My head is swimming this week. I’m sure you know by now that the remains of Sarah Everard have been found in woodland. Another woman’s life snuffed out by a man. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Maybe its because we’re a similar age, maybe its because it could have been any one of us. There won’t be a gift guide this week. I won’t hold it against you, if you choose to leave without reading further, only I didn’t have space in my mind to write about the usual. This week’s blog post isn’t the one I thought I would be writing for Mother’s Day that’s for sure.
For as long as history goes back. Women have been used. And abused. By men. Age old stories tell of tribe wars, of raping and pillaging. Endless tales of women treated as commodity, used as bargaining tools and as currency. And it STILL goes on. In one form or another. Some more covert than others. Some still as blatant, certainly in poorer parts of the world. Places that won’t reach your instagram feed. This isn’t fantasy. The funny part about how successful TV shows like The Handmaids Tail has been, is that is so close to reality in many ways, in terms of the treatment of women. And in certain parts of the globe, IS real. Behind closed doors, in one form or another.
Some of you reading this will roll your eyes at the dramatics. At what you think are sweeping statements. But the national grief and anger at what happened to Sarah has ignited a huge conversation. On how women have had to respond and evolve, in order to survive, and how many don’t (survive). I’ve seen hundreds of stories shared online – personal stories of women that have suffered and endured mistreatment and abuse, much of which has slotted very quietly, into womanhood. Part of growing up. There are of course many women that have been lucky enough not to ever have been subjected to unwanted and uncomfortable attention, or aggression or violence. But these are the lucky ones, the minority. How fucked up is that? The truth is that MOST of us have encountered it in one form or another. I’ve had countless messages of discussions about it online with other women, sharing feelings of well, every emotion. We’re all taking a look at our own lives, at things that have occurred but gone unnoticed because we’ve trained ourselves to think its just what happens, and this is just how we respond. It’s been as normal as riding a bike. Only now, it’s been reawakened. Stirred up and wounds reopened. We’re all suddenly dealing with lifetimes of memories, and trying to come to terms with it all.
I know my parents may read this and be shocked to read some of these things because some simply aren’t worth sharing when they occur. Because they’re borderline commonplace. I know from conversations with my mum in the past, she’s experienced similar. But those aren’t my stories to tell. Thankfully all of my experiences have been lucky escapes. But that doesn’t stop me from constantly having that fear – to always lock the doors if I’m home alone. To constantly think I’m under threat when walking alone in isolated areas. To never walk through alleyways on my own anymore, or take shortcuts home at night. And always say to girlfriends “text me when you get home”.
It’s common to receive unwanted advances, to be cat-called, to have cars slow next to you and windows wound down with an offer of a lift. To be called names because you’ve declined unwanted advances. Being stared at, being followed, being filmed on camera phones whilst driving by other drivers. Having my appearance commented on at work – skirt length, tightness of trousers, having your personal space invaded, being sniffed and told you smell good. Being groped. To have doorways or corridors blocked in exchange for a smile. Listening to sexist jokes. Blonde jokes. To feeling less powerful. Feeling powerless.
I’ve made the choice to share some of my own personal experiences. Not for pity or for any sort of cheer. But mainly because I believe it is important to share, to make these very real situations feel more real. To let you know that you’re not alone. And to remind us all that it is not ok and it is NOT your fault.
Picture a girl aged 8, approached by a man whilst playing in bushes next to her local park. She’s snuck off with her best friend as they both need a wee and are far from home. Her mum and other mums are in the park meters away. This man has other kids with him. He is shaggy-looking. He asks what they’re doing, to which the girls respond. He encourages them to relieve themselves. No one speaks. They are all crouching as they’re in the undergrowth. He seems excited and is a face full of encouraging smiles. The two girls sense something isn’t quite right. Even at that age they know. They smile and giggle nervously, and leave the bushes, and in a confused state they tell their mums. Word spreads in the park and a search commences for this strange man. He isn’t found. Many, MANY years on from this day, she will not forget his face.
Picture a girl aged 14, waiting outside the train station for her friend. She’s wearing her school uniform and it is mid-afternoon in summer. An estate car pulls up with 2 men inside. They are mid-thirties. They are painter decorators and have a boot full of painting supplies. They are wearing paint-splotched t-shirts. Its a warm day and they are tanned and smiley as they pull up next to her with their windows down. They ask her name and if they can give her a lift. They say they know her dad. They press her. She tells them to fuck off. Because she knows. She knows this isn’t an innocent offer of a lift, and that they do not in fact know her dad.
Picture a girl aged 17, on a night out with her best friend. Offered a lift from men, to take them drinking. Just as friends. They are driven to at least 2 pubs that she remembers. At that age it is cool to have this offer. She is the envy of her friends. She remembers sitting outside one pub in particular. She remembers it is summer and they are having a good time. Nothing untoward is happening. They are all having a drink outside in the sunshine. She only remembers drinking one or two drinks. She remembers being bundled into the car. Jump forward and she remembers being helped down the stairs of a house, and out the door. She senses conflict between two different groups of men. What she pieces together after the event is that she was saved by a male friend who found out where she was and came to take her home. She still doesn’t remember what took place before being walked out of that upstairs bedroom. But that’s probably for the best.
Picture a girl aged 17 or 18. She’s started a job at the Gap. She is standing in the changing rooms being shown what to do by her manager. A man walks past and stops to say hello. He is introduced as the stock room manager. He has a look in his eye that she understands with a knot in her stomach. She has to visit the stock room from time to time to collect items and there is excited interest in her presence. She does her best to placate him and is polite given his status. Clothing is stored in large rolling racks. Each is an alley – a dead end lined with shelves of jeans and t-shirts. Wide enough only for one person. One day he approaches to say hello as she enters to collect an item. He follows her down a shelving rack and leans in close to her. He tells her she smells nice. He asks her if she wants to play a game. She gives a polite smile, not wanting to engage. He asks if she wants to play find the cherry. She has no idea what he’s going on about. But she knows not to ask. He laughs patronisingly at her innocence, and prompts her to get what he means with a cock of his head. He is blocking her exit with his body. Again she laughs nervously and refuses to meet his eye. He gets the hint and lets her pass. On her lunch break she leaves and never goes back. She doesn’t even take her belongings out of her locker.
One particular experience in my adult life, which again took place at work. One that I actually took action against but can’t share due to legal reasons. The funny thing is my dad still talks to the person that did it. Go figure.
I read a statistic that 97% of women have been sexually harassed. Let’s just think about that number for a moment. NINTY SEVEN. It’s gone on for so long that it’s a part of our evolution. Part of our DNA. This blog post is by no means an attack on men. There are of course many MANY decent men out there and I am not saying that what happened to Sarah Everard is what we all battle day in day out – that we all fight to avoid being murdered. What happened to Sarah was a freak and unfortunate occurrence – an encounter with a murderer. And not all men are murderers. I don’t know how we stop women and girls being snatched away from their families. But we have to start thinking & talking about it.
Normal service will resume next week.