“If you don’t make bold moves, the world doesn’t move forward”
– Richard Branson
On Friday night, as I made my way home from an evening of sport, I opened the complimentary paper that had been left sitting on the tube seat and read. The horrors of Harvey Weinstein filled the pages. But not just his horrors – I counted three different articles all addressing the issue of men forcing themselves on women.
First was the update on the many more women coming forward to expose Harvey, followed by a story on a female politician here in the UK who had revealed her experience with workplace sexual harassment. Finally, the article that truly shocked me – a girl, aged 19 had been assaulted three times at different stages of her journey home after a Friday night out. The final time involved a gang.
Disgusted by this repeated theme, I looked up at the tube map and felt a pair of eyes on me. I glanced to my left to see a man, two seats away, staring at me across the brief gap between us. His expression said he wasn’t zoned out and forgetting himself. It was more nefarious than that. The little mouse in his mind was running hard on its wheel. Possibly hard in more tiny mouse ways than one.
Uncomfortable, I turned my body to the right, only to see another man, again two seats away, staring. I consciously stopped myself from rolling my eyes. If only I’d known, all of these years that this is what it takes to attract a man! Not an ounce of make up. The smell of sweat. A perspiration-soaked hairline. And all decked out in a set of neck to toe sports gear! I don’t doubt there are many women who look stunning in such a scenario, but I can tell you I am NOT one of them. I am that species of woman whose cheeks turn bright red when I play sport and I sweat like a pig in a British sausage factory. Trust me – nothing to see here.
Fortunately my stop was next, and as I got up, I realised so was his. I moved to another door, making conscious decisions to avoid any opportunity to engage with him – weaving through crowds, and pounding quickly up stairs and escalators. As I stepped out into the street I was relieved to confirm I had lost him. I stopped by my local supermarket on the way home, and standing at the register I looked up to see another man give me a brief toss of the head, eyebrows arched and a leer on his face. I mean really, has that EVER worked in the history of men and women?! I looked away and moved quickly towards the door – choosing the route home that included the brightly lit neighbourhood street, rather than the faster laneway alternative that I would normally use in the daytime.
It was Friday night. I’d had an exhausting week. My mind was tired. And I couldn’t shake the feeling of doom that had crept in as I’d read those articles juxtaposed with the uncomfortable moments that had followed. What is happening to the world, when rape culture has become such a real and prominent fixture in the everyday mind?
The following morning I woke to get a coffee. Not in sports gear this time, but in casual clothes and still no make up, I weaved through a small crowd at the front of the station. As I passed, a man gestured suggestively at me. As I reached the corner I was harassed by a man on a bike.
At this point perhaps you’re thinking I’m a little paranoid? That I live in a bad area? That I must have been wearing something racy? That there must be something about my body that I’m just not giving myself credit for? While I acknowledge this is not my everyday experience, let me put your mind at ease….
I live in Notting Hill, where, to be honest not a lot has changed since Hugh ran into Julia with a cup of orange juice. Actually, I live just a moment’s walk from Hugh and his blue door. We’re practically neighbours.
I was wearing jeans, boots (flat – no heel), a black long sleeve loose top. I had no make up on as I mentioned. My hair had been blown dry but not styled (which for me spells disaster). I wore no make up. I was very Plain Jane. Don’t judge me – it was Saturday morning and I was only ducking out in quiet little Notting Hill to get a coffee. I was just a girl. Standing in front of a coffee barista. Asking him to caffeinate her.
As for my body. I wish I could tell you I have a banging bod. Instead, I am a realist – while I inherited my grandmother’s generous badonkadonk, I am no Kardashian. After a year of travelling, including a three-month stint in Ireland where potatoes really are a staple food (appearing on my plate at least twice daily), I am far from happy with my current state of weight. Which, by the way, was what lead to me sweating in sports gear on the tube the night before.
And as for paranoid? Let me be clear about the body language and actions of the men in question:
- The first guy leered at me while thrusting forward his pelvis and ‘adjusting’ his crotch (apparently it’s socially acceptable to do that, because, you know, they need adjusting from time to time – especially in public).
- The second guy was stopped on his bicycle at a light, about to head away from me. He yelled out “hey there hot lady” before turning his bike around and following me at walking pace down the street. I pretended to ignore him until he lost interest and sped away.
Paranoid? God I hope not. If that’s not reality, then what horror is?
When these things happen (and I will admit – not normally this frequently in the space of a 12 hour period), I automatically emit vibes. The ones that say “Don’t come near me, don’t even look at me. I’m so far from interested in anything you’re doing or saying. Just go away”. Sometimes I find myself considering the items I’m carrying that might be helpful if situations were to arise. Like “Could this (umbrella/badminton racquet/full grocery bag/insert other item here) do much damage if I had to swing it at someone’s head? Again – I promise I’m not paranoid, nor am I a violent person. These are just thoughts that pass a woman’s mind when her safety is threatened. Unfortunately, sometimes this is life.
The sad truth is, it’s rarely the strangers that do the real damage. More often than not, you at least know the person’s name.
When I was five, an older boy followed me into the girls’ toilets at after school care and asked me to show him an area of my body that even at age five I knew I shouldn’t share with a twelve-year-old boy. As it turns out, child-on-child assault is on the increase. I don’t know where my not-so-junior predator is now, but I would guess jail. That kind of behaviour at that age surely doesn’t end there.
When I was in my early twenties there were multiple unwelcome episodes of bad behaviour by boys around me. I once had the boyfriend of one of my close friends accompany me back to their place where I was staying. He made up my bed and then settled down on a computer chair commanding “touch yourself” and violently kicking the bed when I yelled at him words of refusal that I won’t repeat. His volume increased with his anger, as did his level of physical exertion until eventually, he fell into a drunken sleep. We never spoke about it, though it wasn’t my only run in with him. But their wedding was lovely.
Later still, in my mid-twenties, I was assaulted at a conference. I was the only person there under 35. He was maybe early to mid fourties and the head of the company that had held the conference. When I managed to pull myself free of his grip, I gave him a serve about being married and having children. I guess it’s one occasion that I should be proud of, because I did try to roar but I was so shocked that it came out more like a newborn kitten finding its voice for the first time. For years afterward, I excused his behaviour, blaming myself in what is, I guess, a typical assault victim response. Only until I heard years later that he’d committed other offences against his marriage. One of Weinstein’s victims described her assault as “the most damaging thing” to have happened in her life. I couldn’t agree more. My conference experience broke me in a way that nothing else has. It put me in a very dark place for a time, taking years to fully recover from the trauma of what happened. It played catalyst to my self-ruin, but it also drove my success, because I wanted to show the world that I wouldn’t be held back. It was pivotal to my life so far, and in the end has made me stronger and more evolved. These days it’s a moment of my life that I own, almost as something that needed to happen to shape my life today.
Perhaps it’s just unique to my experiences but I find sometimes it’s the men I encounter in the workplace that can be the greatest threat. I once sat in a round-table conference that held a department of perhaps twenty people at most. My colleague, a male from another office who was sitting beside me, reached across the small gap between us, placed a hand on my leg and gently squeezed, his wedding ring glinting mockingly in my face with the subtle movement. I was in a state of shock that he could even have done this – despite our bosses surrounding us, despite a room full of people, and despite the wedding ring on his roaming hand. What was I to do? Jump up and yell, disrupting my bosses presentation? I wish I had. It was not my secret to keep.
A few years later I found myself travelling by company car in India, where the driver reached back fifteen times to rub my leg while he thought I was asleep. In all honesty, I did react the first time he did it. But when he pretended nothing had happened in response, I had no choice but to let it go… another fourteen times. I lay there, eyes closed, my mind exploring the direst consequences if I were to acknowledge his advances and react in the negative way they deserved. I chose instead to continue to ‘be asleep’ until the four hour journey was over, counting every instance that he reached back behind the driver’s seat, praying that his hand would not venture any higher, and using that time to formulate the complaint I would be making to HR on arrival. Looking back now, one of the saddest parts is that I told myself there in the enclosed space of that car that I could deal with this because I’d dealt with worse. Miraculously I made it safely to the office and submitted that complaint. HR took it very seriously. Apparently, at the fresh age of twenty, he wasn’t considered predator enough to lose his job. So they let him keep driving. I think they call that enablement.
While working for the same company, and after a night drinking with colleagues, I found myself pinned up against the window of a cab I was sharing with another employee. In a dark and drunken turn of events, he’d grabbed me at the neck, pinned me up against the window and demanded I come home with him. The driver drove on silently, apparently with no concern for the asphyxiation taking place in his rear-view mirror. On arrival at his place I managed to outmanoeuvre my colleague, directing the cab to drive on with me alone. That was the night I stopped drinking with my workmates, deciding instead that my safety was more important.
Sometimes I find it miraculous that I’ve managed to come out of these scenarios relatively unscathed. But what is ‘unscathed’ when one has to spend years working through the trauma that this damaging behaviour creates? Is it okay because it could have been worse, but wasn’t? Is it okay because it wasn’t rape? Is it okay to move through the world with an underlying fear and alert consciousness of the men around you? Is it okay that the simple act of someone unexpectedly putting their hands on my hips from behind triggers an inexplicable rage from me? Is it okay to feel anxious when I’m alone in an enclosed space with a man?
The answer is clearly no. None of it is okay.
Nowadays, I like to think my thirties have made me wiser. That surely I won’t allow myself to be in these situations again. But the reality is, the environment around me is not always in my control. So all I can do is put some of my experiences out there (the sad truth is these are only a selection). Along with so many other horror stories that others are coming forward with.
I look at some of the incredibly brave women who have spoken out publically in recent events and I can’t help but think that I wouldn’t want the whole world to know that those experiences are attached to me. It feels so private. So shameful. But then I remind myself that the shame isn’t mine to own.
Writing this post was easy. Publishing it though? That’s tough. That is exposing some of the darkest moments of my life. Serving up some truths that will no doubt hurt others. Sharing moments that I’d so much rather forget. And putting my deepest vulnerabilities out there for public consumption. But how can the world change if it’s the victim who continues to feel ashamed? It’s time to speak up.
Because staying silent is surely enabling this behaviour. Should I have remained silent at the time that the behaviour was occurring? Or should I have stood up for myself despite greater negative consequences that could have arisen, or even put me in further danger? I hope that next time I will have the strength to know without a doubt what the correct action should be. I hope I will roar.
I wrote this to help expose this behaviour for the predatory rape culture that it is. As Emma Thompson so perfectly put it, “this crisis of masculinity”. Because that’s the scale of what it is.
You only have to search the internet for reference to #MeToo to see how many people have been victims of this crisis. It’s time to expose this behaviour and let the world know it’s not okay. Let future victims know exactly how to react – which is not to maintain silence. Assault thrives on silence. What the world needs now is kicking and screaming and yelling that it’s not okay. That this behaviour is far from masculine. That women deserve protection rather than a daily reminder that the world cannot be assumed a safe place to be on the tube in sweaty workout gear.
As for the many – truly wonderful – gentlemen that I’ve known and that exist out there – I know these vicious labels don’t apply to all. If you witness a woman in a potentially dangerous situation, or perhaps a man who you can see has dark intentions I appeal to you – don’t be silent. Don’t turn a blind eye. Don’t enable this crisis to continue. Women need protecting.
Be the hero.
#MeToo #WomenWhoRoar #BalanceTonPorc