A few weeks ago, before the Harvey Weinstein allegations sent pundits their yearly memo that sexual violence is still very much a daily thing, a friend asked me if I had ever felt, at any point in my prolific sexual life, like I might have been in danger of serious harm. Had I ever been hurt, and if not, had I ever felt like I might have been, by no one other than my bedfellow, if I didn’t play my cards very right? And it struck me that, no, that had never been the case.
Indeed, as I read through the horror stories collected by the #MeToo hashtag, I realised I was in a very small minority. And I asked myself: “Why me?”
Women understand and live with sexual harassment – the patriarchy’s first warning shot to women – and assault – the full exercise of its violent power – as they would a Gorgon-like creature, with many venomous heads, sibilantly wrapping itself around our unsuspecting necks.
This is so much so that the first reaction I had when facing the simple fact that I had never been raped or threatened with rape was to think of it as abnormal. “Why has it never happened to me?” It’s not a question borne out of jealousy or alienation, but one borne out of fear. If it hasn’t happened to me yet, surely it will very soon – any day now?
The fact is, of course, that it has happened to me. Not in the horrendous way retold by thousands of victims through #MeToo, but in a variety of styles, various degrees of banter, pestering, and physical contact. And the reason why I discounted those events, some of which should certainly not be discounted, is because the reality of sexual harassment and contrived sexualisation is so prevalent, from such an early age, that if a woman were to recall all incidents of such a nature she would immediately cease to function and melt on the spot.
From my own little treasure-trove of forgotten harassments, there was the 11-year-old who spent over an hour telling an eight year-old me how he would “fuck me” while the only adult supervising (unsurprisingly, a male) stayed impervious to my complaints about the boy’s behaviour. There was the balding, middle-aged man who used an overcrowded bus as an expedient to grind his crotch against my bum when I was barely 17.
And there was the drunk older man who robbed me of my first kiss, in a nightclub, after I repeatedly told him not to touch me as we danced. He grabbed me, thrusted me against his sweaty body, and proceeded to shove his tongue down my throat until I wrangled myself out. To my great embarrassment I shouted as I pulled away: “I have a boyfriend!” I didn’t, but he didn’t bother me again. I had pronounced the magic words, conjuring the totem that is another male.
The subtext to crying “I have a boyfriend” – something I am sure I wasn’t the first to claim in such an hour of need – is that my body belongs to another man, and that only for that reason, this man assaulting me is in the wrong. “You trespassed onto another man’s property,” it says. And it worked, for my sins.
Another way this Medusa works its way into our socially-constructed brains is that sexual violence will happen to you, if you act a certain way. Often it is women who enable this mentality. Which of you hasn’t heard from a well-meaning friend: “Catcalls? Best just ignore them, don’t give a man the satisfaction of your attention.”
And if you think this self-policing attitude is exclusive to the kind of woman who has never heard of Simone de Beauvoir and doesn’t like calling herself a feminist, think again. For it wasn’t that long ago that actress Joanna Lumley advised that women “don’t look like trash – they’ll rape you”, or writer Caitlin Moran suggested high heels made it harder to run away from predators.
Every time they express their freedoms – be it social, professional or sexual – women are told that they might expect retribution. If you go out and get drunk, you will get assaulted. If you do well in your place of work, expect some indecent proposition from a powerful man. And if you are confident in your sexuality, you will almost certainly be raped.
These are the warnings, the scaremongering that women grow up with. That is why we hold keys between our knuckles walking home at night, that’s why we walk two more blocks and then back again if we hear steps behind us. #MeToo is not just a series of events, it’s a perpetual state of mind.
As part of #MeToo I saw many women, and men, correctly pointing out that we really need a hashtag for men to come forward and talk about the times in which they shouted something crass at a woman; about times their sexual advances were not welcomed and yet they persevered; about times they drunkenly had sex with someone and, in retrospect, are unsure of how much consent there really was. We should focus on how many men raped, not on how many women were raped. I agree.
But abuses of power are not always as clear-cut as a big movie mogul allegedly jerking off into a potted plant next to a young actress. To dismantle patriarchal power we need to learn about subtlety, about the pernicious ways of the many snakeheads. Until the time comes when women can enjoy their lives without the chaperoning presence of a man, or fearing some sort of misanthropic karma, we still have a long way to go.