There’s been lots written lately about sexual abuse by men in positions of power. My Facebook feed is packed with women saying ‘me too’. It’s a start, breaking silence and raising hands, seeing the numbers. But it isn’t enough – I want more stories too, of shock and complacency, choked-down rage and whispered warnings. I don’t only want to know about the women who have left situations as they turned nasty, but also those who stayed and the terrible bargains they were asked to strike. I want to hear from women who watched and said nothing.
Because, me too.
For the past decade I’ve been in a majority-women field. It thinks of itself as progressive or radical, dedicated to subverting systems of oppression and with a whole vocabulary around reading cues and responding appropriately. But the stories of sexual abuse and coercion coming out of other industries are not aberrations but expressions of a deep misogyny that pervades all corners of our lives.
Including the playwork profession.
There are those at the thin end of the wedge, the men who talk to your chest during meetings and look surprised when you force them into eye contact instead. There was the man who pulled me out of a circle in the pub to tell me, in excruciating detail, of several sexual experiences and then leaned back to grin at my horror.
It can be hard, to meet your heroes.
There were the ones who told me to smile more, who said I “shouldn’t have any trouble” getting speaking gigs because of being “cute enough”. I’ve been interrupted, just before speaking with the conference keynote, to have my own haircut described to me. Even writing this, I keep typing out reasons why my experiences aren’t as bad as other people’s. I keep making excuses. That’s partly because I have seen worse done to other women and stood by silent, angry and ashamed.
Look, this is a small field. People date and flirt within it, and that needs to be navigated carefully. That’s not the same as the evasive dance that women are tasked with, the laughing and dodging that says “no, I don’t want this, but I might need your good opinion in order pay my rent one day”. When a self-professed radical sniffed that “it must be nice to have a rich husband” when he heard I was going to IPA (I didn’t, but had saved up for months), when young men get their hands shaken and young women get lingering wandering hugs, when men listed in my bibliography wander events grinning like sharks, I know this field is not separate from the world.
Playwork has meant so much to me, and I’m incredibly grateful for the friends I have made through its exploration and practice. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, and some men have always showed up to remind me and other women that we are ever-open to interruption, that our value is based on looks and likability, that we are expected to stay “cool” with things, and to keep smiling.