Like ordinary women everywhere, I found the #MeToo campaign prompted recollections of past events that I rarely think about: everyday sexual assaults, big and small. Most have blended into a nondescript mass of grabs, gropes, sexually aggressive remarks, and being cornered by various men with intent to harass or worse. If women itemised a lifetime’s everyday sexual assaults, there’d be no room in our memories for anything else! So mine is not a complete narrative; far from it. They’re just things that resurfaced in my mind for one reason or another.
- I did, but no-one was interested
- I did, but people said I must have misunderstood
- I did, but they said he’s not like that – so I must have misunderstood
- I did, but everyone was more interested in blaming me
- He was in a position of authority, so I only told a few friends who advised me to stay quiet
- He was known to be violent; I told a friend who said it was safest to keep clear of him
- Some women and children are threatened by their abuser. They stay quiet out of fear.
After several years of this, at a shockingly young age, we learn that it is futile to complain. We learn to anticipate blame: was I too drunk; did I give the wrong signals; am I making a fuss about nothing? Women and girls self-censor. We quietly understand that men can’t be stopped; everyday sexual assaults are part & parcel of life as a human female.
You should’ve known he’d try it on … Well, you were in that place … dancing like that … wearing that … really drunk or stoned … talking like that … It’s report him or keep your job … Nothing you can do about it … Wrong place, wrong time, wrong situation.
Sure, if I get soaked because I didn’t bring an umbrella then I’m at least partly responsible. If you half-drown in a stormy ocean, you shouldn’t have gone swimming that day. It’s nobody’s fault when lightning strikes, and if a hurricane’s coming we need to batten down or get the hell out of the way. But men are thinking, conscious individuals. They choose their actions.
“Can’t help it” applies to the weather, not to human choices. Everyday sexual assaults are deliberate.
How on earth have we come to accept that men are just like that, as if male humans were a weather system? Indoctrination. Our cultures teach boys from early years to view sexual assault as no biggie – even admirable – and girls don’t escape this programming, either. Alongside the message that boys will be boys, we learn to shut up about it: even taking harassment as a compliment, because – well, this:-
“Han Solo is a hero because he sees through her artifice, and knows how to confidently stride past those barriers. The primary attractive traits in males are physical strength and aggressiveness, and he knows that Leia’s feigned resistance is a test of those attributes. You can see the sequence in the clips: The female fights, the male demonstrates his physical superiority, and the female acknowledges his suitability as a mate and willingly gives in.”
It’s a cliché. And it runs deep. In Consent: 7 reasons why guys don’t understand it, David Wong calls it the Assault Them Until They Love You seduction method. Girls see the same media and, to make sure we know our role in this universal drama, we have our Princess stories – plucky girls of shining moral purity, whose difficult lives are completed when a hero finally invades their home, kisses them while they’re asleep, or murders their family members. Our bejewelled role models are subject to the bad guys’ whims, and to the good guys’. We learn that women and girls are products for men’s consumption – or prey.
This puts women in a bit of a predicament. Having a female body is anything but straightforward! We learn that we’re supposed to be beautiful-sexy-princess products before finding out that we’re also prey. The male world helpfully starts teaching us this module very early; learning to withhold what men want is a crucial part of our role. Luckily, my early lessons weren’t too drastic. Some kids learn harshly.
I must have been five. This uncle was keen for the little girls to sit on his lap and tell him a story. He was very affable (he had sweets) and I loved telling stories. After a flurried adult conversation in the kitchen, my parents firmly instructed me that I must never sit on his lap. The man didn’t want my stories from any other position – he whined about it and, to make matters worse, his wife went overboard trying to make me ‘cuddle’ him. It all felt very awkward: I didn’t know the words then, but it was my first discomfort at being a sexual object and having a duty to politely withhold access, no matter how eager they were. Lesson one: They don’t care about your feelings, but you must reject them nicely.
On holiday at about seven. My brother and I were knocking around with some other kids when a man in a car drove slowly by, smiling and waving. He stopped: “Would you like a ride in my car? Have some sweets!”
MUMMY SAYS WE CAN’T TAKE SWEETS FROM STRANGERS, I pompously declared, pinning my little brother to the ground so he couldn’t accept the man’s offer. Once we related this adventure to my parents they carefully explained what the danger was, without too much detail. New lesson: Men try to trick you into unwanted sexual activity by offering some fun. The man continued to appear, and the other kids provided lesson two, part two: Friends might try to push you into unwanted sexual activity if they think there’s a reward in it for them. (Juvenile pimping! Nice.)
Aged nine, I was skipping in the park with friends. He emerged, classically, from a bush. He was staring so hard that we didn’t notice the penis until he started touching it. We ran away and told the parents. I was puzzled about why a man would do that, so my dad delivered lesson three: Some men don’t care who you are, they just want to impose their erection on a girl – any girl.
Innocent playground kissing games morphed quite suddenly, from an hilarious squall of equal-opportunities embarrassment, to the scarier version where boys chased girls to inflict slobbering, groping discomfort. Boys invaded the girls’ toilets, hanging over the cubicle dividers to watch. They’d bully us to do cartwheels & handstands all through break, so they could see our knickers. We were learning to be prey – and the boys were showing up as villains, heroes, weirdos or idiots.
Enraged adults broke up a garden game of ‘hospital’ where a 14-year-old boy was conducting a gynaecological examination of my four-year-old sister. I didn’t see the problem, but my brother and I figured it out afterwards. Bonus lesson: It’s important not to misunderstand sexual predators, as they might harm someone. This was getting complicated.
Aged 11, on my way to school at around 8:30am. Some geezer walking along the lane complimented my hair, “Thanks”, I replied. He caught up to me: “It’s sexy”, he said. At this age I thought I knew all about sexy, so I laughed and told him I couldn’t be sexy because I was a child. “Not too young to be sexy”, he insisted – and that’s where it all went weird for me. I was completely thrown by his insistence: still trying ward him off politely, still thinking he’d made a mistake, I was soon pressed to the fence by this adult crawling over me with unfamiliar but unmistakable lust. I remember the smell of recently-creosoted wood against my face.
Some of his workmates arrived and, incomprehensibly, found it all very funny. I was crying by now but they were too busy jeering at my regulation big knickers to care about a terrified child.
A ‘hero’ showed up: another of his co-workers, but this one had common sense. He yelled at the men, punched my attacker and dusted me down. He did, however, instruct me not to tell anyone. I kept quiet all day, and told my mother in the evening. Distracted by a house full of children and boiling pans, she gave me a minute or two then asked “But did he do anything to you, sexually I mean?” Assured that he only touched my chest and backside, she murmured “That’s all right, then”, and returned to her work. I realise now that she was reassuring herself and not offering guidance, but it stuck. Interestingly, the school friends I told the next day made similar remarks.
Lots of lessons that day:
You can’t assume people’s sexual interest will be appropriate
You can’t fight off a lecherous attacker or appeal to his better nature
Other people won’t care what’s happening to you.
You’re stuffed unless a decent man asserts his strength on your behalf.
And: nobody’s interested.
The everyday sexual assaults came thick and fast over the next few years, with sleazy remarks and furtive hands punctuating any & all mixed-sex activities from riding the bus to family funerals. My hormones made up for their late arrival by swamping me in unfocused eroticism – with no experience and no theory to help us understand these intense desires, my friends and I interpreted them through the male-centred lens described by David Wong. It was the only available construct. Now blossoming into beautiful-sexy-product princesses, we saw that the male world wanted us: so much that it never stopped yelling, pawing at us, offering us nice things and begging for attention.
Being a teenage girl was exactly like being permanently displayed in a big shop window – or sometimes like being a zoo exhibit.
The male world revealed itself as contemptible – quite repulsive, actually – and it also owned all the nice things, guarded the doors to the best clubs, and offered some vague direction to our untethered libido. We discovered the power of attracting, then rejecting men. We got into the clubs, were given lots of free stuff, and measured one another’s coolness by the status of our boyfriends.
In this modern world, the quality of a woman’s life is overwhelmingly dependent on what kind of man she can attract — her self-worth is thus based largely on how desirable she is to men, and on how many men are pursuing her at any given moment. The need for more suitors is due to the law of supply and demand. It is to her advantage to create competition by tempting as many men as possible, then making it difficult for any single one to gain her attention.
Thus, women gain power through rejecting men, and those rejections have nothing to do with how they truly feel.
We learned to play this game. It often went wrong. I had to quit my favourite babysitting job due to the dad’s awful, drunken advances; I jumped out of moving cars more than once; I relied on the strength of decent men to rescue me from dozens of would-be rapists (yes, literally dozens.) At the time it felt like everyday sexual assaults were part of the game and all I had to do was play it better: that is, I blamed myself for getting it wrong. It didn’t occur to me to blame the men, or the masculine culture that defines us.
Older women said “Enjoy it while you’re young. Before long you’ll be pushing out babies and hoping your husband leaves you alone.” I was going to have a career, as well as hordes of princes in pursuit – so I took their first advice, ignoring the warning.
A few of my friends were violently raped. True to the ‘rules of the game’, we saw these dreadful incidents as outliers, perpetrated not by men but by monsters. I never associated what happened to them with my own narrow escapes.
My father’s tirades on the subject of “Not going out like that!” felt so threatening, it forced me to analyse his anger. In short, he understood that I was being a product – and all the mechanisms behind it, because he was a man and my most-fashionable outfits made him feel a bit rapey. That was very uncomfortable for both of us.
I correctly argued that I should be able to stroll around naked without being molested, but we both knew the real world isn’t a level playing field. He wanted his daughter to play it safer by not “showcasing the goods”. I was damned if I was going to let fear of being blamed for men’s aggression control my wardrobe. (What were you wearing?) So we compromised.
Dad’s profession put him in the ideal place to launch a self-defence course for young women, and I was his first pupil. He taught me some basic fight strategies – and a reasonably comprehensive overview of the psychology of sexual predators, with potential deflection techniques for each common type of attacker. I have used ALL his techniques in real emergencies, including the one that goes “Too dangerous; stay quiet until you can break free.”
Hence I’m an ardent fan of fighting lessons and assertiveness training for girls & young women.
To this day I can’t understand why so many men think women want to see their dicks, but they sure do. Perhaps it’s more the case that they don’t care who the woman is – like the flasher in the park, they’re doing some personal fantasy thing that merely requires a female as a stage prop. I must have seen a hundred uninvited cocks in real life; god knows how many online.
There’ve been friends-of-friends who turned up in my bedroom with their dicks out, strangers urging me to stroke or suck theirs, strangers masturbating at me on crowded rush-hour trains; no end of friends & acquaintances ‘accidentally’ flopping their cocks into view.
No woman has ever, in the entire history of mankind, glanced at a stranger’s penis and gone “My goodness, that’s such a marvellous dick, I must have sex on it immediately!”
So, evidently, it’s not about hoping we’ll love the displayed appendage. It’s more about – I dunno, using us for weird and selfish purposes. It most definitely isn’t a compliment; even my misguided teenage self could see that.
I can think of three times when uninvited men have put their fingers inside me. One was a proud moment: it happened in a jam-packed Tube train; I reached down, grabbed the wrist and raised it up, demanding “WHOSE HAND IS THIS?” I got a round of applause!
Every woman has been groped/grabbed. Some countries are a lot worse for this than the UK; a few are better. The men who help themselves to a handful of bum or breast, who yank down your top or flip up your skirt, often treat it as a Benny Hill type joke. It’s amusing … if women are a joke, like squeaky toys.
But there’s something even more revolting about the surreptitious stroker. Most everyday sexual assaults are like this: so sneaky & underhand that we can’t be 100% sure we’re being assaulted. There was a guy on my regular train into work who would stroke my hair. I put up with it for a week before deciding it definitely wasn’t coincidence – and I caught a different train, leaving his routine untroubled.
There’s a whole porn genre about it. They stroke your bum and breasts, face or legs, they peer up your skirt and down your top, they breathe on you, and sometimes whisper in your ear. They film you. Although it might not sound like much, it’s disturbing. To them, it’s ‘stealing’ something and that is how it feels – but you can’t pull the emergency handle, screaming “That man stole my bodily integrity!”
Of course, all the grabbing and feeling crystallises the women as products problem. A huge number of men see us not as fully-functioning humans like themselves, but as consumer goods for their personal use & entertainment. In this framework it’s part of women’s role to withhold access, so thieving a handful can be a good game – if you see us as ‘things’ and not proper people.
According to my father, stealth groping and indecent exposure are high predictors of rape. So there’s that.
I don’t think much of ‘virginity’ – it only means you haven’t done something yet. This attitude was probably helpful when I ‘lost’ mine to a man who didn’t stop when I said stop. Not having any previous experience for comparison, I wasn’t sure it had been rape until he started apologising in the morning. Apparently, if he’d known I was a virgin he wouldn’t have done it! I told some older women at work, who were brilliantly sympathetic in a non-hysterical way: I’m still grateful to them. They told me, too, that wasn’t what real sex is like, so not to give up on it just yet! Bless them, they were perfect advisors (they also sent me for an STD test. All young women should know some older women like that.)
Both husbands. Both caused some lasting injuries. Both knew what they’d done … well, that’s a ridiculous comment! Of course they knew! A big part of me still wanted to believe there’s some truth in the lie about “getting carried away”, but nobody gets so carried away that they’ll continue causing pain to a crying partner they supposedly love.
Women know we’re at risk of everyday sexual assaults after a night out (having generally fended off a few during the evening), so we are heavily dependent on taxi drivers for our safety – especially the licensed ‘black cab’ drivers in London. And many drivers have helped me enormously, often going way beyond the call of duty to make sure I was safe.
But some have abused their position of trust. These ranged from mini-cab drivers locking me in the car and assaulting me, through a few black cab drivers offering to let me off the fare for a blow job or a shag. And two drivers who drugged me.
One, it turned out, was John Worboys. The police told me he would have sexually assaulted me (going into an uncomfortable amount of detail). Finding out was very upsetting, but my memory’s so hazy that I never felt it had affected me like, say, the marital rapes did.
The other was supposedly a mini-cab driver but – as the police pointed out – was more likely a predator who’d targeted me in the bar, spiked my drink and then pretended he was the taxi my friends called to keep me safe. That was a horrible experience, definitely rape and almost worse because the police were powerless. He stole all my cash, too, the bastard.
The horrible thing about those two – and the vast majority of sexual assaults – is that, despite knowing you are a real person with your own life, the men just use your body like a sex toy. When women talk about dehumanisation or objectification, we aren’t inventing the idea for argument’s sake. It is literally what happens. It’s despicable, and very unpleasant to know that so many men see you, a fellow human being, as no more than a convenient set of body parts.
There are too many to tell; this is a long read already. I managed to talk down a rapist who held a knife to my throat (thanks, Dad!) and I helped the police catch a notorious serial rapist who, by sheer chance, I saw coming. There’s a few more drink-spiking stories, a lot more violence and too many so-called friends whom I fought, peeled or scared off. Clients who took the piss, bosses who took advantage, strangers who took the chance … every day, sexual assaults of one sort or another. It tails away as we get older, but it doesn’t stop. We get meaner. That helps.
There’s nothing special about me, IT REALLY IS THAT BAD. Some women are lucky – not clever, just lucky – to get away with a light peppering of everyday sexual assaults. For each fortunate woman, there’s another who’s been far less lucky than me.
Everyday Sexism has over 80,000 posts, mostly detailing everyday sexual assaults. Twickenham Stadium couldn’t seat all the women who are seriously sexually assaulted every year in the UK.
That’s a lot of men, doing a lot of serious sexual assaulting.
Let’s stop this now, eh?