family we don’t talk about what happened that day. I don’t know if anyone else thinks about it because it is something we never mention. By pushing the memory away, by pretending it never happened, I think we are encouraging it. We are saying that these types of acts are okay, that we understand, that we know there’s nothing we can do. That it’s better to move on than it is to dwell. Perhaps we are even suggesting on some levels that boys will be boys. This is offensive not only to women, but to men as well.
By looking at those pictures, by touching himself in that way, my Grandfather sent me a clear message that my role as a female existed to serve men like him. That my body belonged to men like him, that men were, and remain, the dominant power group. And although I was not threatened or harmed in any kind of physical way, I was objectified and at its core, this is a violent act. Grandfather’s acts carried the suggestion that whether women are online or in front of him, they should remain silent. He sent me a clear message. That the world we live in is a world created by men, for men.