I’m sitting, hiding, in a small meeting room at work, because I don’t want anyone to see what I’m writing. Well, not right now, and certainly not till it’s finished. This is difficult to write for many reasons. I want to strike the right balance, not to appear ‘too angry’, make ‘too much of a fuss’, or be ‘too negative’, but still get my point across. I want to do justice to how I feel, and to how my experiences have affected me, but I don’t want to blame anyone. I want everyone to know, and I want no one to know. Most of all it’s difficult because recalling these stories is incredibly stressful- more stressful than I’d thought it would be.
So, in the interest of balance, here’s where I’ll start. I am aware that living in 21st Century Britain, I am literally one of the luckiest women to have ever lived on the planet. I’ve had a spectacular education, endless opportunities in my career, a wonderful family, and really supportive friendships. I have civil liberties, I’m supported by a wonderful welfare state, am able to travel, and dance, and go to the theatre, and live a largely free, happy and fulfilling life. For that I am incredibly (incredibly, incredibly) grateful.
Nonetheless, I have been moved to write this piece because despite all of this progress, we still do not live in an equal society. We still treat our young girls and boys differently, we place expectations on them solely based on their gender, we nurture them differently, and exclude them from each other’s worlds. Worse, when our girls become teenagers, we start to treat them as sexual objects, and place them in a scary and threatening world. I don’t know how much convincing you need on this point; I think it’s fairly comprehensively covered in the media.
I want to share my personal experience because I’ve come to realise how important it is that girls understand that they are far from alone when it comes to sexual harassment. It’s not something ‘other’ that’s happening to ‘those girls’ it’s happening to us, right now, and it’s really wrong. My story is far from extraordinary, and I know that many women (my friends included) have gone through far worse. Above all this makes me incredibly sad.
My first memory of sexual harassment was when I was when I was about thirteen, when an older boy grabbed my chest when I was walking home from school. It really hurt, but I didn’t tell anyone, it was too embarrassing. As an older teenager I remember learning to cross the road rather than walk past leering builders, or any group of guys. At 17 I had a pint of beer thrown in my face because I wouldn’t grind up against some guy in a club. It’s a rare occasion that I can go for a run without someone shouting out at me ‘keep going sexy’. I’ve been undermined in the workplace, with men openly drooling over me in meetings. I’ve been told that my boss only likes me because I am a young pretty girl, rather than because I’m good at my job.
The main problem with what I’ve talked about so far is the relentlessness of it. In these moments I don’t feel unsafe, mainly just angry and bored of it all. But it's become inconsequential, barely worth a mention. I think a lot of women feel like that. Harassment is just part of life. It’s the times where you feel in danger where the real damage is done.
I was at a conference in Germany when a guy approached me as I was walking back to my hotel. We got chatting and he invited me out with him that night. When I told him that I had plans he became more insistent and kept following me. He was moving closer to me and I kept backing towards the wall, he wouldn’t leave, and touched me around my waist. Luckily I was able to duck into my hotel to escape him. I didn’t like that he knew where I was staying, and I was fuming.
On the way to work one day, on a crowded northern line, I saw a guy help a woman onto the tube. I’d assumed it was his girlfriend from the way he touched her on her waist and lower back. Kindly, he then let me on before squeezing in behind me. When I say that the tube was crowded, I mean it was about as packed as you can imagine- let’s say ‘arse to groin’ to paint a picture. That would be: my arse, his groin.
It wasn’t long before a started to feel movement ‘down there’. At the time I didn’t know what to think. I guessed he was getting aroused, and I thought about how embarrassing it must be for him. I certainly thought that he would find the opportunity to rearrange himself at the next stop, or get off the tube. But the next stop came and went and I found him back in the same position. Or worse, somehow. Instead of just a bit of movement ‘down there’, I was starting to think that this might actually be a full hard-on. The girl he’d helped on the tube was giving me strange looks. Assuming that she was his girlfriend, I thought she had seen what was going on and was getting annoyed with me, I smiled back as if to say ‘sorry, I’m not doing it on purpose’. In hindsight I see that she was giving me the look of a worried fellow traveller. It wasn’t ‘stop grinding my man’ but ‘are you alright?’
At this point he’d started breathing heavily down my neck, I still thought that he must have been trying to get himself under control, and that he would be feeling mortified, especially with his girlfriend right there. But his heavy breathing continued, and so did his erection.
I honestly don’t know why I didn’t force myself away. I mean, it was crowded, but if I’d shouted loudly enough ‘would you kindly take your erect dick out of my arse’ I’m sure someone would have moved out of the way for me. I think it must have been a mixture of shock and disbelief, a lack of quick thinking, and perhaps a lack of courage too.
I was so pleased to get off the carriage, I remember the swell of fresh air, and the sweat I was covered in beginning to dry a little. I remember noting how unusually sweaty I was, it was even rolling down my legs. I wasn’t until I got to my desk at work and attempted to hitch up my tights that I noticed the long streak of cum down the back of my leg.
I had a nine o’clock meeting so I just cleaned it off and got on with the day. I reported it to tfl, acknowledging that they probably couldn’t do anything about it, but that I’d like a response, or some recognition that it had happened. They didn’t respond. My friends told me to report it to the police but I really didn’t want to, I didn’t fancy going through the whole story, and I knew they couldn’t do anything about it.
These stories are just a small taste of my experience, edited low-lights, there are many more I could share. But, as I said at the start, my story is not extraordinary, it’s the common lived experience of women in this country. As I’ve shared my experiences with my friends, they’ve come back to me with countless more, most of them repulsive. Sharing these stories empowered me somehow, it made me realise that I was not to blame, that I certainly wasn’t encouraging it, and that I didn’t deserve it.
Individual stories might not seem that traumatic, but when you live with it, or the fear of it, every day of your life, it becomes stressful and overwhelming. Let’s talk about this stuff openly, only then can we truly understand it and begin to make a change.
For International Women’s Day this year (Friday 8th of March), I will be going back to that tube carriage, and dancing in protest. Follow this blog for updates of how I get on.
I want to raise awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment in this country and challenge people to take a stand. Please share this story, and your own, so that we can make a difference together.