MeToo. Woman born in the 1960s.
When I was a teenager, I thought men treating me like a sexual object was just a fact of life, like cold wind with rain in it blowing horizontally in your face, or like when your first car breaks down and it’s before mobile phones and you have to hitch a lift to a phonebox that smells of wee to call the RAC.
It didn’t occur to me that it was wrong.
I was 14 when I discovered that if I sat on a park bench reading a book on a sunny day, soon a man would be sitting beside me asking what I was reading and telling me I was pretty, or saying I should smile more. I found this interesting. It made me feel powerful. I could choose to sit on a bench and men would be drawn to me; grown up men, apparently helpless like moths. It was irritating too. If I wanted to sit on a bench and read a book and not be bothered by men I had to try and ignore them, be an ice maiden, be dismissive, discouraging, dishonest – lie that my dad or boyfriend would be here in a minute – and if all that failed, I had to get up and walk away, find another bench, or go home. Because the men couldn’t help themselves, could they? A girl on a bench reading a book was absolutely irresistible, even if she was young enough to be your daughter.
At 15 I discovered make up and high heels could get me into a bar, and once perched on a bar stool all I had to do was look at a man and not immediately avert my gaze for him to appear at my side, offering a drink or a lighter for my cigarette. I quickly learnt that once a drink was accepted, quid pro quo was expected. A martini and he’d put his arm around me. A second drink and he’d want to snog me. If I left the bar he’d likely follow, calling me a tease.
The men seemed to think I wanted their drinks, and their kisses; I didn’t much, both made me nauseous. What I wanted was compliments. My self-esteem relied on being perceived as attractive. I needed validation. Before social media, there was no forum for posting a sultry photo of yourself and getting likes. You had to dress up and go out and pout and count how many men approached over the course of a night. We did that, my schoolfriends and I. The men weren’t schoolboys.
Just before my sixteenth birthday, I had sex for the first time. It was like the holy grail, this secret act, only for adults. I was a rebel, I wanted to do it before I was legally old enough. My 19 year old boyfriend, a guy I’d met hanging out in the bus station a couple of weeks earlier, was keen enough to say sugary words beforehand. After he came, while I was feeling lost and shocked and tearful – thinking surely that’s not it? – he said he was hungry and would I make him bacon, eggs and toast? I did. When I returned with the plate, he was fast asleep. I lay carefully beside him, eggs congealing on a plate on the bedroom floor. He woke an hour later and went next door to see my best friend. He wanted to have sex with her too.
The guy I gave my virginity to gave me crabs. Too ashamed to see a doctor, I shaved off my pubes and the lice with them. Pubic hair removal wasn’t a thing then. The boyfriend stole my bicycle that night, after my friend refused his advances. I never saw him again.
Once I’d had sex with one man who treated me badly, I couldn’t work out how to say no to other men. Most of them were nice enough. I didn’t want to upset them, I wanted to avoid conflict. I’d already had bad sex so what did a bit more bad sex matter? I wasn’t being raped, I was being kind. Even if it left me sore and sad.
When I was 19 I modelled for a university life drawing class. The art teacher asked if I’d like a massage after the class. I said yes because no would be rude and unappreciative, because I’d never had a massage and it sounded like something that should be enjoyable. I hadn’t dressed yet after the class, so I was naked. His hands went places they shouldn’t have. He wanted to ‘make love’. I said no. I didn’t work at the university again.
I went hitch-hiking around Europe with a friend. She usually sat in the front seat because she got carsick in the back. That meant she saw the willies before me. The first time a driver exposed himself we were really freaked out. I took my penknife out of my bag and considered stabbing him. The knife was pretty small, I didn’t like the sight of blood, I didn’t really want to hurt him, we might crash. These thoughts raced through my mind. I grappled with the French for ‘please stop here’. He stopped. We got out on a dusty roadside in the middle of nowhere. He drove on. Next time we were less scared.
I went to London looking for temporary work. There were adverts for photographic models, I knew they were for ‘glamour’ models, for porn mags. I wanted to earn some cash quickly, get out of the city, go travelling again. I went for a test shoot. The photographer said I wasn’t very relaxed, positioned naked on his bed in his flat; he thought I’d photograph better if he helped me relax. He touched me in intimate places. When that failed to relax me, and I refused to hold his dick, he asked if I was a lesbian. The pictures weren’t very good. Apparently I wasn’t attractive enough to be a glamour model, which wasn’t great for my self confidence but I was more relieved than disappointed. Having walked out of that flat I don’t think I’d have gone back for anything.
By the time I was 22 I’d learnt to say no. That didn’t stop me being raped. My last ditch attempt to stop the rapist – “you don’t want to do this, I’ve got AIDS” – did at least mean he wore a condom. Afterwards he shook my hand. I let him shake my hand. I must’ve responded to his outstretched hand with my own hand. I understood the gesture. He’d been good, he’d used a condom, he hadn’t hurt me any more than he had to, now we were shaking hands and his conscience could be clean. It was consensual, right? Me shouting for help and saying no and struggling and begging; me stopping the shouting and struggling only when he threatened gang rape by his friends if I didn’t succumb to him now; these things he forgot in the glow of his orgasm.
I thought the rape wouldn’t have happened if I’d been less trusting, or perhaps if I’d shouted louder, or if I’d tried to kill him. I had considered hitting him over the head with a heavy object, but being locked in a flat with a dead man, or a man with his brains spilling out, or a man enraged by me having hit him over the head, all seemed worse than giving in and getting it over with. After all, I’d succumbed to unwanted sex before, the only difference was this time I’d said no out loud rather than just in my head.
I thought about reporting the rape but I knew that would make the experience more traumatic. I felt guilty that my not-reporting might mean he’d rape someone else.
I’m not special, these things happen to a lot of women. For most of my life I’ve thought it was all just part of the awkward growing up experience. Thinking like that makes it easier to shrug off, to feel ok about what happened to the innocent young woman I was.
Now I’ve begun to realise that sentiment – ‘it happens, it’s just part of life like cold rain and car breakdowns’ – undermines what today’s young women are fighting for. I don’t want to be that undermining older woman. I want a world where men abusing women won’t be so horribly ubiquitous, won’t be stood for, won’t be.