In part two of our new series ‘We Are The 97%,’ more writers share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, demonstrating that sexual harassment presents itself in many ways
Content Warning: Mentions sexual assault and harassment, and PTSD
I remember in my first year at UoB walking back from doing my laundry. I was at the Vale, and my accommodation at the bottom of Mason was not ten minutes away from where I did my washing. As I walked back, my big bag of washing in tow, a car slowed down to drive with me as I walked. It was full of men my age laughing and trying to talk to me. They tailed me all the way down the hill. I remember being scared and unsure of what to do. If I kept walking, they would know where I lived, and I would be outnumbered, but if I veered off towards the lake, I would be more isolated. I kept silent and hoped they would get bored and drive off, and luckily they did. It was scary knowing that these men who had incited so much fear in me at that moment thought it was a funny joke, laughing with each other as I tried to calculate how I could get away unharmed. For weeks I doubted if it even counted as harassment, they hadn’t really done anything, but every time I did my laundry after, I searched the road for that same car, waiting for it to happen again.
Many generally know me as ‘someone who can handle herself’. I’m a Muay Thai boxer, 5”8 and heavy-set with a thick Birmingham accent who’s not afraid to speak her mind. However, those same traits of mine can be thrown back in my face if anyone deems me ‘difficult’ in a professional setting. At university, in particular, this has led to me not speaking up about certain instances of sexual violence and harassment.
In one society, a senior member of a committee used his role as an excuse to make racialised, sexual comments towards me (mostly about my hair texture or otherwise littered with butchered Patois) and get way too touchy. My friends were probably vicariously feeling the discomfort I wouldn’t allow myself to feel at the time and told me to get him removed from his position. To be honest, I mostly dismissed the person as an ‘idiot’ because I had bigger problems to deal with than him at the time and didn’t see him very often. I also had a persistent admirer who seemed to like me a lot more than I liked him and his inability to accept that soon made me forget about the committee member. His behaviour made me feel unsafe and always under surveillance though I tried to ignore him deciding that if he really had something to say, he should say it and stop being childish. I eventually realised that talking to other men would wind him up and unfortunately, the situation did escalate because of his temper.
What bothered me the most was that because my looks and personality (especially when compared to that of the perpetrators) don’t match the profile of the ‘perfect victim’, I found that even when I do speak up, somehow I will be blamed for their behaviours. This made trusting people with what happened all the more difficult. Of course, after dealing with the shame I felt about it on my own, I can accept that what happened was not my fault and also am now more determined to speak up about my experiences.
Somehow, when discussing sexual harassment, ‘I’ is synonymous with ‘one of 97%.’ This proves the rife nature of harassment, to which I’ve had more experiences of than I can fit in 200 words. I was in a club where a man, out-of-the-blue, grabbed me and started kissing me. I hadn’t spoken to him; I barely saw his face. Then another stranger did the same. I was tossed to-and-fro between the two men, feeling like a rag doll.
Flash-forward, I was in Nottingham’s Rock City, visiting a friend at her university. I didn’t know the club. I’d lost my friend. I sat in a booth, thinking I’d be safest there, and texted her. Then a man sat next to me, blocking my exit out of the booth. I persistently told him ‘I need to find my friend’ and leave the booth, in the hopes he’d leave me alone, so he’d move, so I could escape. Like most archetypes of the ‘male saviour,’ who falsely claim the repeated phrase of ‘you’re alone, I’ll protect you,’ he was, in fact, the perpetrator; he began a form of penetration. There were other men in the booth who saw and yet did nothing, likely unaware this constituted assault.
A token term in the patriarchy’s defence of sexual harassment is the trivialising ‘not all men.’ Granted, it may not be ‘all men’ who harass, but is it virtually all women who are harassed. ‘Not all men’ doesn’t negate this. Truthfully, these stories barely scratch the surface of my experiences— let alone my first assault at 15, which caused me to develop PTSD. Four years later, I still can’t stomach speaking about it.
If 97% of women have been sexually harassed, and 1 in 3 people who’ve experienced a traumatic event develop PTSD, we have an unprecedented epidemic of female suffering on our hands. These stories, and this trauma, are by no means an anomaly.
I can think of many times that I have been harrassed and received unwanted attention, messages and more, but there are two standout instances in my life that I will never be able to recover from. I was assaulted and made to feel very uncomfortable by two men who I trusted very much on two separate occasions. It happened in their beds where I have laid several times before and although a lot of alcohol was involved, they kept telling me they loved me as they continued to violate me. It is only now, years later, that I have realised the severe psychological damage that this has done to me, it has completely warped my perceptions on love and trust and I continue to battle with myself every day to remind myself that not all of my friends and loved ones will hurt me like they did.
I wouldn’t wish this type of pain on anyone, yet sadly it is all too common of an experience for women. Assault is painted as something that is done by a strange man in a dark alley which you shouldn’t have been at in the first place, but too many people have experienced it in places they call home and by people that they trust.
It first happened to me as a teenager. I was 15. I was waiting for the bus to take me home. It was hot, so I took my blazer off and put it into my bag. I heard a voice — a man’s voice, shouting at me to turn around. I turned. He winked at me. I was confused. Is he not aware of my age? I turned back; he was gone. A few minutes later, he came back and parked his car in front of me. He smiled. He told me I looked pretty. He looked me up and down, carefully. As soon as my bus arrived, he drove away, and I put my blazer back on. This was the beginning of the many experiences I would later have.
You see, as a woman you have a sort of ‘manual’ in your head. Hyper-awareness and vigilance become second nature. Keys are placed between fingers, trivial phone conversations are made to guarantee witnesses, and routes are altered depending on your surroundings. Our bodies are sexualised, relentlessly. So much so, that this behaviour has become normalised. Let’s be clear. This is not normal. My body is not your playing-field. I deserve to feel safe, and I am, rightfully, angry. It should not be like this. Sarah Everard deserved to feel safe. It’s time we begin to hold men accountable and put an end to the culture which has enabled this to occur.
More from Comment here: