Assault culture (warning: contains mild triggers)
Most of the time I will tell people, women, when it comes up in conversation (because it does with semi regularity), that I've never been sexually assaulted and how lucky I am in that regard (because I don't do victim blaming, there's no reason to think that I might not be the next one). However, pondering it in the dark insomniac hours of the night, I remembered that this is not exactly true. What I mean is I have never been raped (to my knowledge, though there was that one time I woke up in a half-built hotel lying next to a stranger - I was fully clothed and he was far more scared than I was, make of that what you will). However, I have been a victim of sex crime, albeit on the mild end of the spectrum. And then the brain started to fizz, as it does in the witching hour, and tried to join the various dots. I'm not sure what the picture's meant to be, but it sure is ugly.
I was 14 or 15, but I think 14. Beauty therapist (for she was always a beauty therapist, even then) and I somehow - I forget how this came about - got a job share on a market stall. Billy sold net curtains off the roll, chintzy cushion covers and the pads to stuff them as well as taking orders for slip covers for three-piece suites. Our job was to help him set up the stall, help him serve customers and write the signs - I got the feeling he was illiterate. I quite liked the work - putting the stall together was a bit like setting up a tent - the market was quite lively and I have no problem writing signs.
Beauty therapist began to tell me about the odd things Billy did on her days. Asking her questions about her virginity and bra size. It gradually escalated as the weeks went by, but for some reason no one took her seriously; not me, not her mum, not my mum. And then it started with me. Rubbing my back to see if I was wearing a bra. Nothing too untoward, but certainly not appropriate.
It was raining. The stall was under its tarpaulin covers. Billy sat on a stool at one end, I was standing at the other. I looked over and he was tossing himself off while looking at me. I was, as you would be, very freaked out. Beauty had been telling me this for weeks, but now it was real and it was really happening. Later, he gave me some money and asked me to get him some cigarettes. I used the time to also find a payphone (no mobiles back then) and call home. I spoke to my mother and asked her to come and get me. I did not want to ride home in the lorry cab with Billy. I did not feel safe.
This is the bit that has adult me saying what the effing eff? MY MOTHER TOLD ME TO STAY THERE AND PRETEND NOTHING HAD HAPPENED. So I did. At the end of the drive home, Billy gave me an extra tenner 'for not complaining...about the weather.'
I went straight into the corner-shop and spent the extra money on chocolate. I then went and sat in the bath and ate my chocolate. And cried.
My father went to the market the next day and had polite words with Billy. I never went back.
The messaging I got from my parents was that he was a rather sad man - still living with his mum in a caravan - rather poor and should be pitied. To which the adult me, again, says what...the effing...eff?
Two disconnected, until last night, memories also floated to the surface.
First. Sitting with my female relatives in our living room and each of them - mother, aunts, grandmother - recounting with grim humour stories of the flashers, gropers and fiddlers they had met as young women. It was presented, by them, as a sort of necessary rite of passage - akin to menstrual cramps or any other unpleasant side effect of XX chromosomes.
Second. My father telling me of a female staff member, he was working on the ferries at the time, who was working with the men (instead of in the girly clerical office) who was being 'hazed' or whatever the English word for this would be. Harassment sounded closer to the truth to me. His story culminated with one of the men tapping her shoulder (she must have been crouched down to get something out of a cupboard or similar) with his penis. All power to teenage me: 'Dad, that's sexual assault. Dad, that's completely and utterly wrong. You'd be horrified if someone did that to me.' Thinking back now, perhaps he was trying to get a sense of just how uneasy he should be; he must have been uneasy or why discuss it with me? That's the hopeful interpretation. I wonder now how he responded to the men and the woman when he went to work - did my words, my physical revulsion, make any difference? Did he have a quiet word with the perpetrator of this 'joke'? Or was he simply trying to wise me up a little and warn me away from 'men's jobs'? The mind reels. Penis man should have been sacked. On the spot. Gross misconduct. And then the police should have been called.
What kind of world do we live in? No, I haven't been assaulted. I'm lucky. Where does the push-back begin? How can we make a difference? I'll tell you, I'm pushing back, but I've not seen it make the blindest bit of difference.