Originally Published in Headstuff.
I am 12 years old buying sweets in the local newsagent with my two friends. A man, older, maybe 50, in the queue behind us grazes his hand off my back and leaves it there with gentle pressure. Like it’s an accident but too certain of itself to be one. I keep my eyes on the sweets, flicking around the flurries of colour jumping out at me, urgently organising my thoughts around getting the most value for the one single pound coin I have to spend. An ice-pop or a hundred penny sweets? It’d be cool to have something for later too, to stretch this rare treat out, to savour it all day. Packets of Chewits or Frosties? One of each? Or a bottle of TK Cream Soda? Or loads of 10p lemon lollipops, the ones with sour sherbet inside? I am terrible at maths and my friends are nearly finished getting theirs so I have to decide quickly and this man’s hand is pressing between my shoulder blades over my yellow t-shirt and I just have to ask for what I want and get out of there and be back in the summer sun walking home comparing our sweets and talking about anything but the middle aged man in the queue like it didn’t even happen. Like it didn’t even happen.
I will swallow this.
I will swallow it all
In second year a tabloid journalist goes to ‘Baby Wesley’ and takes photos of some of my 13 and 14 year old classmates in compromising positions, wearing small skirts and ‘hooker’ boots, belly tops or string tops or pink boob tubes, flesh and belly button rings and tiger stripe highlights and secret naggins in handbags. Massive block black capitals screaming disgust. A picture of a model in lingerie, more of her inside.
I am 14 and there is a flasher in the school grounds outside our classroom window. I don’t get to see him, as hard as I try to look through the clamour of blue uniform at the window. We think it’s hilarious, screaming through the corridors, doors slamming, hysterical. Teachers po-faced. The man leaves and we are herded back into our rooms and nobody talks to us about it.
I am 15 walking through a lane way shortcut and three teenage boys approach me. As they wordlessly pass by one of them reaches back to grab my bum. I am flattered. Maybe the ads and women’s magazines and the music videos and the lads mags are wrong. Maybe boys could like me. When van drivers beep I pretend to be annoyed but I am not. I feel a small thrill.
I am 15 on the DART into town to a French class in the city centre and an old man feels up and down my side for the entire journey. When getting off I glare at him, but I don’t know why I am glaring. I don’t know why I feel angry. He is only an old man. He scurries away through the rush hour crowd. I still remember the black top he rubbed his knuckles against. I still remember the purple scarf I was wearing and the royal blue discman on my lap that I’d got as a Christmas present.
I am 16 getting raped in a park by a teenage boy. On the bus home that night my friend asks me if I am okay and I say that yeah, I’m okay, I just don’t like that guy. ‘Why’d you go into the trees with him then?’ she wants to know. I hate my excited, virgin friends with their excited, virgin boyfriends.
My self worth roots itself into my sexuality and soon after a man twice my age uses and abuses me on and off and I think this is the attention that will make me feel better about being me and I collude in my own exploitation.
I am 17 and a man selling the Big Issues at a traffic light moves down the line of cars until he gets to me in mine, and he reaches in the window and violently sexually assaults me, leaving me frozen and gasping for breath. Eventually I push open my door and he falls away. Nobody in any other car beeps, or waves, or gets out. “For you it’s free,” he says, about the magazine.
I am 20 and am getting orally raped at a party. His belt makes a whooshing sound as it comes off and I say ‘what are you doing?’ and he doesn’t answer me. I see him a few days later and size him up as a romantic possibility. Maybe he likes me, I think. A few years later he will pop up in my place of work and I will spend the day shallow breathing, heart pounding, avoiding the common areas, scared to bump into him again.
An intoxicated friend I help out of a bush somehow manages to grope my crotch as I lift him up.
I read a magazine agony aunt reply to a reader who wants advice on the most flattering sex positions. The agony aunt says that missionary is the most flattering, as gravity does most of the work for you.
I discover ‘The Beauty Myth’ in first year and read as much as I can; ‘Against Our Will’, ‘Intercourse’, ‘Pornland’, ‘The Macho Paradox’, ‘Full Frontal Feminism’, ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’, ‘The Purity Myth’, ‘The New Feminism’, ‘The Female Brain’, ‘The Second Sex’, ‘The Equality Illusion’, ‘A Brief History of Misogyny’, ‘Living Dolls’, ‘The Johns’, ‘Getting Off’, ‘Everyday Sexism’.
My eyes are opened.
I am 23 and am cat called a lot. A man follows me the whole way up the quays. The workers of a local building site do a thing for a few mornings running as a joke. They down tools and watch me walking along and watch me pass and then start working again. I am never sure what the joke is, but I think it might be me. When I take my boyfriend along to show him, they ignore me.
One night a boy with a pellet gun shoots me in the face as I walk by.
Men looking for prostitutes slow down in their car as I walk home from work. A dark shadow lowers in the drivers seat to get a look at me, slowly moves on. I pretend I don’t notice them. A group of boys in a car yell HOW MUCH?! HOW MUCH?! and laugh their heads off out open windows.
I am 22 and a man says ‘nice tits’ and grabs my breast on George’s street as I make my way home after a night out. I explode with anger and fear and frustration and he laughs, and his friend laughs.
Two men outside Burdock’s chipper mutter ‘sexy’ at me as I pass. If I was very beautiful I could blame that, but I can’t. I’d know it wasn’t the actual reason they do it but at least I could tell myself that it is.
I tell men sorry I have a boyfriend and it’s ironic because I’d really like a boyfriend.
I am 23, walking home from a work Christmas party, drunkenly crying because I’ve just been dumped. Two men are walking ahead of me and they walk me home, comforting me. Somewhere along the way one of them drifts away and it is just the two of us now. I do things I didn’t want to do. It isn’t consensual. I know that it isn’t but I can barely speak. The next day I wake up and a cut on his shoulder has bled during the night and there is dried blood on the bed sheets. I jump, thinking it’s my blood, expecting it to be.
I regard my body as a device.
I am 24 being sexually assaulted by a friend during the daylight hours of another party. I pretend I am asleep and hope he stops rather than confront him and have to deal with all of the consequences of that and also choose denial that my friend is doing this to me.
There is so much that should never have happened.
All of it should never have happened.
I link to a video about pornography, without comment, on Facebook and receive a three paragraph essay on why porn is fine from my boyfriend.
I go to the police station and sit outside in my car for an hour and then go home.
I go to the police station and hang around for 20 minutes in the reception room reading the posters and then go home.
I am 25 using a drill and five men stand around watching me with arms crossed until I’m finished.
I get groped in a packed bar in a foreign country and text a friend about it and he tells me to take it as a compliment.
I am 25 and I am followed over a motorway bridge by two teenage boys shouting at me to suck their cocks. A man at a wine festival asks me what my ‘sexual plans for the evening are.’ A grinning man tries to look up my dress as I cycle by. Men make cat sounds. Men make whistling sounds. I’m at a bar getting a drink and a man puts his hands on my waist and moves me to one side. A man outside a pub asks me if I’m Spanish and tells me that I’m in his “wank bank” now. I run to catch the pedestrian lights and two men whistle at me like they’re calling a dog.
I am tired of pretending I don’t hear things.
I write about getting sexually harassed and a two hour radio show is devoted to my experience. The radio show host calls me an ‘extreme feminist’ and a ‘feminazi’ and the title of the show is “Are women too sensitive?” They discuss my sensitivity in depth and blame me for wearing heels or being in a bad mood or being stuck up or for hating men and I laugh while listening because sometimes laughing is the only thing you can do.
I constantly wonder if I’m making a bigger deal of this than I need to.
I give out to myself for banging on about it so much.
A friend reads an account of sexual violence I’d written and says ‘you’d want to watch out people don’t get off on that’, or something to that effect. I take what I’d written away from him and hide it way back up at the top of the bookshelf where it lives now so no-one will ever get off on it again.
I try to tell men about my experiences, to invite them into this reality of ours, and they turn it into a philosophical discussion or a debate and I learn not to tell men things.
Late one night a friend tells me that someone at the party he is at has just been raped by an acquaintance. I hear the raw fury in his voice. I want to take it away from him. I want him to know how much I love him, his integrity, his refusal to look the other way, his resistance to our rape apologising culture. I am void of hope. I can’t breathe. I call the Rape Crisis Centre helpline and sob at the girl who answers. She helps me to breathe and I go to sleep. I text a friend who knows the rapist and he tells me that I am two people removed from the alleged victim so who knows what really happened. Our friendship begins to die with the word ‘alleged.’
I am 28 and my 39 year old boyfriend says “you’d do it for me, though” when I say that I’d never be open to a threesome.
Everything is connected.
I make a lame joke on Twitter about Dapper Laughs and the black polo-neck sweater he wore to make a Newsnight apology for his misogynistic comedy. Dapper retweets it to his thousands of followers and the abuse comes in all night on my phone while I’m out having dinner with a friend in Wetherspoons. Of all places. My fault for making a lame joke about a polo-neck sweater. I don’t share my heartbreak about Ched Evan’s acquittal online using his name this time round.
I am 28 and I volunteer on a helpline and spend two years witnessing the pain of women; the heavy pain of the past, the stark pain of the present, the anxiety, the confusion, the injustices, the grief over a stolen life, the fear.
The fear, the fear, the fear.
A friend emails to tell me that my Facebook post about sexual violence is too extreme. I am too tired to reply.
I write optimistic articles about how we can change our culture and the vast majority of the feedback is prejudiced, narrow minded, and defensive. Nobody wants change.
I read books on sexual violence.
I become a psychotherapist so that I can help heal.
I am 30 and men explain to me areas I’ve done trainings and qualifications in and I’m supposed to listen to them and nod and be polite because at least they’re talking about it, at least they’re taking an interest.
A friend tells me that I should write about other things.
I give a speech about sexual violence and how men could help and it was posted online. In the comments sections and online forums men say that no-one likes a perpetual victim and get over it honey and what was I doing in a park at 16 with some lowlife and so on and on and on. If only they knew how full of love my heart is for the opposite gender despite it all. If only they’d read the words I had written. The president writes to me to tell me that my speech is one of ‘radical truth.’ I am dumbfounded by the word ‘radical’. I thought it was common sense.
I unfollow the Cork Sexual Violence Centre on Facebook because I can’t keep reading the daily headlines of rape and abuse and sexual assault and hung juries and suspended sentences and I feel disloyal because I think I have an obligation to bear witness to the darkest aspects of our society when so many don’t want to know.
Women, women I haven’t spoken to in years, women I speak to all the time, email me telling me about their experiences of sexual violence and I feel an anger building inside me that is in constant danger of tipping into despair. I try to harness it for good. I take the dog out for a walk.
I am 32 and I give a talk with White Ribbon Ireland to a bunch of teenagers in a school and one of the boys makes a comment to his pal about wanting to rape me and I wonder if there is any point in investing myself emotionally in an uphill battle. I tell myself not be emotionally invested but I know that’s where my energy comes from. I constantly wonder if I should be so open, if there is any point, if I am tough enough, if people are judging me or wishing I’d shut up.
I am scared of being seen as a ‘victim.’
I am 32 and nothing has happened to me in years and I hate that I feel grateful for it.
And the whooshing sound of a belt still freezes me on the inside a little.
I am 32 and I know and assert that the actions of men should have no bearing on how I am perceived. The actions of men are not mine to carry. I will keep talking about it and showing it until we all know it to be true.
I read about the concept of the mostly silent ‘other side’ and want to make it safer for others on this side to speak out and up. I want to make the everyday normal occurrence of male violence against women be an everyday normal conversation.
I am telling the truths that I kept muzzled to ensure other’s ongoing comfort at the expense of my sense of security, my healing, my liberation from the crimes.
I know and assert that the more we fling our truths out and show the whole of who we are, the fullness of who we are, the more we can lift the stigma from those experiences and the more we can dilute such a heavily stigmatised identity, the more we can shiver out of its hold, the more we can educate, enlighten, grow, make change, and radically love ourselves.
I am 32 and I am not being dramatic, or making a fuss, or looking for attention.
I am 32 and I refuse to pander.
I am 32 and I am shame free.
I am 32, 25, 13, 43, 18, 37, and I see the other side cracking open year upon year, slowly, tentatively, braver and stronger and more certain of itself with every new crack contributed.
Let us overwhelm and push light through the murk with empathy, vulnerability, compassion, heart and solidarity.
Let us not absorb the darkness.
Let us always turn towards the light, towards each other.