I was going to save this post until later.
It’s a tricky subject for me to write about and I wanted to wait until the blog was more established. Until I’d built up more courage. But now is as good a time as any.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ll have noticed the #MeToo hashtag taking over social media following the sexual assault scandals rocking the entertainment industry and the political world.
As hundreds of women – both famous and “ordinary” – have shared stories, I’ve hovered over my keyboard, on the verge of posting.
I wanted to show solidarity, but doing it under my real name felt terrifying. I do think it’s an important thing to speak up about though, so I’m going to share my experiences here, where I can be anonymous.
I first became aware of the dangers of being female on one frosty February evening. I was nine years old. At the time I was living in a large city. It doesn’t matter which one. My story will be familiar to thousands of girls and women in every country, city, town and village. The scenarios vary but it’s essentially the same.
On that evening, my mum and I were walking home from my swimming lesson, faces numb and reddened by the unrelenting cold. I said I would take a detour for snacks. Mum let me.
It was only around 7pm and crowds of people were still trudging home from work. Besides, I knew the neighbourhood like the back of my hand.
As I walked home alone, swinging the shopping bag, not a single bad thought crossed my mind. I skipped over potholes and cracks in the pavement, trying to avoid the clusters of ice and brown slush.
I reached the entrance to our building, just behind the main road. Here the streets were quieter and darker, tangled branches obscuring the feeble orange glow of the street lights.
I didn’t see him as I made my way to the lift. Then all of a sudden he appeared behind me, lifting me up and kissing my cheek as he carried me over to a corner, beside the post boxes.
For a moment I was utterly disoriented. Who was this person? In the semi-darkness, I could only see the silhouette of a tall man with shoulder-length hair. He smelled of cigarettes.
“Don’t scream, I won’t kill you!”, said an unfamiliar voice. I was not reassured.
I stood frozen to the spot for what seemed like an eternity, unable to move or utter a sound.
At the time I wasn’t clued up about what went on between men and women, but I knew enough to realise that what followed was not going to end well for me. It was now or never.
“Help!”, I shouted, in a much smaller voice than I’d hoped for.
The stranger ran off into the night. A few more seconds of silence and I would have been one more rape statistic.
I bolted up the stairs, taking two and three at a time, running faster than ever in my life. Once safely home, I clung to my mum and begged her to accompany me everywhere from then on.
It took a while to tell her what happened. For over an hour I was too nauseous and dizzy to speak.
We reported the incident to police. They were sympathetic, but I couldn’t give a proper description of the man. It was a city of two million people. There wasn’t much they could do, they said.
With that, the file was slammed shut and life carried on. No one ever mentioned the incident again.
Now, I don’t want readers to think my parents were neglectful or uncaring. In this day and age in the UK, a big fuss would be made. But back then we were surviving day-to-day in a country rocked by political, social and economic chaos. Much worse things happened.
For me, though, everything changed. I was no longer happy-go-lucky. Instead I became hyper-vigilant, always looking behind my back, eying each man I saw with suspicion.
I knew my attacker was still at large and I was convinced he’d come back to get me. The feeling of being unsafe never subsided. Anxiety followed me throughout the day and the nightmares came thick and fast at night.
A few years later I hit puberty. Grown men in the street now looked at me in ways I wished they wouldn’t, or honked their car horns and wolf-whistled as they drove past.
You know, lads’ banter that women are always told to ignore. Each time it happened it was just one more little thing to remind me that I was female, and not in a good way.
Over the years there have been too many little incidents to list, and I’d be here all night if I went into detail on each one of them. There were catcalls on the street and uninvited groping at festivals, some guy sticking a camera up my skirt in a nightclub, harassment from customers and bosses during my stints working in bars…and all the other little everyday instances of sexism that most women experience.
On many occasions I’ve challenged the behaviour, but sometimes it’s just easier and less exhausting to laugh it off or ignore it.
I’ve heard men lament that they’re no longer allowed to flirt with or compliment women anymore, for fear of being accused of harassment.
I just don’t think this is the case though. Most women, including myself, enjoy good banter. I can tell when someone is well-meaning and respond accordingly.
But none of the examples I’ve listed felt like a compliment. And I think most men are intelligent enough to be able to tell the difference between flirting and harassment.
For the record, I never did see the man who cornered me on that February night again. I gradually recovered from the initial shock and started to relax and enjoy life once more.
Sometimes I wonder what he’s doing now and if he went on to assault any others.
I try not to dwell on it, though. It was a long, long time ago and while it’s probably left a mark, I seem to have done OK in life. I now have a wonderful other half, a job where harassment has never been an issue, and I haven’t turned into a bitter man-hater.
I just wish we could live in a world where there wouldn’t be enough material for blog posts like this. I want this not just for myself, but for all future generations of girls and women. Can we ever make it happen?