Love in a new Victorian era - Michela Spiteri
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Love in a new Victorian era - Michela Spiteri

You forget so much of childhood – the things you did, felt and said. But some experiences stay with you forever.  

 It was summer and I must have been about six or seven. We were at Exiles – the place where we always swam. My mother was sunbathing on the rocks and my brother and I were down by the water’s edge doing what children do best – beach-combing, hogging the ladder. And suddenly there he was, appearing out of nowhere as he was wont to do.   

I already knew him by sight and can still picture him clearly. He lingered by the playing field public toilets nearby and seemed to be a permanent fixture, often with a deep-tanned, bleach-blonde, middle-aged woman in tow. Some days they would venture closer and loiter furtively in the shade, fully clothed, watching bathers from above.  Other times, he would don a bathing suit himself and swim. Both he and his female companion looked old to me, but I suppose through the eyes of a six-year-old, everybody does. 

 And on that particular day, he joined us. He was wearing an ill-fitting bathing suit and dark brown jelly sandals, and my brother, who is two years older, seemed happy that an adult had finally come to help us look for crabs. I didn’t share my brother’s enthusiasm and promptly left in search of my mother, who immediately wanted to know where my brother was. 

In my best matter-of-fact voice, I replied that he was down by the sea with the child-molester. My mother, who was never one to doubt her children, was still nonplussed by the calm tone with which I imparted this chilling information. Where does a child of six learn such a word? She immediately summoned my brother and packed our bags. We were going home.     

I saw him several times after that, for many years. We lived across the road from the beach, so it was inevitable. By then, I’d coined a nickname for him.  He never actually did – or even said – anything to me; but he gave off alarming signals, even to my innocent, unknowing, six-year-old self. But I’ve always trusted my instincts, and there was certainly something very sinister about him (and her); something that told me that they were up to no good. Of course this was the 1980s: a different world, a different Malta, where many crimes were still largely unknown, and were like unmapped territories that lived only in our imaginations, if that.

This new punitive culture is as harsh and violent as real sexual crime

But of course there were other things that we lived through and survived. One was the perpetual ogling of women by men, often accompanied by loud comments for good measure. And it wasn’t just workmen on building sites wolf-whistling and passing remarks about your breasts; or flashers who sat on the bus behind you and masturbated. All this may not have been exactly pleasant or welcome, but we got on with it and told ourselves that it was part of life and not the end of the world. 

And then we joined the working world. No more workmen dangling from scaffold­ing. Now the off-colour sexual innuendos came from fellow colleagues and superiors – people you liked and with whom you might have gone to school; people who even invited you to their weddings. There isn’t a woman alive who has not been on the receiving end of inappropriate male behaviour. And she will have forced herself to dismiss the matter because doing so seemed less bothersome.  

Fast forward to today. Perhaps we needed a wake-up call from a culture that ignored flashers and lecherous gropers. But I can’t help feeling that we may now be casting the net too far and wide, where even a flirtatious text message or an intimate kiss could be suspect. 

As things stand in Malta today, a person who “subjects another person to an act of physical intimacy” or to “any conduct with sexual connotations, including spoken words or gestures” is in violation of our Criminal Code. What this essentially means is that if your son (or daughter) makes an unwanted pass, even in good faith, he or she could face anything from six months to two years in prison, or a minimum fine of €5,000 (rising to €10,000). 

It’s all very well protecting women (and men) from sexual violence; but to my mind, this new punitive culture is as harsh and violent as real sexual crime. And it also leaves the door wide open to flagrant abuse. Men and women, it seems, can no longer flirt or kiss spontaneously. The all-important testing of sexual and emotional waters is therefore strictly verboten unless you have obtained prior (written) permission (yet don’t people change their minds in both directions?).  

Which brings me to rape punishable with imprisonment from six to 12 years. For centuries, the definition has been forcible penile penetration. But, if you’ll excuse the pun, they’ve buggered up that section of the law and redefined rape as “vaginal or anal penetration of a sexual nature with any bodily part, and/or any object; or oral penetration with any sexual organ of the body”. 

So by all accounts, penetration, be it penile or pencil, digital or nasal, could constitute rape, as could, arguably, inserting your breast inside someone’s mouth. And if I sound like I’m trivialising something serious, it’s because I find the whole thing dangerously absurd. Because in a few months we’ll be back to the drawing board, changing the law again. It was the same with slight injuries. I really don’t know who is enacting these laws, but they’re going to cause more problems than they solve.   

Oh and these are not dismissive lascivious ravings of a jaded libertine. These are genuine misgivings of someone who instinctively understood real danger and violence long before she knew what they meant.  

michelaspiteri@gmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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