My usually cold dead heart was warmed slightly this week to see the issue of street harrassment making so many headlines. I'm not sure I've ever met a woman who hasn't had at least one comment about her looks or body aimed at her by a man who is a total stranger. Street harrassment is so widespread that pracrically the first thing everyone associates building sites with is smutty remarks rather than cement mixers and hard hats. But some people are trying to change this...
Recently the Guardian ran two articles on this subject. Firstly an article in the Bike Blog to highlight the sexist abuse female cyclists in particular get and to promote the new blog 101 Wankers that allows victims of harrassment to photograph the perpetrator and record where it happened on Google Maps. This takes the effective tactic that Hollaback started in New York a few years ago and makes it bike specific. The comments on this article were predictably depressing with many men especially unable to see the difference between an idiot in a car having a go because they are on a bike and abuse that is just because you are a woman.
The clear and concise Rosie Swash followed the bike blog article with one of her own that highlighted the very real and very common abuse and harrassment that women face daily when they have the audacity to travel to and from work, buy groceries or simply go about life like normal members of society. Over a hundred comments showing examples of sexual harrassment from strangers followed. The anger, fear and resentment this situation creates were palpable and for once, very few men interjected to ask why no one cared that someone had cut them up in their car earlier this week. This was a rare moment of female bonding over shared wounds and vunerability and it made me think back on my experiences of street harrassment.
Aside from the time a man in Dublin mistook me for a prostitute while I was standing on a street corner wearing hotpants and I could understand the confusion, each of these experiences has been in its own way life altering. That may seem melodramatic. How can one cat call be life changing? But it's the cumulative effect of those insults, propositions, assaults and questions that has altered the path of my life.
As a flat chested, but extremely confident and fairly flamboyantly dressed teen I have always attracted a lot of male attention in the street, but it has rarely been complimentary. Mostly it was mocking of my looks or informing me that they would make me a woman. Leers and jeers in the street were bearable, but by the time I left Belfast the harrassment had turned to physical assault on a semi regular basis with me being bitten by strange men so often it had ceased to be a notable event. This was accompanied with being slapped, pushed and punched on more than one occasion, usually for daring to ignore their attentions or reject them sexually. But since I grew up in the era of ladettes, around some fearsome drinking exploits and in a city famed for its violent tendencies, I didn't really question this situation despite finding it quite intimidating and at times a real blow to my self confidence.
Things calmed massively when I lived in Brighton with nary a cat call, let alone chunks being taken out of me on a regular basis. I assumed this change was down to living a much less drunken life and living in a slightly less turbulent town, but in all honesty I didn't really question it. I just got used to it very quickly and assumed England was rather more civilised than my hometown. Which meant that when I moved to London a few months later, it didn't even enter my head that it would happen there. Was I in for a shock...
Moving somewhere with a frenetically busy transport system simply created another opportunity for people to manhandle and intimidate women and I soon learned to usually avoid grabby hands and suspicious leaning in packed Tube carriages. And on the one occasion a fellow passenger managed to get his hands down the back of my jeans I happened to have a watermelon in my shopping bag that made a delightful sounds when colliding with his balls. I'm surprised more people don't realise that women carry such heavy handbags at times as a handy weapon!
I also made the most of the nightlife in London and began running the gauntlet of men and their teeth again on a fairly regular basis. On my 23rd birthday on a night in Soho, a total stranger sank his teeth into my neck with such viciousness that I ended up with a lovebite the size of a grapefruit with a set of teethmark bruises in the middle which were interesting to explain to my new uni mates, and somewhat embarrassing to explain to my mum and my boss. It was also the reason my birthday money that year went on a black poloneck that made me look like a spy.
Over the years I encountered many hands, comments and sets of gnashers in clubs, pubs and parties. Luckily pointy toed stilettoes were the shoe du jour at the time as I quickly discovered that bouncers never took the side of the damsel in distress. So common was their inability to step in and help you when you were being pawed, poked or threatened that it came as no surprise that the night I was bitten so badly in the Mother Bar that the injury eventually cost me my job and was so painful at the time that I finally snapped and slapped my attacker in the face, that the bouncers forcibly ejected me into the street in the wee hours, unable to contact my friends. To add insult to (literal) injury, I saw them offering my biter a beer on the house to apologise as I left.
I wasn't surprised by the actions of the bouncers, but I was shocked by the reaction of the others I told about my injury. My boss told me I shouldn't have been out in a bar without my boyfriend, my friends asked what I had done to provoke him and the police actually laughed out loud when I reported being assaulted and then ushered me to the door, damp eyed with mirth and with no intention of doing anything about it. Instead of raging against them, I concentrated on not getting fired and making sure I had a roof over my head.
I had been distracted and was only just questioning the attitudes and reactions to what was a vicious assault with a distinctly sexual overture when I was raped in the kitchen of my house by my flatmate's best friend one night before Christmas. Unsurprisingly people's reactions to my bite foreshadowed their responses to my rape. It just felt shocking to me because my life as I had known it had just imploded round my ears and every felt so raw and different to me in the wake of such violence that it took me a while to see the similarities. The wave of disbelief, victim blaming, minimising the events and sheer ignorance by the police in particular carried me into the amazing shitstorm of my second rape the following August without any chance of regaining control or my feet touching solid ground.
And that feeling of floundering without being able to find a solid surface to rest on continued for years, exacerbated by the insomnia and flashbacks of PTSD, until I began my therapy last year and quickly discovered that those seemingly isolated events of sexual and street harrassment before the rapes had altered my life as much as the more serious assaults. I had developed crippling agoraphobia because while I had been slow to see the similarities in people's responses to the different attacks, my brain had made the leap without prompting and I couldn't see the difference in dangers anymore. A man grabbing my behind or hissing sexual slurs at me in the street could only end in rape for me now.
This fear felt inevitable because I recognised the same feelings of fear, violation, humiliation and being degrading in being watched in the street like prey and actually being raped, making it impossible to separate them in my mind. The fact that the street comments and harrassment seemed to have been near constant in my adult life made me feel that everytime I left the house and saw a man, I was running the very real risk of being raped again.
Agoraphobia was a classic avoidance behaviour, designed to make me feel safer. As was trying not to take the last Tube home, or a late nightbus or walk past a pub at kicking out time or wearing a skirt or dress than exposed any flesh that might catch someone's eye. Weeks of painstaking CBT unravelled these fears, so tightly held for years that I didn't even realise I had them. And once the fears had been exposed, we worked on debunking them, showing that while I did experience unwanted sexual attention in the street, it was much less frequent that I thought and that it had never actually ended in rape.
Therapied up to the hilt, I am slowly regaining my confidence over the past few months. I have worn a skirt and a dress. I have taken nightbuses, gone to late night bars and walked around the market alone. I have also perfected my unapproachable bitch-face to a level where even the pushiest of charity muggers let me walk past unchallenged. Even a leering drunk who looked like Boris Johnson's lovechild who tried to paw my breasts the other week on the Tube was dealt without major incident.
I think I'm ready to stop hiding away and ready to get angry instead. Thrilling as it would be to wield my heavy handbag like a lethal weapon and inflict some pain on the catcallers and harrassers, I shall take the moral high ground instead and lend my support to the various campaigns around to raise awareness of the issue especially amongst the police and hopefully make the streets a less intimdiating place. I can't help but think that for every woman who finds this behaviour an annoyance, there is another like me for whom it feels like a personal reminder of the time they were the victim of a sexual assault. But no matter how any women interpret it, they all deserve the chance to live their lives without harrassment at all...
Reading the papers today, nursing a cup of tea and feeling slightly grumpy on a Monday morning, I stumbled across an article that elicted a heartfelt 'awww'. According to a survey by budget hoteliers Travelodge, a third of British adults still take their teddy to bed each night...
Just when I thought I'd got a handle on my greatest fear in life™ and stopped freaking out everytime I see a wasp, along comes fear in a new form...an article in the Daily Mail about a massive influx of the little bastards in Britain this year.
I can just about cope with rightwing newspapers that spout thinly veiled bile in the form of badly researched articles. I can almost tolerate vespula vulgaris loitering around all summer. The two together are enough to induce a full scale aneurysm in me.
Although I did manage to look their large and somewhat lurid photos without vomiting, bursting into tears or having to take a Valium even if I didn't much enjoy it. That and the fact I haven't screamed while outside even once this year makes me think that hypnotherapy did wonders!
This week, nestled in amongst advice on Breton sweaters and eating outside, is a gently effective article in the Guardian about depression. Without being melodramatic Mark Rice-Oxley recounts his experiences with serious depressive illness and his attempts to recover. It spoke deeply to me.
I started this blog as a way to talk to myself as I worked my way toward rebuilding my life after experiencing two rapes. Then other people started reading it too and I realised talking about myself wasn't enough and expanded it to having an opinion on everything, especially women and sexual violence. I want this to be a safe welcoming space so please assume all posts need a trigger warning for rape, PTSD, general trauma related crappiness and bad jokes. I'm thrilled anyone reads it and want everyone to feel welcome, including men who may have been victims. I talk about rape from a woman's perspective as that's my own experience, but don't want to exclude anyone who doesn't feel their experience is the same. Feel free to browse or make comments. These are moderated so any apologist crap hits the bin, but not to boost my ego. Anonymous comments or pseudonyms are fine by me since I only blog anonymously myself. Thanks for reading. I do reward you with the odd lighthearted post as well...