My hands are shaking so hard I can’t type properly. I don’t know whether it’s anger, fear or disappointment.
We live right near a long line of parks in a country town. I’ve just returned from walking my dog.
My dog is very familiar with the stretch, with goes all the way to the centre of town, a walk taking perhaps 15 minutes.
This morning, a neighbour walked his dogs past, off the lead (you are supposed to have them on the lead but many people let them off when they know they can control them).
I happen to know these three dogs as I have met their other owner, a nice, very clever woman who is perhaps in her 70s. Our dogs have played together off the leash in the park. The dogs are generally well behaved and friendly, as mine is.
People who own small dogs, many of whom never train them, usually just pick them up if there is any sign of ‘trouble’. Trouble is, in the owner’s eyes, by projection, anything they don’t like. The irresponsible yappy dog owners frequently anthropomorphize their dogs: “Ooh, he’s snarling because that big dog is scaring him!” Therefore, many yappy little dogs receive a very thorough lesson, via behavioural conditioning, that snapping and barking wildly at other dogs is rewarded with being picked up and whisked away from their target. This is a major win for them as they get to assert themselves however they like without being accountable – in the dog world – for their actions. They also score a bonus cuddle.
People who train their dogs properly know that an important part of this training (and indeed, ongoing dog life) is to allow them to socialise with other dogs who have learned how to play nicely. In other words, running around off-lead, barking, sniffing bums, with the occasional little warning growl if things don’t go the way they want, with other dogs is perhaps the best way to raise a dog that is not dangerous.
But those two types don’t mix. The presence of the irresponsible yappy dog owners and their dogs have made owners of other, well-trained dogs, paranoid about having their dogs off the leash, lest the yappy dog bowls in, hurling insults and aggressive challenges at the others who, although well-trained, do not put up with bullshit. Dogs don’t really see themselves in terms of size.
Bordering this park is a long creek, with its usual Australian fringe of long grass, thick, scrubby bush and trees.
Our town is also popular with European backpackers, especially heading into grape harvest season.
So this neighbour walked past my place, his dogs off-leash. I decided to seize the opportunity for some (rare) wholesome play for my dog, and followed him, expecting him to stop at the next open space, where our dogs could play. Instead, this man, weighing at least 150kg and with a big build, turns around, throws his big arms up in the air and bellows at me, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!!!” He continues on his way, stopping pointedly every twenty metres or so, arms on hips, glaring.
At first, I thought he had been bellowing at the dogs. I couldn’t read his expression, so we kept following, with my dog off her leash, excitedly sniffing her way towards the others. Eventually, I worked it out. I stopped, let my dog play by herself, then headed home.
On the way back, I found myself about 50 metres from a man, standing in the open near a large tree, with his penis hanging out, this lower body apparently in some kind of black sling. At first, I thought it was a flasher, but then I saw his backpack, and realised he was just a tourist who, being used to busy cities, didn’t realise that people still walked about in country parks. I turned around and faced the other way, waiting for him to finish. He kept going. I had to peek a few times until he had finally finished. That close-cropped grass in the park, the carefully maintained sports ground, had not given him enough clues. There was thick bush a mere ten metres from where he stood, pissing, swinging it about, but he chose that space instead.
As I walked home, a little voice in my mind kept saying things about both of those men, like “he didn’t realise”, “it was a public space, people can do what they want, can’t they?”, “he thought he was on his own”, “men need to walk their dogs, go to the toilet just as women do”, “don’t be such a rabid feminist”, “stop over-reacting”.
I walked in my own front door, and I calmed down a little. Why? It was my space, and I felt safe. Thereafter, I just wanted to cry or go to bed. I stayed up and started writing again. I believed that part of the self-talk was correct – I was over-reacting.
Now that I have written this story down, I am sad for a different reason. I had had real symptoms of real fear and both things had happened within sight of my home. Even with a dog who was not to be messed with (a sort-of blue heeler), the social, societal right I theoretically had to walk unhindered in public spaces had been rudely and effectively negated in about five minutes. The saddest thought, the one I just can’t lose yet is, “How could I have so stupidly and blindly blundered about in my own park with my beloved dog, tripping joyously after friendship, and think I could get away with it?”
I had said something to the backpacker. I had said, “This is my space, too you know. You could always go in the bush”. And I had pointed to the path that all the school children (including my daughter) walked down when they got off the bus, 20 metres away. He was genuinely sorry, he hadn’t realised. But how could it be that we live in a world where men piss in public and it’s no big deal?
Next, I waited until the aggro neighbour came past again. Despite my fear and sadness, I walked outside my house and asked him why he bellowed at me. He was even worse, ranting and justifying it all in terms of me “coming up behind me”. In his view I deserved everything he got. I insisted he discuss his behaviour with me. He bellowed and bellowed. I said well then, if my dog isn’t allowed off the lead, his wouldn’t be either. I would call the council next time I saw them. He walked off, bellowing “I don’t care, you silly cow!” So sure of himself, even though I know where he lives, a few doors up.
I had been doing the exact same thing he was doing, but he thought he and his dogs had a right to be there whilst I did not. It wouldn’t occur to him that he would not have bellowed at another man in that way, lest a fight break out, or to say the things he said to me, to a man. And it wouldn’t occur to him that I had made a friendship with his mother. (Now all I can do is worry about her).
When we women tell our male friends that sexism and misogyny is still part of daily life, this is what we mean.