“It’s just not safe to be a man anymore”
I’m not sure it’s ever felt safe to be a woman; to occupy a female body.
It started at age 11. Walking to and from school, in a bottle-green uniform; cars would beep and at times the men inside would shout vulgar things or make vulgar gestures. I wondered if my skirt was too short.
By 14 I found a number of male mentors and role models in my life, were keen to notify me of my new hips and breasts. Keen to poke fun, to let me know they existed and to warn me of the importance of covering them up. By 14 my skin felt both shameful and dangerous.
By 16 I had learned to keep my eyes to the floor when walking past a building site. To cross the road if there was a large group that seemed especially rowdy. And to make sure I carried a rape alarm in my coat pocket, “just in case”. I learned to be small and silent; cautious and uncomfortable. Sweating on hot days rather than showing more skin. I knew if something happened it would be down to my behaviour and clothing choices that day.
By 18 I found on nights out it was commonplace for anonymous hands to grab at my bum or chest or between my legs. Sneaking “cheeky” feels. I didn’t have a single female friend at university, who hadn’t been shouted at in the street or groped like this in a pub or nightclub. It was what we came to expect. Nobody called it assault.
At 21, after graduating, I found workplaces that expected me to wear makeup everyday and male colleagues who felt at ease to comment on my appearance with the same regularlity. One suggesting they photograph me in my bikini with my surfboard for the company newsletter. This man was older than my father and I had never mentioned to him that I owned either a surfboard or a bikini.
By 22, I’d encountered male colleagues who’d stop working to watch me walk across the office and use the kettle to make a hot drink. Who’d hold onto both my hands when they had to give me something. Who’d make a habit of sliding items in and out of back pockets. Small idiosyncrasies that felt far too small to ever mention or report; but small idiosyncrasies I noticed were exclusive to me.
By 23, I’d had to work a shift alone with a certain colleague who was fond of “banter” and held little regard for my personal space. I let him know at the start of the day that I wasn’t afraid to report him to our boss if he tried anything. He laughed and said this wouldn’t stop him. Admittedly this member of staff worked significantly longer hours than me and held a much higher level of responsibility in the company. And knowing those in charge, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I would have been seen as causing trouble and been let go instead.
By 25, Harvey Weinstein, politicians in Westminster and a miscellany of other Hollywood names had been accused of sexual misconduct. For several weeks it seemed to be on the news nearly every day; highlighting the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and assault. Although the seriousness of it, still had to be explained to an all-male panel show – how is it these still even exist!?
On October 15th Alyssa Milano tweeted “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘MeToo’ as a status, we might give people an idea of the magnitude of the problem. If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet”. #MeToo quickly became a rallying cry. And yet in the face of such support, everything I thought I could contribute felt too small and insignificant to mention. I dismissed my experiences as ordinary and every day and “not that bad”. They were the kind of stories I knew every woman had had the misfortune to collect over her lifetime, dropping them like stones in her pocket. Yet that was exactly the point of #MeToo. It was a chance to lay them down.
These stories are my stones. Seemingly small moments of everyday sexism, that over time built and weighed me down. Not anymore.