When I was 18, my mum and I broke down at a traffic light. As our house was two minutes away, I ran to get my dad to help. On this short journey, a man pulled up next to me and asked if I needed a lift. When I declined, he opened his car door to block my path, told me to get in, and went to grab me. I managed to avoid his grasp and sprint round the corner only to start having an asthma attack.
I shuffled down the road, a few metres from my house. A group of younger boys wouldn’t let me pass. They could see I was incapacitated and started grabbing at me, roughly clawing my breasts and putting their hands between my legs. I was so dumbstruck at what had just happened that by the time I reached my house, I collapsed and couldn’t breathe.
What happened next has stayed with me. A female officer would later come to our house. She told me ‘these things happen all the time’ and there will be no way of finding such people so I should move on and feel lucky that ‘no real damage was done’.
There are so many examples of men overstepping boundaries—physical and mental— splattered across my life, that it would be impossible to rack them up. I have been sad to see how prolific this situation is in recent weeks but not surprised, because navigating the world as a woman for 37 years means this is old news. At an early age, we become masters of minimising, de-escalation and quiet acquiescing. It is also important to raise the point that this problem is not just about assault, it is equally just as much about harassment.
One narrative I’m particularly interested in is the questioning of women who haven’t spoken up, named and shamed or gone through the appropriate channels of complaint.
I am a woman who has, on more than one occasion. In the more serious harassment situations in my life, I have spoken up, named and shamed and gone through all of the official channels—only to be shut down and told I am hysterical, dramatic, that my personality has probably led to these ‘crossed wires’ and that speaking up in the past shows that I have a ‘history’ of accusations.
The worst thing is these comments were all made to me by women.
When I was 25, I became close to a member of staff in my team who was 12 years older than me, and started the tentative beginnings of a relationship with him. After only a couple of weeks, it became clear that he was suffering with serious undiagnosed mental health issues that manifested themselves in aggression, belittling me and violence, so I broke things off. This led to him being signed off work and a tirade of harassment over a year began that included sending portraits of me through the post to other members of staff, throwing a glass at my head in a crowded bar, leaving dead fruit in my parents’ garden and writing a poem about drowning me. I was a wreck and it became obvious to everyone that something wasn’t right.
When I made my boss listen to a voicemail where he threatened to kill me, she told me to go to the police immediately. I was then told that unless I had kept all physical evidence of harassment, I didn’t have a case. The problem with this is no one wants to keep that kind of poison in their inbox so I had very little to work with. He returned to work without me being informed, where he would walk past, whisper ‘child’ and laugh to himself. My boss, the woman who I had respected and told me to go to the police, asked me if I could just be civil to him and that because I was a lot younger than him, people would be more inclined to believe him over me. I felt so undermined that I handed my notice in.
Later in my career, a situation emerged with another older male colleague. I worked closely with him and we got on very well but over time, his interest in me left me feeling uncomfortable. He bought me presents, coffees and lunches but would never accept anything back from me. He would walk me to my car every day even though I told him not to and expect a hug at the end of the journey. He began to resent my friendships with other colleagues and would send me long emails asking why I hadn’t asked him on a London trip or out for lunch with my friends.
I even asked someone to help me word a strong email to him explaining that his behaviour left me feeling uneasy and asking him to stop immediately. I figured that maybe once I’d politely explained that his behaviour was unwelcome, he’d respond accordingly but this was ignored. He eventually became so possessive over me that we had an enormous row in the middle of a street where he told me he was in love with two people; me and his wife. I felt so claustrophobic and overwhelmed, a feeling like I was about to implode.
My boss guessed what was going on and told me to go to the head of department and HR. This time, I went armed with every email and text message I had been sent as evidence. Human resources were initially very supportive, even going so far as the manager telling me ‘if that was me, my husband would come in and knock his block off’.
But when it came to dealing with the head of my department, she asked me what I had done to provoke the situation and that ‘there are always two sides to the story’. She added that if her husband had seen the emails I had been sent, he wouldn’t be bothered at all. I was taken aback that her husband’s hypothetical response was the yardstick by which my harassment was being measured. I turned to the HR manager. She didn’t say a word, even when I prompted her to reiterate her previous comments and showed her the code of conduct that she herself had written.
Finally, the episode from my previous job was brought up. Since I’d accused an older man of harassment in the past, it was suggested that maybe I was the one with the problem. I must be over sensitive, and not understand how to read situations appropriately. I cannot think of a time when I have felt so angry, belittled and utterly betrayed. As a result of this meeting, the man was signed off sick with stress and I was given all of his job responsibilities on top of mine.
All of those I dealt with in positions of authority were women and all of them let me down: by letting a young girl believe that she was powerless against men who treated her as they pleased, and that these attacks were without consequence; by allowing my age and status to count against me, regardless of the abundance of evidence and witnesses; by using my past trauma as a weapon against me.
As I type this now, I’m afraid to publish, even without names. These personal stories are mostly complex and involve me initially being close to these men. There is part of me that has believed the narrative given to me and other women; that being open and friendly with men means that I have not only allowed this behaviour towards me, I have encouraged it. Even though I have spoken up, I still feel like maybe it wasn’t worth it, that life would have been easier had I kept my head down. These feelings leave me so angry because I believe the onus is on me to put myself in these confrontational situations to defend myself, rather than the focus being on men not to indulge in these behaviours in the first place. This anger is what I hope will let me carry on speaking up; to show my daughters that it is important to stand up for yourself and other women.