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Sophrology and sexual harassment: my story of moving from fear to freedom

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I am new to Instagram.  Never having seen the point of it, I have started to engage with it slowly over the past few months, aware that ‘the world is on Instagram’.  That would not have been an attraction until recently, but I have been taking conscious and deliberate steps towards engaging more with the wider world.  Putting myself out there.  It’s an uncomfortable process, to be frank, and is challenging me on many levels as I am fundamentally a very private person, and – in all honesty – I have never seen the world as a particularly safe place to be visible.  This was brought home to me within about five minutes of starting to post on Instagram, to my tiny handful of followers: a sexual message came through, and then – when I rebuffed it – it was swiftly followed by another one.  At which point I searched for how to block this guy.  I was standing in my hallway, having a good and happy day, and then suddenly I wasn’t – I was fielding sexual shit from some random man on Instagram.  My home was suddenly filled with threat and menace.  My day was changed. 

While I may have been naïve to be surprised about this (I hadn’t signed up for Tinder, for God’s sake), I am anything but naïve about what goes on out in the world.  I loved my work at the Samaritans, and am a fervent supporter of the organisation, but four years’ volunteering there was a stark education in the darkness of humanity’s relationship with sexuality.  It’s a little known fact, but female volunteers at the organisation constantly field what were known in the trade as ‘TMs’, or telephone masturbators.  A whole module in the training was devoted to strategies for dealing with them.  Because it’s a freephone number, they would call Samaritans rather than spend big bucks on the sex lines, but then were faced with the challenge of keeping us on the line while they got what they wanted.  Many were instantly identifiable, and the phone went down straight away, but some were very manipulative and clever, spinning a tale just plausible enough to keep you on the right side of the benefit of the doubt.  Those calls were unpleasant and the after effects lingered.  For many female volunteers I talked to, this was such a common and regular experience that it dampened their spirit for the vital work we did with our genuine callers.  I know of at least a couple of women who left because of it.  Male volunteers were also affected, but very, very rarely in comparison to the women.  If I had two or three shifts in a row without a TM, that was an unusually good run.  Some life-sapping shifts were almost entirely TMs or sexually manipulative callers.  So I think when that Instagram message came in, I was transported immediately back both to this and also – in a heartbeat – back to the many, many #metoo experiences I had in my teens and twenties as a young woman. 

I realised in the days that followed, as I tried to unpack my intense response to Instagram Man, that I was still carrying quite a deep wound within me around the experience of being female in this world.  I count myself lucky that I am a woman in my forties who has *only* experienced a *normal* amount of sexual harassment.  From the age of 12 or so, I got regular verbal abuse from men driving or walking past me on my way home from school.  Regular enough so that every day I was braced for it.  Then a few sinister encounters in my teens, where every instinct was screaming get out of here.  I did, and I was safe.  At 18 I was punched in the face in East Africa for being a prostitute – I was out on the street after dark.  At 23, and at a work do, I was pinned up against a wall in a bar in Shoreditch on my way down to the toilets.  Luckily he was drunk and I twisted out of his grasp and ran.  There were the usual close encounters on the tube at rush hour.  The street comments continued.  At 29 a man known to my family whispered obscenities into my ear as he said hello at a lunchtime family gathering.  And throughout I cannot count the many dark streets and carparks where my heart has hammered out of my chest, the number of times I have held my keys ready to defend myself.  I had thought until very recently that perhaps it was something I had outgrown, one of the many blessings of getting older, but then I was walking alone in the town at 10.30pm last month for the first time in years, and encountered two big men in a narrow street.  Noone else was around.  Strangely, as I approached, they split up and forced me to walk through the middle of them, which I did blazing with confidence and strength.  But it felt like a weird and threatening power play, and I found myself running the last 100m just as I used to in my twenties in London.  It turned out nothing had changed, except the fact that I am almost never out at that time in those places anymore. 

So fear of men and the real possibility of their violence has been drummed into me from an early age, and yet I am still on the ‘lucky’ side of the statistic that states that 1 in 3 females globally, girls and women, will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. 

This enrages me.

Still so much work to be done here in the world.

Which is where the issue of our values comes in.  A recent essay in The Guardian (an extract from ‘Mindfulness and its Discontents’ by David Forbes) lamented the rise of ‘McMindfulness’, rolling out this ubiquitous, fast-food tool of mass-anaesthetisation whose side-effect is potentially subduing the populace’s fire in the belly for necessary action and change.  Essentially, Forbes argued, we are at risk of being soothed and manipulated into acceptance of what we should be fighting.  I can talk directly to this through Sophrology, however – and it is one of the things I like very much about it: it is hardwired into the world.  Caycedo believed it essential that healing and self-development should always lead us back into the world armed with a clear understanding of our values and our contribution, and endowed with the strength to act. 

So, going back to Instagram Man, my initial response was to crawl back under a rock and forget the whole thing.  It clearly wasn’t safe for me to put my work out there, and I have frankly had a bellyful of this shit.  It’s not worth it.  Don’t speak up.  Don’t be visible, even in a small way.  Don’t put your head above the parapet.  But then another voice came forwards.  How can I heal this part of myself that still holds so much fear so that I can move forward in my life with strength and courage, offering my work, standing in my truth?  I do not want this fear, any longer, to hold me back.  It was, unexpectedly, an opportunity.

The fourth level of Sophrology weaves into the work the concept of our values.  This seems harshly relevant to me in these days of pragmatist, populist politics.  I am far less interested in whether Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will definitely take us out of Europe on 31st October, than I am in their personal values, because these values will inform every single damn decision that they make – consciously or unconsciously.  What do we stand for in this world?  What drives us?  Because in the absence of consciously articulated values, we will live from unconsciously driven needs.  The last training on my course deep-dived into this realm, and for two days I excavated my relationship with what I hold most dear.  And it turned out that, passionately, fervently, my two strongest values at the moment are freedom and courage.  Abstract nouns, but Sophrology – so cleverly – builds them into our bodies and minds until they infuse us with their anything-but-abstract power.  Other values, interestingly, surfaced too.  After a week of worrying about Instagram Man, I rediscovered my love of playfulness.  It actually really matters to me that we have a laugh while we’re here.  I also found myself lingering over connection, and my profound wish to have meaningful and rich connections with the people in my life.  But freedom and courage kept coming back.  And by the end of the weekend I had had a revelation.  If I leaned into my dominant values of freedom and courage, rather than leaning into the Instagram Man mess, I knew immediately and clearly what to do.  I had been leaning into the turmoil and the fear, and they were keeping me stuck.  But choosing to lean into my values, it was a no-brainer.  Immediate, total clarity.

I keep going.  I get out there.  I speak up.

Perhaps you are in a situation right now which is challenging you to get clear on your values.  Many of us experiencing stress at work, or in relationships, are grappling with conflicts of values.  It can, as the stress and anxiety builds, end up taking you all the way to burn-out.  As with Instagram Man, this could be an opportunity to realign with what is most important for you and gain clarity as to the way ahead.  Working with Sophrology invites us into relationship with our values in a way that embeds them within us powerfully.  I now have a tangible feeling within me for the freedom and courage I want to underpin my life.  I can feel them in my bones.  They are now my compass, my true north, and when I align myself with them I find what is irrelevant melts away like the Wicked Witch of the West.  Not that I don’t still live in a world where bad things happen to many people, and I am somehow soothed, lulled, into peace nonetheless.  No.  I am armed with peace and strength and confidence, and I go back out there in alignment with what is most important to me in order to do the work I am called to do for the years that remain to me.

Wishing you peace, and courage, and freedom, and whatever your heart calls out for.

Helena