As the cacophony of allegations against Harvey Weinstein has grown in recent weeks, initial shock gave way to the familiar creeping questions of doubt.
“Why didn’t they say something sooner?” “Why didn’t the women who took the money go to court?” “Surely not all of it was that bad?”
That people still don’t understand the pressure and challenges women face after being victims of sexual offences is beyond frustrating. It’s why, despite the improvements seen recently in the Crown Prosecution Service’s Violence against Women and Girls report, reporting of these types of crimes is still widely accepted to be woefully underreported.
Five years ago, I gave evidence against a man charged with exposure. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable as he stared at me while travelling alone on an early evening train, I decided to change carriages. As I walked past, he was openly masturbating.
The first person I came to was the train guard. Shocked, I blurted out what had happened and was told to wait while he investigated. Minutes later, the guard returned.
“He said you asked him to do it.”
Shock turned into anger. I repeated what happened with heat rising in my face. British Transport Police were called. The man apparently said again I’d asked him to carry out a sex act. Luckily, I was believed.
At 29, this was hardly the first time I’d been subject to some sort of harassment. There was the middle-aged taxi driver who repeatedly asked me to tell him my favourite sexual positions. There was the “friend” who took illicit photographs of me and a number of other girls while we were asleep. There was an endless list of gropings in nightclubs.
I can’t say I made the conscious decision to report this one incident over the others. But once the wheels were rolling, and the police revealed this was far from a first offence, I felt I had little choice.
A few weeks later, I got a phone call. The CCTV had not been on in the carriage, would I go to court? I agreed. I’d need to travel to the town he was arrested in, and it had to be a morning hearing, as he was on remand and it was the only time he could be transported to the court. That meant at least a day off work.
Among friends, I relied on black humour to dismiss the situation. But I felt embarrassed about bringing it up at my recently-started job. No-one wants to go to their new boss mere days in asking for time off, let alone for this.
At court, I was briefed by the prosecutor. Defendants can’t cross examine their victims if they’re charged with sexual offences, so there would be a court-appointed legal representative to challenge my statement on his behalf.
Sitting in the witness stand, the man in the dock opposite, I felt the same combination of sick and scared I’d felt on the train. After telling the magistrate what happened, it was time for the cross-examination.
Court appointed legal representatives aren’t there to conduct a defence case – their job isn’t to get the defendant cleared. Yet the cross-examination still felt intrusive, insulting and accusatory.
Why didn’t I challenge him myself? Why didn’t I tell anyone else in the carriage? Why did I go straight to the train guard? Was I sure I’d not had any contact with the man beforehand? No conversation, no communication? I passed so quickly, I couldn’t have seen anything that quickly, surely?
“You said he was staring at you, but it’s not illegal to stare at someone,” the defence representative said, as the prosecutor shook her head and prepared to interject.
“No, but it is illegal to expose yourself to a stranger on a train,” I replied, my face flushed and voice tipping into anger.
I couldn’t get out of the court soon enough. Outside, I was greeted by a kind woman who said it was all over and I could put it out of my mind. Did I regularly take public transport by myself? Yes, I answered.
I left the court with some leaflets about victim support and a brand-new rape alarm.
Weeks later, I was told he’d been sentenced to 16 weeks but wasn’t serving it yet because there was another case ongoing. I didn’t find out any more.
I was the victim of a non-violent sexual crime and two witnesses – the train guard and BTP officer – testified that he had essentially admitted exposing himself, albeit that he tried to blame me for what happened. There was no defence lawyer who was being paid with the sole intention of mounting a case against me. And yet I didn’t leave court feeling like justice had been done, I left feeling unsettled, undermined and like it was somehow still my fault. I’d caused a fuss by reporting it in the first place.
If this is what women who report even fairly straightforward matters to police are put through, is it any wonder people are reluctant to report? What happens when there are no witnesses, the defendant is known to the victim, the woman can’t bring herself to report what happened immediately?
This is why reporting rates remain low. And it needs to change.
The #MeToo campaign is highlighting just how many people have been subject to sexual harassment and assault – but it needs to be the start, not the end.
I fully-support the solidarity and strength of everyone who speaks out about harassment and abuse, but as with anything that easily retweeted, I worry it risks being drowned out by the next meme or hashtag.
Up until now, I haven’t said #MeToo. I feel it is unfair that the emphasis remains on those who’ve suffered abuse to share and relive those experiences in an effort to drive serious change. But I applaud everyone who has done so. I know it’s not a decision that people take lightly.
It’s increasingly becoming accepted that sexual harassment and assault are widely experienced, but that’s the problem – it’s accepted.
There needs to be shift-change in the way reporting sexual misconduct is viewed. People need to stop asking why women – and men – have delayed reporting when the reasons are clear and numerous.
We can see how wide the problem of sexual harassment and abuse is. Now let’s work to make sure the perpetrators are held accountable, instead of the people who’ve endured it.