We learn young.
I was four years old when I learnt that my body isn’t my own. I had started infants school and a boy had taken a shine to me. He was in my class but much bigger than me. He would run up to me as I walked towards the playground with my mum every morning and throw his arms around me. I didn’t like it. I cried. I squirmed out of his bear hug. The mums laughed. ‘He’s just being friendly Laura, be nice!’
It was implied that he had a crush on me and at four years old I learnt it was my responsibility to make him feel ok about that crush and at four years old he learnt he could touch girls, even if they didn’t want him to.
I’m sure some people will read that and think I’m being dramatic. It was just a morning hug, it was in front of everyone, we were four, it wasn’t sexual, it was cute. Sure. Lovely. But every morning when I saw that massive boy run over to me, I braced myself for something unpleasant. But I didn’t cry anymore. What was the point?
It’s no surprise then, that ten years later, when my then-boyfriend, (again the same age as me), coerced me into sex that I would do it. Because he loved me and that’s what you do when you’re in love. In fact, you let boys touch you even if you aren’t in love. By then, multiple daily gropings by boys at school were normal. It was expected, it was even bragged about. Because if the fit boys grabbed your arse, it meant something.
Just to clarify, I wasn’t raped by my boyfriend. I said yes. But that was after a lot of pressure. I was told that I would be considered frigid if I didn’t do it, that everyone else was having sex, (they weren’t) and not explicitly on this next one but the implication was there: if I didn’t do it, he’d find someone who would. I was fourteen. In fact, I was thirteen when we started doing sexual stuff.
At around fifteen a man flashed me and my pal on the back of a bus. We laughed it off. I don’t think we told our mums. At school, the girls were given rape alarms and told to shout ‘Fire!’ if we were assaulted because no one would come if we shouted rape. I experienced hundreds of examples of sexual harassment just during my school years. I’m not unusual. It happened to all of us.
And so it carries on…
As an adult, sexual harassment has continued from strangers and loved ones. There have been many times I’ve had sex with a partner when I didn’t want to because I thought there was an obligation. I’ve cried and let them carry on. They carried on. I found naked pictures of myself taken while I was asleep on my boyfriend’s laptop. He’d taken them and not told me. He said I looked beautiful and couldn’t understand why I was angry. We were living together. He made me feel like I was in the wrong. He was a good guy. Was he?
Catcalling, misogyny, leering, mansplaining, groping, it’s all normal to me. It’s so common that I don’t even comment on it anymore. When I make Instagram videos about men telling me to ‘smile love’, people laugh. They think it’s funny. It’s not funny. Because it’s one of a thousand things that we have to face.
So when I hear that a woman called Sarah was murdered on her way home, it’s not a shock. I’ve been really passionate about reclaiming the streets for years. I walk home alone in the dark often. I refuse to be scared into submission. I’ve even argued with women who insist on walking with me. Not because I don’t value their protection, but because I’m angry at a system that makes the risk acceptable and puts the emphasis on women to change our behaviour.
What does shock me about Sarah’s case is that people have reacted. This isn’t the first woman who has been murdered and it won’t be the last. In fact, every three days a woman is murdered by a man. According to femicidecensus.org, 62% of all women killed by men were killed by a current or former partner and a history of abuse was known in 59% of femicides committed by current or former partners or other male relatives.
A shocking case from June 2020 was that of two sisters stabbed to death by a stranger in a park in Wembley. Not only was the news of their murders shocking, but also that two Met police officers were suspended amid allegations they took selfies next to their bodies. Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry were Black women. Where was the outcry?
Sarah caught attention because she was a young, White woman. Not the first young, White woman of course, but it’s not a coincidence that she would become the face and name of a movement like this. There are a number of issues with this which are for another blog….
One main point I’d like to make though is she is being victim-blamed. A young, White, cis women who has arguably won the privilege lottery, is being blamed. Imagine how older adults, LGBTQ people, disabled people and Black and Brown people feel seeing that happen? No one else stands a fucking chance. Marginalised people have been suffering disproportionately at the hands of the police and men for decades, even centuries and no one has rallied in support of them them. I beg of White women reading this to bottle the feeling you had last week and imagine that feeling of anger, injustice, oppression and hopelessness all year around. That’s what marginalised women and femmes feel.
So, why have 97% of women experienced sexual harassment? Because we live in a well-established patriarchy. Because we have been made to believe sexual harassment is to be expected and because the institutions in place have been constructed to maintain the status quo.
None of this is new.
It’s new that we are rallying. It’s new that we’re talking openly. Let’s not make it part of the news cycle.
If anyone has words they would like to share and don’t already have a means of sharing them widely, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post them.