Trigger warning: this blog post contains references of sexual harassment and assault.
Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. – Elie Wiesel.
It’s been a while since my last post. I originally thought I’d spend a lot of my time during lockdown writing but in reality, I spent a lot of it reflecting. I’ve spent the last two months debating with myself about writing this. I’d form paragraphs in my head on dog walks then lose my confidence once I was in front of my computer screen. When I talked to my sister about this, she asked what was stopping me. If I’m honest with myself, I was scared of being vulnerable and of what people may think. I was scared of being labelled as a ‘victim’ and that I wouldn’t do myself or so many other women justice. I eventually decided the best thing to do, was just to write… and once I started, I found I couldn’t stop. The words poured out of me as I ferociously typed, I felt anger and relief at finally be able to tell my story. So many women are silenced because their story is not ‘palatable’ or it’s too ‘uncomfortable’ to read, or it would ‘damage a man’s reputation’ if made public. But if recent events have taught us anything, it is only once we start talking, can we finally face injustices together.
2012. I was 23, and it was my first job after I’d graduated. A few months after I was first employed, a new director, let’s call him Kane, joined the company and I reported directly into him. It started with flirtatious comments as I brought him coffee or put papers down on his desk. I thought he was just being cheeky and didn’t look too much into it until he started texting me in the evenings. They were borderline messages, not quite enough for me to say anything (so I thought) but inappropriate enough to make me feel uncomfortable.
Then there was a work trip to Germany with an overnight stay for Kane and his team, which included seven men, all above the age of 40 and one woman, me. As we sat on the tiny plane about to take off, Kane suddenly took hold of my hand. I looked at him and he winked, claiming he was a nervous flyer. As the engine fired up, I stared at his hand holding mine, wondering when he would let go.
Once we landed in Germany, we had a day planned with a factory tour, team building exercises, followed by a dinner, before checking into our hotel. Throughout the whole day I was subjected to sexualised comments and innuendos from the men, or, as it is still so commonly referred to, ‘just banter’. Kane sat next to me at the dinner and kept his arm across the back of my chair the whole time, whilst continuously topping up my wine glass. Afterwards, at the hotel, Kane insisted everyone stay up for night caps. After a couple more drinks we all started to head upstairs to our respective rooms. Once we reached the bedroom landing, Kane enthusiastically suggested that we all should play a game of hide and seek! Some of the older men begrudgingly agreed, not wanting to say no to their new boss. Kane faced the wall and started counting as everyone ran in opposite directions trying to find a hiding place.
I ran downstairs and hid under a staircase. It wasn’t a great hiding spot and I was still clearly in view. After a few minutes I heard footsteps come down the stairs, and I saw Kane peer his head around the corner. He spotted me but didn’t say anything, just ran back upstairs, which confused me. A few more minutes passed, and I couldn’t hear anything; I just wanted to go to bed. So, I headed back upstairs to the landing expecting to see more of the team peering out from hiding spots. But the landing was completely deserted. Then out of nowhere Kane stepped out on to the landing. He didn’t say anything.
“Um…where are the others?” I asked, nervously.
“They’ve all gone to bed.” said Kane, his eyes fixed on me, smiling.
I felt the panic rise in my chest as I realised, that he’d only gone back upstairs after seeing me to tell the others to go to bed, and then had come back out to find me. We were completely alone, and he was making no attempt at heading to his own room.
“Right, well I think I’ll be off to bed too then,” I said as I backed away from him and walked quickly to my room.
“Night then.” he called after me.
Once in my room I quickly locked the door with shaking hands and breathed a sigh of relief.
Kane abused his position of authority to try and take advantage of a fresh out of university graduate. I was young and naive and kept his actions to myself, but if something like that were to happen again to me today, I’d like to think I’d be able to report it. But the truth is that so many women are silenced, due to fear of losing their job, not being believed, or generally upsetting the status quo. Yet, most women have similar stories where they have been harassed and often put in terrifying situations by men. The #MeToo movement created by Tarana Burke in 2006, gained traction in 2017 when numerous actresses publicly reported cases of sexual harassment and assault. Once a couple of women had told their story, more and more came out. The sheer volume was staggering; it was time to break the silence. Women in the media and across the world are constantly named, blamed, and shamed for their actions, it’s time to finally make men accountable for theirs.
I was assaulted in my mid-twenties when I was having sex with a guy and he removed the condom without my knowing or consent. This is called ‘stealthing’. At the time once I’d realised what he’d done, I felt weird and uncomfortable, but because assault and lack of consent in all its forms is normalised in society, I hadn’t realised that I’d actually been sexually assaulted until later on. I had consented to sex with a condom, I had NOT consented to sex without one. He took that choice away from me and decided he could do what he wanted with my body. This was not my first experience of assault at the hands of a man either. I am not unique in my experiences. Most women you know will have been subjected to some form of harassment and/or assault by a man in their lifetime. And it’s not unusual for them to have more than one story, that is how much society normalises sexual assault on women. It happens every day and people turn a blind eye to it, cover it up, and gaslight the woman into feeling like she’s over-reacting. According to Rape Crisis UK, it was estimated that 1 in 5 women will experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetime. This could be your mum, sister, or daughter. This could be you. If you’re a man reading this and you’re sat feeling shocked, disgusted, and angry, then imagine what it’s like to be a woman who faces the very real threat of this every single day.
Let’s talk about respect, specifically the lack of respect for women. When I lived in Australia with three men, I was partial to hearing the way they discussed women. Women were conquests that were rated on how their bodies looked to determine their value and it wasn’t uncommon for racist slurs such as, “I love a chocolate woman” to be casually thrown around as they dehumanised these women further. This is a prime example of toxic masculinity, and it was not the first time I have heard groups of men discussing women as if they were objects to be used and discarded, with little to no regard for the fact that they are a person with thoughts, feelings and lived experiences. This kind of behaviour is not ‘funny’ or ‘manly’, it encourages the disrespect of women and feeds into rape culture.
When a woman is minimised to just her body, you dehumanise her to an object solely for male consumption. A lot of men believe they have some kind of ‘ownership’ over women’s bodies and think they can do whatever they like with them. An example of this that a lot of women will have experienced, is when men walk past them in a club or bar, or indeed any public space, and put their hands on her waist as they pass, instead of politely asking her if he can get by. For some reason men seem to think they are entitled to be able to touch a woman’s body without her consent. And we normalise this!? Now let’s put the shoe on the other foot. How do you think a man would react if they were physically touched by another person they didn’t know as they walked past? And yet, if a woman was to call a man out and quite rightly be outraged, then she is called a “bitch” for even daring to challenge a man, despite the fact that he touched her body! Are we starting to see the problem here?
Further examples of a lack of respect for women include catcalling, hooting of car horns, and inappropriate comments on a woman’s appearance. All are harassment and not a single woman I know considers it a compliment. Even when we’re in a bar and we’ve declined advances from a man, a lot of the time they won’t leave us alone until we’ve used the “I have a boyfriend” line. This is our strongest card of rejection, because men will respect other men more than the woman literally standing in front of them.
As women, we have to constantly think about our safety. Every day we have to navigate routes and plans to try and protect our bodies and lives. When we go out, we don’t have the privilege that a lot of men have of just choosing to walk home at night. If a man is walking behind us late at night or a car pulls up to us, our hearts begin to race as our bodies prepare for fight or flight. We have to be on constant alert to a potential attacker; packing a pair of flip flops as they are easier to run in, should we have to, or tucking our housekeys between our knuckles. Just a couple examples of my personal experiences include, having to get off a bus early because a man was harassing me, and I had to stand waiting for an Uber in the middle of nowhere at night. After a night out, I was walking the short distance from the bus stop to my flat when a man ran out of an alleyway, touching himself and chasing me down the street. Most of the women you know will have had experiences of this everyday harassment, and so we ultimately end up paying more for our safety on expensive taxis, rape alarms etc. All this, despite being paid less than our male counterparts! So, if you’re a man on a date with a woman, I wouldn’t begrudge her if you end up paying for a couple more rounds of drinks – the gender pay gap is a very real thing.
And then there’s the all-important subject of consent, with some people claiming that there are ‘blurred lines’. Well, let me break this down simply for you: If it is not a ‘yes,’ then it is a ‘no.’ And no means NO. If someone tells you that they are ‘not in the mood’ or doesn’t respond, then that is not an invitation for you to ask again and break them down until they agree. If someone is silent and still (potentially frozen with fear) then that is not a go ahead for you to proceed. If someone consents to kissing you, that is not an automatic pass to fingering. If someone consents to oral sex with you, that does not automatically mean that they consent to penetrative sex with you. And if someone consents to sex with you using a condom that does not mean that they consent to that condom being removed without their knowledge. And finally, but certainly not the least, anyone can withdraw their consent at any given time – even if you’re in the middle of sex. If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend watching Michaela Coel’s 12-part series I May Destroy You on BBC iPlayer. A drama based on her real-life experiences of sexual assault and the importance of consent. It is the most powerful, impactful, and important series I have watched in a long time.
We live in a society of ‘victim blaming’. Where women who report cases of harassment or assault are questioned on whether “they led him on” or subjected to comments such as, “look what she was wearing, she was asking for it”. NO. No one asks to be assaulted. That blame lies solely with the perpetrator. We teach our daughters how to avoid danger and ‘how not to get raped’. When really, we should be teaching our sons not to rape women. Boys need to be taught that women are not sexualised objects who exist for their consumption and disposal.
Men need to be made accountable for their actions. And if you’re a man sat reading this and your first response is defensive and along the lines of “but not all men are like that” or “well, I wouldn’t do that,” let me stop you right there. You are not being attacked here; it is women who are being attacked (in the majority). Yes, we know that not all men harass and assault women, but enough men do it that most women you know will have experienced it. And that’s a BIG problem. And if you’re still feeling defensive, maybe that’s actually a feeling of guilt and there’s a reason for that…
We need men to put their own egos aside and wake up to the reality of what is happening to women, every single day. What we don’t need is a man responding to our traumas by “playing devil’s advocate” or giving us “whataboutisms”. This is not a game or debate. You are not being constructive or helpful, all you are doing is deliberately dismissing and belittling our experiences. Women go through enough without hearing that bullshit too.
I am a feminist. At least, a ‘feminist in progress’, a term coined by presenter and activist, Jameela Jamil. Acknowledging that whilst I am actively educating myself and striving to be and do better, I will never stop learning, and nor should I. Because the minute you stop learning and think you know everything, a person from a marginalised community gets overlooked. To be a feminist literally means the belief that everyone should have equality, be treated equally, and have equal opportunities regardless of gender, race, sexuality, or ability. Sounds fair right? Yet the world is far from fair, and if you don’t realise that or if all or even just one of above means that you’ve had no experiences of discrimination, then that is your privilege. It’s time to start recognising your privileges, because not everyone has them. And people are losing jobs, losing freedom, being assaulted, and being killed because of that.
I’m mixed race, but my lighter skin tone means that I have benefitted from white privilege and white proximity. I am also a straight, non-disabled, cisgender woman so I benefit from those privileges too. But what about women from marginalised communities? Women of colour, disabled women, trans women or gay or bisexual women, who in addition to being oppressed by the patriarchy also face further discrimination, and similar to higher rates of sexual violence than straight people. The 2015 U.S Transgender Survey found that 47% of trans people are sexually assaulted at some point during their lifetime. This is why we have to check our own privileges, face uncomfortable truths, and ensure that our feminism is truly intersectional, so that no one is overlooked and equality for all, actually does mean equality for all. This requires work from women and men, and the work is never done; it is always in progress.
Some people scoff at the mention of feminism and roll their eyes as if it’s some dirty or embarrassing word. There is an outdated notion of what feminism is – cue images of bra burning and man-hating. A narrative so obviously constructed by the patriarchy, yet it continues to seep unchecked into our daily lives. But it’s important to remember that everyone can be feminists. So, reader, are you a feminist? If you can’t answer that straight away, then I’d question yourself on why you don’t believe in equal opportunities for everyone? – because that is what’s truly concerning.
Contrary to what some may believe, I do not hate men. I hate toxic masculinity and misogyny. But I love men. Hell, most of the posts on this blog wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for my love of men! The patriarchy harms us all, it teaches men to supress their emotions, it teaches women to be in competition with other women and it teaches us all that if we do not fit into the narratives it assigns to us that we must be punished somehow. But if you’re a man (especially a white, cisgender man), the patriarchy holds you above everyone else, and if you don’t recognise your own privilege yet, then it’s time to. So, this is a call to all men, to leave any defensiveness at the door and to show up for the women you love and the women you don’t. To listen to our stories, to believe us, to fight against the patriarchal society that oppresses us, to help amplify our voices, to stand by us and to be our allies.
So, yeah, me too. I have past experiences of trauma and that will never be OK or just accepted. I don’t let or want what happened to me define who I am, but I know that is something I will always have to process and live with. But live I shall. I have a career, a loving family, and supportive friends. I had and will have boyfriends (although hopefully not many more!). I travel, I read, I write, and I continue to learn. I blog about my experiences in the hope that it may help others feel less alone in theirs. I cry when I’m sad or angry or when I feel something is unjust. I am strong and stand up for myself despite hating confrontation. I will laugh at myself and unapologetically always set out to be the joker. I love hard despite having had my heart broken more than once. And I will always be slightly obsessed with pancakes. I am still me; I am still Jess.