How getting sexually harassed in my own backyard helped me find my purpose and build my writing course

So there I was, minding my own business.

In my backyard, watering the garden; about as “minding-your-own-business” as you can get. It was the first hot day in Spring, and I was feeling peaceful for the first time in recent memory.  My kids were playing happily, for once not fighting or screaming at me. It had been a long few months of fear and stress as I tried to get my business off the ground and be a good mum to two toddlers at same time. Would I ever be “successful?” Would we ever get out of debt? When would I get to rest? But in a rare quiet moment of reflection, I recalled some of the challenges I’d already overcome.

Like, when all I wanted was a baby, and it felt like all I had was grief and loss. Now, look at these two beautiful healthy children of mine, riding their bikes around the backyard. I’d never even dared to imagine it. 

Like before that, when all I wanted was to feel happy with my body. And all I had was a food obsession, a constant drive to be smaller, and contempt for a body that was never, ever good enough. Now look at me, comfortable wearing crop top in my backyard after two babies, when the world told me my “best” was behind me. Feeling like I was allowed to love my body.

What a waste of time, all that worrying about what I didn’t have, when everything I wanted was coming to me. I felt silly that I wasn’t enjoying it now because I was too busy stressing about the next thing.

My backyard was my sanctuary; big, green and reasonably private. But on this day, my new neighbours were out the back too. They had some people around, complete with drinks and music (4pm on a Monday; why not?). I hadn’t properly met them yet but it appeared the tenants were a young couple, with plenty of family and friends around to help. Their dogs barked a lot, but they seemed friendly enough.

I watered my blueberry bush with my back to the party and enjoyed the sun. Until I heard a male voice say

“Farrrrrrk!! Take a look at that!”

I froze, momentarily. I may have been comfortable in my sports bra but I was still conscious of the extra skin I was showing. But I quickly admonished myself.

“Don’t be silly Hannah, you’re in your own backyard! No one is looking at you!”

But the voice continued. Noises of appreciation; the same kinda stuff you might expect to hear from the stereotypical building site. So I turned around to the fence… and looked into the face of a man, who had pulled the bushes apart with his hands. I stared back in disbelief, and then glanced over the fence to see a couple of younger guys shuffling their feet sheepishly and walking off.

My eyes aren’t great, and it was difficult to see after the red mist descended. But I think he was perhaps a Dad or an uncle, or even an older workmate of the younger guy who lived there. I held his gaze as I stalked back to the shelter of my patio, grabbing my shirt (which I’d only taken off because my son had dumped sand in it, and because, you know, I was in my own backyard…

(Um, why do I still feel the need to justify what I was wearing?)

The worst thing was – as I hid, shaking with rage, and my kids continued to play, oblivious – he continued. He’d seen me see him, and kept going. It wasn’t sexually explicit, but it creepy and humiliating nonetheless. I can’t remember much (due to the red mist), but it was stuff like

“Oh, that’s beautiful! Imagine coming home to that! I bet she’s even got dinner on the stove!”

(I actually did, being organised for the first time in months. I’d felt great about it; but my small triumph was completely degraded). 

Eventually, I heard one of the younger guys say something like

“Yeah but I’m the one who has to walk out the front door every fuckin’ day!”

So I take it he was telling the older guy to stop, and being met with resistance.

I debated whether to put my shirt back on. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction; but I didn’t want him looking me either. He obviously didn’t care that I’d seen him. I didn’t know what to do.

There was no way I could confront them. I was too angry to speak, and I was acutely aware that there was a group of them, and only one of me… and they knew that. They could easily see there was only one car in our double carport. While I didn’t really expect to be attacked, I also didn’t expect to be sexually harassed in my own home.

My first thought was, I’ll get them kicked out. I messaged my neighbours on the other side; I knew they had the phone number of the rental property owner.

But then I thought about it. The owner was an older man himself. What would his reaction likely be? Would he believe me? Would he think I was overreacting? How would I explain it? Would I have to mention what I was wearing? I just couldn’t see the conversation going well. 

Ok, then I would find out who the real estate agent was, and make a complaint. Those dogs were really fucking annoying anyway. But… would they react in the same way? And would they do anything? What if they just passed on the complaint to the neighbours, and let them stay? They could make our life hell if they wanted. We’ve all watched A Current Affair.  

When I called my husband, he was disgusted and angry and said that he would go and speak to them if I wanted. But when we talked about all the possible outcomes… we weren’t sure it was worth the risk. Because a man who thinks that this kind of behaviour is ok… what else does he think is ok?

By that night I was crying in the shower with frustration and rage. How is it that I, when walking down the street, will move out of another person’s way to avoid inconveniencing them, yet this fucker could just shit all over my hard-earned peace without a care in the world? Letting this go went against every fibre of my being. Because that kind of disrespect and entitlement to women’s bodies is the foundation of violence against women. Which, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is an epidemic in Australia (and across the world) right now.

Last year, 61 women were killed, by men who believed it was their right to take their lives. This year, it has already been 9. More than once a week we wake up to the news that another woman has been murdered – that’s if it even makes the news – yet they are treated as unrelated incidents, unfortunate but not noteworthy. Terribly bad luck. Yet, as noted by Joan Westenberg in the article linked above – a needle is found in a strawberry and the country goes fucking beserk.

Casual sexism is where violence against women begins; there is very clear evidence for that. As a society we need to stop the behaviour at the bottom of the pyramid. To hold men accountable before it escalates, and before the boys around them learn that a lack of respect for women is not only acceptable, but actually how you become “more of a man.”

 

Pyramid showing the levels of behaviour in violence against women.

Source: www.makethelink.org.au

 

When I told people about my experience, they all sympathised. Everyone said that it was not ok. They all responded out of love for me, and I deeply appreciate it. The problem was, in this situation, there was no right answer and I just got more angry and frustrated. These were the main things people said.

 

You should have called him out on the spot.

“He would have pissed his pants.” Yeah. Or he might’ve lost the plot and murdered my children and I. I know this is unlikely – most women are killed by people they know. Usually a partner, or ex-partner. Still, most men don’t sexually harass the mum next door in front of their small children. The reality was, they were a group of men, and I was one woman. And like most women, I have been learning about “how to not get raped and murdered” since I was a young girl. 

I suspect what really would’ve happened had I called him out, would be the same thing that’s happened every other time I’ve bitten back at behaviour like this. It generally turns to a nastier form of abuse, like “Fuck off, you fat, up-yourself bitch! You’re not even that hot!” Yes, this has happened to me multiple times, and I know I’m not the only one. 

 

You’re right to keep your head down, don’t cause a fuss.

“The risk is too high. The behaviour is unacceptable but calling it out is not worth it.”

This validation of my fears made me even angrier. So, while my peace is ruined, my sanctuary taken away, and I spiral into rage, frustration and despair, this person just gets to keep going through life as if nothing has happened? Doing the same thing to how many other people? Role modelling these behaviours to the next generation of men? Feeding the culture of entitlement that allows the numbers of dead women to keep piling up? 

And if someone like me – with all my adult, cis, white, able-bodied privilege – could feel so scared of speaking out against one drunken bogan dickhead – how does a child, a woman of colour, a disabled person, a member of the LBGTI community – call out a respected member of the community? 

 

“Well, you are an attractive woman.”

Interesting. Because for most of my life, I haven’t felt that way. For most of my life, all I heard from society was that I’m not thin enough, or tanned enough, or toned enough, or smooth and clear-skinned enough… but oh, you’re finally feeling ok about yourself? Haha! Sorry, that’s not how it works! Here’s something to put you right back in your place!

You know, I can remember, the whole time I thought I was fat, trying to hide my body… I would roll my eyes at the women who refused to hide theirs. Like, how up-yourself can you get? It’s just a fitness class Debbie, put it away! Who are you trying to impress? Because that’s what we do. Women are not allowed to feel comfortable in their body, no matter what that looks like. We shame them, and keep them in their place. Uncomfortable and distracted, so we don’t notice the things around us that really matter, like how a small number of old men are destroying the entire planet and keeping billions of people in poverty while they hoard all the the wealth. 

I’m ashamed of those thoughts I used to have, but that constant judgement of myself and other people was my misguided way of protecting myself from the pain of growing up inside this patriarchy.  

And you know what? That’s what this prick next door was doing too. His behaviour was disgusting, but he learned it as a way to protect himself. This system taught him that his worth as a man is directly related to how aggressively he asserts his “masculinity;” his (hetero)sexuality. How well he can control the people around him. When nobody teaches you how to deal with uncomfortable feelings (like “I’m not good enough,” or “I am not loved”), and when you’re shamed for even feeling those feelings, how else are you going to deal with them? I know what it’s like when anger and pain build up. It’s easy to explode. But boys are taught this is normal. Boys will be boys, after all.

And this phenomenon doesn’t just kill women. It’s why so many men kill themselves too. From The British Psychology Society:

“The construction of masculinities is believed to be one of the most important factors influencing the way in which suicide is discussed, contemplated and enacted by men (Hawton, 2000; Hunt et al., 2006).”

(Side note – can someone tell Bettina Arndt? That defending paedophiles and talking about how women can be murdered for “pushing men too far” actually contributes to men suiciding, instead of stopping it? K thx.)

 

“…Are you ok?”

Yes, this wasn’t a nice thing that happened, but why are you letting it get to you like this?

Look, I’ll concede that I was already pretty stressed out. And that it’s not productive to go off the deep end. But I did. Even writing about it now, 5 months later, my heart is racing and my head is pounding. It’s the frustration of it all, the sheer helplessness to right something so big and wrong. I stand by my anger, but the way it affected me was a sign that I needed to do some things differently. 

I appreciate people’s sympathy but it makes me uncomfortable. Compared to what millions of women around the world deal with every day, this is nothing. But that’s the problem. We keep treating this stuff like nothing. Oh, he was just joking around. Had a few drinks and made some stupid comments. He’s a product of his time. Yep, and the bodies keep piling up.

It isn’t about what happened to me, it’s about this huge, fucked-up, all-powerful system. Because it’s not just the endless violence against women that drives me to despair. It’s climate change, and world politics, and the fact that 22,000 children die from poverty every day while a handful of billionaires suck the life out of the planet. How many of us feel devastated and hopeless every time we turn on the news?

It took me a while to figure it out, but i eventually remembered that there was one thing I could do. The thing I do every time I feel powerless and out of control. 

I write.

Hannah Moss sitting on a bench writing in her notebook about her writing course

Stop raging, start writing. (Actually keep raging but use it for good, and write ).

 

Even if no-one else reads it, writing is soothing, and it helps to make sense of things in my head. But that’s not enough anymore. It’s my duty now to be read; to use my voice to speak out where others can’t. Because otherwise nothing changes. The fear and the silence is what the system depends on. By talking more about these things, we shine light on them, we give people more power, and things get better. 

I’ve always had a thing for helping people to understand each other (if I had a dollar for every time I’ve restrained myself from jumping into a strangers’ conversation, just to help clear things up… I probably still wouldn’t have enough money to move house but hey, every bit helps, right?) I love to help people figure out what they’re trying to say, and then communicate that message to as many of the right people as possible. It’s what I did in my copywriting business… but it wasn’t enough. Not enough people, not enough time. So I gave it up.

I decided, no more client work. I went back to my corporate job. I put my kids in daycare for an extra day. These things all hurt. But they gave me the resources I needed to build my online writing course.

I believe everyone has a message that can help heal the world. I want people tell their stories and get that message out in a way that enough people will hear them, and listen, and change their behaviour, and change the world.

And so Find Your Voice is a writing program that shows people how to find the power of their words, the purpose in their writing, and the people who need to read it; and then build a plan to make the change happen. Find out more about it here.

So I guess I should be thanking the gentleman next door. Without his contribution I would not have had the insight or courage to change my direction. And I am so happy that I did, because my course is already helping incredible women from around the world speak out about what matters. And when they do that, they empower other women to do the same. To heal themselves… and that’s how we heal the world. It gives me so much hope! 

And you know what? I haven’t heard a peep from that side of the fence again… except for the dogs, but who can stay mad at a dog?