As we mark the first anniversary of the sexual assault movement #MeToo I recently started to reflect on my own experiences. I’d always considered the things that happened to me weren’t bad enough to warrant disclosure and that anything which occurred must’ve been my fault anyway.
My first kiss was administered by an over-amourous teenage boy who thought it appropriate to push me up roughly against the wall and ram his tongue down my throat whilst grabbing my backside. He didn’t listen to my first twenty refusals. At the time I was wearing ridiculously high heels and denim hot pants which I’d been asked to wear as part of a teenage fashion show. I’d been viciously back-combed and had my face caked in make-up to look sexy. I was 14. After the kiss the boy ran off I tottered home feeling incredibly confused. On one hand I’d had that elusive first kiss but couldn’t really balance it with the deeper feelings of sadness, regret and violation.
Still at least it meant I was a proper woman now.
My first sexual experience was much the same. The boy in question, wearing the finest white Kappa tracksuit in the land, led me to a pub car park and insisted that bending me over would hurt less. I screamed in agony as he penetrated me and tears flowed down my face. But this is what you do if you want to be a woman. ‘Do you want to stop?’ he tutted. ‘No, carry on, I’m alright’ (I didn’t want to look silly after all). My loud sobs attracted an old man passer-by who rather than checking to see if I was alright, had a wank in the nearby bushes instead. After Kappa-boy had finished we walked back to our group of friends. I was visibly shaking and pale but figured this was completely normal. Fierce laughter erupted as his friends pointed at the blood on his tracksuit. ‘Mate! You’ve popped ‘er cherry!!’ Frat-like high-fives broke out as I ran off into the night utterly humiliated and sore.
In the subsequent years that followed there were so many incidences of relatively minor sexual assault that I just normalised it as lads being lads. Friends would share similar stories with such alarming prevalence that you almost became immune to it.
The man who forced me to the ground and tried to get on top of me? He was just drunk. The man in his thirties (to my seventeen) who forcibly digitally penetrated me against my wishes in the middle of the road one night? He was a proper grown up and I was an immature prick-tease (or that’s what he told me anyway). I ran down a back street and hid behind a massive metal bin terrified he’d rape me. It was all my fault anyway, I did fancy him and we had been kissing.
And herein lies toxic masculinity in action, where events are distorted until we’re the ones stood in the dock.
I’ve had male bosses who have used their relative power and position to push things way beyond what is deemed to be appropriate. Fearful of potential consequences, losing my job and creating bad feelings (something I was very keen to avoid) I didn’t always realise I could say no. The one time I reported a senior member of staff for his frequent advances my (male) line-manger accused me of leading him on. ‘Well, why haven’t you put a stop to it? There’s no smoke without fire.’
I have lost count of the numbers of men who have been abusive or cruel towards me yet ultimately held myself accountable. I shouldn’t have been there in the first place, shouldn’t have worn this, shouldn’t have drunk that. I’ve had a man slap me hard across the face following a date: ‘I thought that was what you wanted, you’re dirty aren’t you? Don’t take it so personally, I was only messing,’ and a French man throw me out of his apartment after drinks because I didn’t want to have sex with him, ‘Stop wasting my fucking time, you whore.’
My last experience of male sexual dominance was some years ago with a primary school teacher. He invited me to his one evening which I read as getting to know one another/ no pressure. I had a big crush on him and had hoped for a relationship to develop. I turned up wearing ripped jeans and a baggy jumper having spent the evening quaffing a bottle of wine relaxing at home. ‘You could’ve made an effort’, he said. ‘I like my women to look well-groomed – make-up, hair done properly, dresses’. Isn’t that a bit sexist? ‘No, just personal preference. I don’t usually date scruffs like you’. The loop plays over and over in my mind: perhaps it’s all just bantz, maybe I’m too sensitive, ignore the hurt feelings….
He seemed angry that I didn’t want to put out and demanded that I do something sexy as though my sole purpose of being there was to entertain him like some auditioning porn star. He told me he judged whether he’d have a second date with a woman based on how clean her oven was – if it was unclean she certainly wasn’t, ‘wifey material’.
Although he was rude, arrogant, critical and obnoxious (calling me feisty for disagreeing with him and a lush for drinking alone) I dutifully swallowed up his anti-misogynistic rhetoric: ‘I’m a primary school teacher and I give all the girls the same opportunities as the boys, don’t you dare suggest I’m sexist – you don’t even know me.’ Despite all of this we had sex in the morning. This is what proper women do. I’m not normal if I don’t.
Even more bizarrely on my part I bombarded him with cringe-worthy drunken texts for weeks afterwards asking to see him again which he kept ignoring. Eventually he found the space in his diary to text me and asked me to leave him alone. I was left feeling like a total bunny-boiler. In hindsight (beautiful thing) I was vulnerable and grieving. My Mum had died only a year earlier and I was desperate for comfort, warmth and validation.
Only recently have I come to reassess these experiences in a fresh light, a perspective that doesn’t involve me assimilating self-blame. It’s easy to get caught up with cognitive analysis of situations which takes you away from the actual feelings you felt – shame, humiliation, vulnerability, fear, manipulation. No one ever wants to be considered a victim – the word itself is riddled with negative connotations and stigma.
I have felt that in comparison to other sexual assaults and rape my experiences have been too minor to speak out against. I welcome the next phase of the #MeToo movement and hope it leads to people everywhere taking stock of their own stories and re-framing them in a clearer way. There is still much to be done and we are far from being in a world where a single no means no. We need greater education and open-discussions on consent, helping people to hear and respond to their instinctual feelings of not-okayness in the moment, redefining societal and peer expectations around sex (including media accountability) and an improvement of our existing political and judicial systems which prevents so many in coming forward.
I commend everyone who has been brave enough to share their story and myself for only just realising that I have a story in the first place.