Belfast Telegraph

Why having to be on the look-out for lechs is all part of growing up

By Gail Walker

It was, of course, across all the front pages. 'Esther reveals childhood abuse secret' screamed the headlines above her account of how, when she was in her teens, she suffered "an unpleasant, inappropriate grope" from a "disgusting" member of her family.

Interesting reading, yes. Shocking? I don't think so. For if my experience and those of practically every girl I grew up with are anything to go by, such encounters to be negotiated and survived were far from uncommon.

I can recall several uncomfortable events, but the most vivid involved a family acquaintance. One day he manoeuvred me away from a family gathering.

Vivid flashback: a sunny day; a barn with a sloping floor; its door springing back shut instantly; being temporarily blinded by the swift move from light into dark; his lunge; my bewilderment, then confusion; shoving him away; outside again, hurrying back to company.

Rantzen remains outraged that when she told her mother about her incident, she was accused of "over-dramatising". My story wasn't doubted for a second. But I wonder if there was a slight similarity in our parents' approaches. Certainly, I knew enough about provoking potential outcry not to blow the whistle until we were back home.

It was a minor incident. Wrong and upsetting, but minor. I was advised to put it behind me, that I had come to no harm and had learned a valuable lesson about not getting myself caught alone with dubious individuals. I'd have more sense in future.

I was brassed off about this - after all, this was shortly after the launch of ChildLine, we knew our rights - but then I knew I was not alone. There were the schoolfriends who had to brave an overly-tactile tutor one evening a week. Again, their parents took a the approach that the man was a family friend; any fuss would be mortifying. There were three of them with him so they should be able to cope. Safety in numbers and all that. Anyway, they were there to learn, not gossip. Perhaps he was just friendly.

Another girl had a babysitting gig. The husband would nonchalantly stroke her thigh in front of his children, as they all sat waiting for his wife to get ready for the dinner dance. She'd push it off. He'd put it back. What to do? "My parents know him and don't want to know."

And then there are the numerous tales of over-tactile 'uncles', who'd sling an arm round your waist and pull you too close at Christmas. This was the chorus-line of red-faced chaps my father categorised as "oul plasters". Every family seemed to have at least one; you learned to dodge him.

There were so many 'types' we discussed on the bus home from school: funny oul boys who lived down lanes and "weren't quite right in the head" or who parked in the town centre, harmless but prone to staring. We had them programmed into our early warning system. Maybe, I have to admit, we wound them up a bit, too.

For all the publicity and outrage and horror that follow atrocities such as has befallen so many children, most women and girls, I'll bet, still endure these fleeting experiences.

It's a taste of what the male world has always been and always will be. Sometimes, those experiences, because they are unwelcome and disturbing, prepare us for the rich panoply of lechery most of us have encountered and will encounter later, in workplaces, leisure centres, bars and buses, for most of the rest of our lives.

Strangely, it's not that these incidents occur in the first place that's the really bothersome thing. There is no way to legislate against aberrant human behaviour. It's not even that girls are constantly under the creepy scrutiny of males, married and unmarried.

It's that the type of child abuse that makes the headlines is only the extreme form of a whole repertoire of approaches and inappropriateness and clumsy salaciousness that very quickly comes to characterise the life of girl growing into adulthood.

Rantzen remains angry and each experience is unique but increasingly I think my parents, and those of my friends, had a point, something to do with the real world ... We learned to keep our wits about us.

And beware the man who calls his wife Mammy, the oul plasters and the lonely leerers.

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