I am a woman who roars.
I hold my head high and speak my truths: me too.
I am one of millions.
In the wake of revelations of women sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, actor Alyssa Milano made a tweet saying if all women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too.'
as a status, it could help to publicise the magnitude of the problem. Within three days, one and a half million people shared 'Me too'.
But that is a fraction of the real numbers. And the number of women is only a fraction of the number of incidents.
Why? Why don't women share these experiences in public? If you can't imagine, or don't know, a brief scan of the comments sections on articles about the women who do share will give you a clue. It can't be true; they would have said so at the time. It's their fault, they should not have gone to that party, drunk that alcohol, worn that dress... and other ignorant, point-missing, victim-blaming horse shit. It's easy to say a woman would not have been raped if she was not drunk. But how about this - women don't get raped if men don't rape them.
Consider what might stop someone telling anyone they have been assaulted. Or what might make them tell years after the event. Think fear. Fear of being disbelieved. Fear of being blamed. Fear of repercussions. Often that fear is learned long before any experience of sexual assault occurs, from witnessing what happens to other people who come forward. Sexual violence is systematically one crime with the lowest rate of conviction. 5.7% of cases in the UK. Around 0.6% in the USA. Here in New Zealand, we are ranked worst in the OECD for rates of violence against women. Apparently, we do really well on convicting sex crime perpetrators. 13% of cases reported to the police result in conviction. Just read that again for a second. 13%! Only thirteen out of every one hundred sexual assaults reported to the police will result in a conviction. And estimates suggest only around 9% of sexual assaults ever get reported. So lets be clear what this 13% conviction rate actually represents. One. One sexual assault out of every hundred is convicted.
There are plenty of other articles discussing the myriad reasons why women do not report sexual assaults, or report them and drop the case, or only report them years after the event. There are plenty of other articles investigating the low conviction rates. What I really want to do here is tell my story. Stories, more accurately. Because 'Me too' is just going to reveal the tail of the elephant in the room. Even if every woman who has been sexually assaulted in any way says 'Me too.', it will only just begin to show the scale of the problem. If every woman who has been sexually assaulted says 'Me too.' for every single occasion, then we'll see the whole elephant.
But they won't. Many women just can't.
What we do need to do is to make it safer for women to speak up. If one woman sharing her experiences enables ten, twenty, forty, hundreds, thousands more women speak up, then be that woman if you can. I can, and I'm starting right here.
There was the time I was seven. My school year group were on a school trip. A group of ten or so eight and nine year old boys barricaded me in a seat on the bus, slapping and pinching me, and demanding I let them see between my legs. The chant “Show us your fanny.” still sometimes rings in my ears after more than 40 years. An older girl told me to just do it, get it over with so the boys would leave me alone. So for maybe half a second, I whisked the crotch of my knickers aside, before curling up in a ball by the window, to shouts of, “More fanny, more fanny.” The taint of shame is a bitter, corrosive taste. The teacher, finally alerted, let me know exactly how disgusting she thought I was. I was segregated from the others, banned from joining in the trip and forbidden to speak to the teacher chaperoning me.
There was the time I was nine. My sister's sixteen year old boyfriend walked into my bedroom with his penis hanging out of his trousers. He grabbed my hand and made me touch his penis and hold it in my fist. I told my mother the next day. Red marks braceleted my wrist where I had struggled. I didn't have the right words for what he had made me do. Our family did not even use nicknames for our bodyparts. Saying 'bum' earned us kids a smacking. I knew words from school, but I knew I could not use them without getting in trouble. 'He made me touch his thing,' was even too crude, too explicit for my mother. She slapped me, for making up such a disgusting story, and to teach me not to tell lies. For months, until my sister broke up with him, he made me touch him. He made me watch him touch himself. He touched me. Right where the boys had only looked.
There was the time I was twelve. I had my first job, delivering newspapers. I had the longest paper round, yet I was paid less than any of the boys who did the other rounds. So I asked the shop-owner for a raise. Equal pay. Three whole pounds please, not just one pound fifty. He, a guy in his late fifties, told me if I would come out to the back of the shop with him and let him rub his penis on my barely there breasts, then he would consider a raise to two pounds. I don't think I said anything; I still hadn't found my voice. But I dumped the sack of newspapers on his feet and walked out. He telephoned my home that evening and told my parents that I hadn't bothered turning up for work that morning. They docked my pocket money for the next three months, to teach me a strong work ethic. I tried to tell them what he had said but that word came out again. Those words, I should say. Disgusting lies.
There was the time when I was thirteen. Twenty boys invaded the girls changing rooms when we were showering and changing after PE. While we all grabbed for something to cover us, and yelled at them to get out, they ran amok, pulling our towels off us, grabbing our clothes from our pegs and throwing them in the water on the shower floor, pinching our bums and our breasts. Our teacher later told us to keep our underwear on when we showered in future. The head of our year group just laughed. Boys will be boys. The boys strutted around school, getting cheers and pats on the back and telling us girls exactly what they would do to us next time.
There was the time when I was fifteen. The teacher asked me to write something on the blackboard at the front of the class. Some boys wolf-whistled, and stroked or pinched me as I passed them. The teacher laughed. The boys discussed the length of my legs, the shape of my bum, the size of my breasts. They decided they “wouldn't shag her, but those tits are good for a handful.” The teacher laughed. One boy grabbed my breast, then when I told him to let go, he grabbed the other. I smacked his head off the desk. One of the boys called me a frigid bitch who couldn't take a joke. The teacher told me I'd crossed a line, and he would have to report me. I packed my bag and walked out to shouts of Lighten up, it's just a joke and Get over yourself, and frigid bitch.
Then there was the time I was eighteen. I was working part-time in the bar of a local hotel. The middle-aged owner often 'forgot' to pay us. On the third occasion I had to ask him for my pay, he grabbed my bum and told me a pretty girl like me would rather have a kiss and a shag than my pay, and slid his hand inside my bra to grab my breast. His friends all looked on and laughed.
Then there was the time when I was nineteen. Two nights a week I waited tables and served in the bar of a local Indian restaurant. One night, the owner, in his early twenties, asked if I'd go out with him on a date. We went to a nightclub in the city. Later, he wanted to go to a casino, the minimum age was 21. He was angry with me, and kept telling me I should have dressed differently and put some make-up on, to make myself look older. He kept harping back to the way I was dressed. I should wear make-up, I should wear tighter fitting and low cut clothes to “show off my assets.” I called the evening short and went home on the train. A few days later, he followed me to the railway station. He tried to put his arm around me and kiss me. He pulled my hair, tried to stroke my face. He loitered behind me, calling out comments about my body and what he wanted to do with it. I reached the railway station and walked on to the platform. It was deserted. He followed me, grabbed my arms, shoved me up against the wall and pressed himself against me, trying to thrust his tongue in my mouth. I kneed him in the crotch and pushed him away. He called me a whore, grabbed my shirt by the collar and ripped it open so the top couple of buttons flew off and he shoved his other hand inside my bra. I told him to get his hands off me. He said no way. So I punched him in the face and got away. When he tried to follow me again, yelling, demanding sex, threatening violence, two men stepped in and sent him packing.
I went to the police the next day. I showed them my torn shirt, and the faint red marks on my chest; all the visible evidence. I told them the story, and showed them the bruises on my fingers from where I had punched the guy in his face. They said they would not accept a report for sexual assault on me, because he had reported me for assaulting him. Apparently, when I punched him, I broke his jaw. The police told me if I dropped my report, they would refuse to pursue any charges against me.
Then there was the time I was 20. I was meeting my boyfriend for lunch. He arrived early, but instead of staying where we'd arranged to meet, he decided to circle around a different route so he could follow me. He didn't call out to me. No, he thought it was really clever to run up behind me, put one hand over my eyes, an arm round my waist, lift me off my feet and drag me off the path. I thought it was some random assault. I jabbed my elbow in his stomach and kicked out backwards, connecting with his shin. He dropped me and clutched at his shin, swearing and yelling at me. You know, the “Why can't you take a joke, you bitch.” variety of yelling.
Then there was the time I was nearly 21. An old guy lived in the flat upstairs from us with his disabled wife. He asked me if he could pay me to go in once a week to clean for them. The first week he told me to wash the windows. The second week, he told me to vacuum and dust. The third week he told me to suck his dick. He told me he'd pay me double. I walked out. My boyfriend laughed. He told his mates. They laughed, and asked me if I'd suck theirs. They'd pay me triple. I didn't laugh. Apparently, I had no sense of humour.
Then there was the time I was 21. I'd broken up with the same boyfriend and he had moved out. He came around one evening to pick up the last of his things. While he was there, he demanded sex. I didn't want to, but he persisted. I don't know at what point I gave in. I do know why. He grew violent enough that letting him seemed the safest option. Submitting meant I would get hurt less. Submitting meant I could think about it as him indulging in rough sex, rather than raping me. The distinction seemed important then, as if calling it by a different name meant I had been less violated. That's crap, of course. You can call it what you like, whiskers on kittens and raindrops on roses if you like. But non-consensual sex, sexual assault, sex under duress, rape, whatever you call it is a direct and destructive act that causes immense damage to its survivors.
Then there was the time I was 24. My doctor told me to stop worrying my pretty little head about my daughter's hearing problems. “Only,” he added, putting his head on one side and ambling his eyes from my face to my breasts, to my legs, and back to my breasts, leaning forward so he could try to cop a better look down my shirt. “You're not even that pretty.”
There was the time I was twenty-five. I was on the way to pick my daughter up from her nursery school. A man stopped me to ask if I had the time. I glanced at my watch, and told him, nearly three o'clock. He thanked me. Then he said, “Have you got time for a fuck?” As I walked away, he yells after me: frigid bitch.
Then there was the time I was 27. I was on a train, with my five year old daughter, travelling to London. We were sitting at a table, drawing pictures together. A man sitting opposite stretched his legs out, brushing against mine. I shifted my legs to the side. Seconds later, his were brushing against them again. He was focussed on his newspaper, apparently oblivious. I changed my position again, tucking my feet under the seat. He lifted his foot up and shoved it between my knees. He'd taken his shoe off, and wiggled his toes against my thighs. I told him to stop, and he did... for a few seconds. The second time, I gripped his toes and bent them backwards, until he pulled his foot away. He told me I was a, wait for it, yes... a frigid bitch.
There was the time I was 36. My boss at work, the managing director, hauled me into his office where he proceeded to shout, swear, wave his fists in my face and threaten me when he heard he had been asked to give me a reference for a new job. When I pulled him up on his behaviour, he said he was joking, and we should have a hug and a kiss to make up. He shoved one arm round my waist, one hand behind my head and tugged my face toward his. I pushed him away and walked out.
There are plenty of other occasions too when I have had to deal with unwanted, intimidating sexual behaviour. Behaviour that is intended to intimidate, to disempower. Men driving past, yelling and wolf-whistling and making sexual comments out of the car window. Or men on a building site, or business men having a meeting in a cafe, or an old guy reading a book in the library, or a young guy queuing in the supermarket behind me who have wolf-whistled, and when they are ignored, let loose a flurry of violent, abusive invective, usually containing two key words: frigid and bitch. Or these men told me what they would like to do to some part of my body, or discussed this behind my back, but loud enough to be heard by me and everyone else in the vicinity. But, no matter how much I dislike it, any objection would be met by denials, dismissal, directives. We didn't mean anything by it. It's a joke. It's a compliment. You should be flattered. You should be grateful.
No, I should not. I will not. Just no. It's a tiny word. It means I do not consent. It means stop, don't do that, desist. It does not mean maybe. It does not mean yes.
Family failed me, with accusations and denials. Teachers failed me, with blame, or laughter. The police force failed me with refusals and threats. Employers failed me with denial and lies. Only once has anyone stepped forward to intervene. And perhaps I failed myself, when I didn't report the rape. I was too busy pretending it was not rape. But, actually, I don't believe I failed myself. I just believed all those other failures meant it was not worth reporting it. Because that, ultimately, has been my experience. No matter how I approached all these incidents, whether I fought back or objected, whether I refused to laugh when others laughed at me, whether I used verbal resistance or physical resistance, I learned something few people care to admit: that too many people would rather blame the victim than confront a perpetrator.
But I am a woman who roars. I will not whisper, or stay silent. I will hold my head high, and I will speak my truths. I will roar, so that others can choose to roar with me.
Helplines and support:
NZ: 24-hour free-phone 0800 1 REFUGE (0800 1 733 843) or visit www.womensrefuge.co.nz