Girls grow accustomed to the male gaze early, but as we grow up we also become accustomed to the implicit criticism of women as victims.

Girls grow accustomed to the male gaze early, but as we grow up we also become accustomed to the implicit criticism of women as victims. Photo: Getty

When I was about 10, my mother started drilling a few tips into me.

‘‘Walk in the opposite direction to the traffic,’’ she said.

‘‘Make sure you always walk home on main streets where there’s streetlights. Carry your keys in your hand and, if you’re scared, thread them through your fingers and make a fist. You’ll pack a good punch if you have to.’’

Fast-forward a few years and I was a 14-year-old girl with a face full of braces, all awkward long, skinny arms and legs and self-conscious teenage blushes. A group of other girls and I - all 14 and 15 - were walking about 30km back to an Anglesea camping group from a Lorne beach, along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.

On the way our group was harassed by no fewer than 20 cars full of teenage boys and men. Some tooted, some screamed abuse, others what they’d like to do to us. Frighteningly, a couple even tried to pull over before the heavy highway traffic drove them forward. But it was the grown men behaving in this manner that shocked me. Men in their 40s and 50s. To children.

Girls grow accustomed to the male gaze early, but as we grow up we also become accustomed to the implicit criticism of women as victims. She must have asked for it. She shouldn’t have walked alone. At night. What was she wearing?

This week I read a shocking account of an 18-year-old young woman who walked home alone after a Sydney party, which police described as a fairly tame affair (read, she probably wasn’t too drunk), and who was accosted by a group of five men in a passing car.

Police said the men pulled over to ask directions, and then pulled the woman into the car and gang-raped her. The news wire first reported the story in a manner-of-fact way; who, what, where, why and when. But, in the final version of the story, which was reprinted dozens of times, the story read:

‘‘Police are urging women to walk in groups and stay in well-lit areas after a group of a men preyed on a teenager as she left a party in Sydney’s northwest.

‘‘They are hunting a pack of five men who abducted and raped the 18-year-old just after she emerged from what police called a ‘‘sober’’ gathering at a house on Merindah Road, Baulkham Hills, about 1am (AEDT) on Sunday.’’

Incensed, I took to Facebook and wrote:

Introductions I'm sick of reading:

‘‘Police are urging women to walk in groups and stay in well-lit areas after a group of a men preyed on [read, gang-raped] a teenager as she left a party in Sydney’s northwest.’’

Introductions I'd like to read instead:

‘‘Police are urging men not to gang-rape teenagers as they leave parties...’’

To my astonishment, the status was flooded with ‘‘likes’’ and comments. Almost 70 people – most of them women – liked the update within 24 hours. They wrote things like, ‘‘YES!’’, ‘‘Hallelujah!’’, and ‘‘Thank you!’’

Clearly I wasn’t alone in feeling this irritation. But what is so offensive about police cautioning people to care care of themselves, and to do what they can to avoid similar, hideous, attacks?

Personally, I’m tired of women being implicitly blamed for random attacks committed against them. If they walked on brightly-lit streets, this theory implies, they might somehow escape random attacks of this kind.

When do we start blaming the attackers? When do we start blaming, in all circumstances and at every opportunity the men who, for inconceivable reasons, egg each other on in a homo-erotic joint sex attack? When can we read a news story quoting a police chief warning young men who feel tempted to behave in this way that they will come after them, they will pursue them through the courts, and they will jail them?

It’s almost as if our society takes it for granted that men will always be one step away from random and opportunistic attacks on women, and it’s better than women be vigilant against attack than the other way around.

But most men don’t rape. Most men would be appalled at the suggestion they might. And statistically speaking, women are far more likely to be attacked by someone we know. We are more likely to be bashed, raped and sexually abused by our fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, husbands, partners and lovers. The Australian Institute of Criminology says about 70 per cent of homicides are committed by people known to the offender.

This, I believe,  is why stories like that of the 18-year-old girl and the awful treatment of Jill Meagher appalled the country and galvanised public feeling. It is shocking because it so rare, but also because it taps into primeval fears that every woman has. We all know that pang of panic that can clutch the chest in an instant when an unseen man steps out from a sidestreet and falls into step behind us (Is he walking too close? What’s he doing? Is it me he’s after?), and the rush of relief when it becomes obvious the poor bloke was just trying to walk in the same direction as a woman and is probably mortified at the thought he’s frightened her.

We must remember not to give in to the knee-jerk response of being fearful and of curtailing our own freedom to walk where we want, when we want, and to wear what we want. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be careful. I’m not saying there aren’t freaks and weirdos out there. But we never hear of police cautioning us against our loved ones.

To take part in a live discussion of the Rape Culture, join us at the All About Women Festival on April 7. For more information and to get your ticket, visit The Sydney Opera House.