Body of Evidence: An essay on harassment
In this anonymous and disturbing essay, the writer catalogues a lifetime of harassment and asks how do we protect women's sexual and reproductive autonomy.
Content Warning: The piece below details instances of sexual harassment.
In my family home, in the foyer-slash-hallway. After my aunt's second wedding, which had been held in our garden, the pissed Best Man grabbed my breasts. I was twelve. (My parents confronted him and he was sent coldly on his way.)
At my second flat, in a dark, musky, musty room. I was 19 and a virgin, and a man I said 'please stop' to twice didn't stop. I was petrified, a stone-animal sculpted in fear. I was so confused — he was meant to be a friend. I still associated sex with love: did this mean he loved me? I'd had some cider, I wasn't used to alcohol, and I was in disorienting physical pain. A feeling of dread and of being in some low-burn state of emergency lasted weeks. My thoughts were scrambled and I didn't ever report it. Other women will know exactly why.
He said I was a very, very stupid woman, didn't I know what I was missing?
Again in my second flat. A drunk stranger, who'd been at a party we'd held earlier let himself back in to the flat. He came to the room where I was sleeping, woke me up, then harangued me for not agreeing to sex. I told him to leave. He said I was a very, very stupid woman, didn't I know what I was missing? When I told him again to get out, or I would scream to wake everyone in the flat, he left, admonishing me still, and telling me I'd regret it. Even shaking with survival adrenaline, I laughed at such pathological arrogance. Although I knew I probably really should count myself lucky that time.
In his shambolic home-office, my new boss tried to get me to smoke pot and then strip off for him, so he could see whether I had a figure good enough for modelling. My job was meant to be reducing the word count in his draft novel: a sort of freelance editorial apprenticeship. I laughed in disbelief and managed to somehow talk the situation into a simulacrum of neutral: for just as erratically as he'd decided that he needed to drive me to his house, where he'd left his manuscript, he decided he had to get back to the downtown newspaper office where I'd turned up for my first day. (This man, a journalist, later died of cancer in prison. He'd been jailed for rape. He'd attacked another woman, an immigrant he'd employed as a housekeeper. Immediately before the attack he'd also offered pot to her and asked her to undress. There but for the grace of birthplace, and mother tongue, I think, went I. I could probably read the signs of criminality slightly sooner, given I was born into the same language as him.) That afternoon, after he drove away, I ran-walked-ran, hell-for-leather, through his hill suburb, heart cramping in my chest like paste squeezed through thin tubing.
At my divorced father's house, on the date of my twenty-first: all day, throughout the party hosted by my dad, my boyfriend had barely acknowledged me. Things were tense and sad between us. There had been, and would be, other women involved in that tension. In bed, in the middle of the night, he didn't wake me: just started wordless sex. His apology only confirmed it had been a violation. My understanding of what there was between us tilted alarmingly: but I couldn't let myself dwell on the lack of respect or care. Maybe he was half asleep; maybe he didn't fully realise what he was doing; maybe this is just what sometimes happened between men and women in a relationship? I made excuses for him that I regret when from the distance of decades I look at our 18 months together — though I concede, we were both young, both no doubt immature in many ways, and we both made mistakes. Months later, I became pregnant to him because of a contraceptive error when we were right on the verge of relationship breakdown. Although things between us were very difficult and unhappy, we were still having sex: for my part because I hoped that it would also render up renewed emotional union; the cure for everything that was falling apart. It wasn't until a week or two after the relationship ended that I realised I was pregnant. I was 21, at the end of my study, only in very precarious part-time employment during the 1980s recession, and I chose to have a termination. It was a distressing situation, and a physically painful procedure. (The latter was unexpected: the nurses, too, were concerned and surprised.) Although my decision itself was veined in sorrow, it was absolutely the right thing to do. I was strung out with anxiety, heart-wrecked, grieving the end of the relationship, and had an undefined future. I had neither the income nor, to be blunt, the inner resilience at that point to be a solo mother.
At a small local theatre: a psychological assault. I don't think it's too strong to call it that. The ex-boyfriend and I tried to stay friends. One of the gestures of 'reconciliation' he made was to ask me to see a play he was in. I went along, trying to be mature, reasonable and balanced, yet also with youthfully idealistic notions of seeking to mend what was fractured in the world at large. I wanted to be generous, not destructive. I did still miss the sweet early days of our relationship. I wanted to embody some abstraction of forgiveness. I didn't realise the role he played would involve him coming on stage in a white doctor's coat, splattered with the blood of dead babies, and holding a similarly blood-splattered baby doll.
As I write this, more than 20 years later, I'm incredulous. I can feel hypothetical readers deciding I've included it for bizarre, gratuitous effect. Perhaps this is why I've avoided straight memoir until now. The truth is more ragged, serrated, warped; less comfortable and less credible than polished poetry or fiction.
As I write this, more than 20 years later, I'm incredulous. I can feel hypothetical readers deciding I've included it for bizarre, gratuitous effect. Perhaps this is why I've avoided straight memoir until now. The truth is more ragged, serrated, warped; less comfortable and less credible than polished poetry or fiction. I could barely talk afterwards. The city seemed to reel in its tracks. I thought I was going to be sick. I managed to stay upright and walk away.
At a small business/industrial estate, in a cramped office at a telesales job in London in the early 1990s: an older, middle-aged colleague gave a puerile sneer as he told me the only reason I'd been chosen over him to attend a business lunch was "because of y' tits". The same man organised a staff Christmas party with two female strippers, one white, one black, so all the blokes would be happy. He claimed it showed he was 'equal opportunities'.
In a neighbourhood park in London where I was jogging: one morning, a young stranger came up to me on a bike to ask the time. When I stopped to answer, he lunged at me, groping me between the legs and squeezing hard. I pushed him away, yelled, and he sneered then cycled off. I reported the incident to the police. Out my window, a few weeks later, I saw the same man in our street. He was trailing some children, with a faint smile on his face: they might have been relatives of his; they might not; but either way, I'd seen him again. I rang the police while my husband took off to trail the man. The police picked up my husband in a car, and they pursued the man together, but he jumped over the wall of a large urban housing estate and was soon lost in its impersonal warren of walkways, alleyways and stairwells.
On a street, at a beach, in a train: three separate men at different times exposed themselves to me, and to other children, or women, I was with. Only three, I hear myself saying, and it was only exposure.
I recall all of these 'onlys', and more. In Wellington's Botanic Gardens, when I was sixteen, and said I was thinking of going on a diet, my teenage boyfriend jabbed me between the legs with a dead branch he'd picked up, then poked my breasts and asked me, 'How are you going to lose these fat things?' In London, a usually kind, and at that point very drunk, gay friend forced his tongue into my mouth, then apologised, saying when he was drunk he'd 'fuck anything.' On a train, a total, and totally unrepentant, stranger pinched my bum. There have been many other minor incidents I won't list. Small beans. More small, lucky beans that I could count, awash with relief, bury and grow — but if they grew, where would I climb them to?
If I shinned up that stalk I'd find myself in the modern age, where the USA President Elect has boasted about sexual assault, then dismissed it as harmless banter between men. Our current Prime Minister is an unelected social conservative who is anti-abortion, and has publically said he doesn't really know what feminism means. (Even though he has an Honours degree in English, from the same university I have my own first English degree from. I'm not even a decade younger than him, so I don't believe that the definition and the history of the term could have really escaped him then or now.)
History shows that women's sexual and reproductive autonomy gets curbed when the political climate moves far to the right. I keep reading articles that point to ordinary people politely looking away as part of the fuel for fascism and bigotry of all kinds. So as both these men take on their roles at White House and Beehive, and a new epoch supposedly begins, it seems important that we greet that transition moment with as much resistance as we can. Yet incidents like this, and far, far worse, are happening everywhere, all the time: unfortunately, an essay like this is topical and relevant every day.
I've given this litany of incidents as a protest. I don't suffer from PTSD; I do consider myself pretty lucky; and yet when I actually sit down to enumerate the number of places and times I've felt physically threatened or sexually assaulted, I lose count. I don't think the reader could read through them all, and I haven't listed the incidents where I've been 'merely' dismissed, or overlooked, or when I've been stalked, because I am a woman. I suspect my catalogue is also quite common for many. But why do I, why do any of us, think that a litany like this is either moderate, or lucky, or even normal?
Where are we? We are in a place where women are still treated as property, or as objects of conquest. How do we leave the situation we're in? We get 'mouthy.' We constantly advocate for women's reproductive and sexual rights.
Where are we? We are in a place where women are still treated as property, or as objects of conquest. How do we leave the situation we're in? We get 'mouthy.' We constantly advocate for women's reproductive and sexual rights. I was going to say that we will have to accept the frightening prospect that in protesting, we might have to take risks with our personal safety. But going over my own catalogue reminds me that women already face that risk every day: from strangers, from friends of friends, from bosses, from family friends, from friends, and even within their most intimate relationships. If we're used to it, we shouldn't be. But if we are — perhaps we can treat it as part of our armour. If we're hardened, we should wear that toughness into the world, and refuse to let the gates of emancipation be shut any further.
From the author: I'm publishing this anonymously because I have children who are not yet ready to deal with some of these subjects specifically in relation to their mother; and also because even pre-internet, when I wrote on these topics, it led to disturbed personal mail. In the digital age the potential for trolling and harassment is even higher. The topics here are larger and more important than an individual and I don't want the focus to be on any particular woman as a target, but on what this so-called mild, could-have-been-so-much worse list represents for women in general.
The feature image by Milan Rubio (Dance Partners 2, Calligraphic Pen + Ink on paper digital colour) has been cropped and is used under a Creative Commons license.