A close friend of mine wrote on his Instagram story recently, “I’m imagining how it feels for women to see their male friends not fighting this is similar to what it would have felt like if my white friends didn’t support BLM last year. Luckily most of them did, let’s see that same energy.’’ In response, I send a little ‘clapping emoji’, and he immediately replied, “Your turn for an article ain’t it?” and I smiled, because he’s right.
Not only do I write articles for a living but last summer, I encouraged him to speak about his truth and publish it, and here he was returning the favour at the exact time I needed the push. Little did he know that after a long week of seeing my news feed fill up with unsurprising stats and unnecessary debates’ following the awful news of Sarah Everard’s murder, one of the things on my mind was some words that I had scrambled together whilst upset about a year and a half ago. When I finished writing them, I immediately hid them away because I never thought anyone would care to read it, or worse, I thought people would just read what I had experienced and tell me I was being overdramatic and should just get over it. In that moment he offered me something that I didn’t realise I had been longing for, which was to know that someone wanted to hear my story, and so here it is.
I still feel guilty that I did not report the man wearing a hi-vis jacket who cycled past me and grabbed my ass while I was walking between campuses. It was 2016 and at the time I didn’t even think it was an option to report something like that. I didn’t know it was a crime or that it was considered assault, especially when I compared it to other more serious crimes. As a 20-year-old university student, it didn’t cross my mind that the police would need to know nor care about it. It was before the Me Too movement, and like most women, already in my two decades of life I had experienced many incidents of men harassing and assaulting me, whether it be in a club, shop, park, or the street. It was common enough practice that I had come to accept that this was just the dangerous reality of being female in this society.
Overall from my experiences of interacting with strange men, it’s more common they say intimidating things or try to scare me, without actually touching me. Of course that is an ordeal of its own, but the moments where a stranger has the audacity to cross the line and physically touch you, brings with it an entirely new sense of dread. One that I have never been able to shake. My initial reaction when this man touched my ass and then smirked at me as he peddled away, was anger, and then I felt ashamed, and then I felt angry that I felt ashamed. I replayed the moment in my mind a lot in the months that followed, thinking about how I wish I could have ripped that asshole off his bike and hit him. I guess you could say I have some anger issues, but why wouldn’t I?
Of course, life goes on and I tried to put the incident behind me and not let anyone realise how much it still bothered me. Then about a year later, I came across an old news report that sunk my heart into my gut. They had caught a man that had been riding around on a bike, wearing a hi-vis jacket and assaulting women all around the city. In total he had assaulted 17 women including a child as young as 11-years-old, and those are just the ones who came forward. Five years later and I often think about how that poor girl was approached and assaulted on her way to school, and how I was not part of the solution that could have stopped that from happening to others. I carry guilt for that, even though I’m not the man who did it. I would even hazard a guess that I probably carry more guilt than that man will ever feel, because I failed to help protect a young girl and now she has to carry the scars of being female far younger than she should have.
I guess you could say, that since I didn’t come forward I can’t know for definite that the man who assaulted them, was the same man who did it to me. But if watching crime shows has taught me anything it’s that there were some consistent MOs like the bike, hi-vis jacket and it happened during the time when police were getting reports from the other women. Then again, there is the sad reality that two perverts could easily be operating in the same city at the same time. After all, 97% of young women have reported being sexually harassed, and it definitely isn’t just one man going around doing it all.
If you want to hear the saddest truth of it all, it’s the fact that I just lied to myself while writing this because it still hurts to admit that the moment after it happened, I didn’t initially feel anger, I felt lucky. I knew that it could have been so much worse if he had decided to get off his bike and attack me while I was alone in the dark, walking the pathway between the university campuses. Not only was I thankful that this man had ‘mercy’ on me, but I felt like I was to blame because of the situation I had put myself in. Silly me for trying to get an education in the winter right?
In 2019 I was starting out in the adult world with my first proper job in Birmingham. Since I was a kid I have always loved biking and the freedom you feel when the wind blows through your hair, and so I was excited to have a bike again to get to and from the train station everyday. For the next few months, my commute was the most therapeutic and enjoyable part of my day. Biking to work gave me a burst of energy in the morning, and then it also gave me a chance to unwind on my way home after work – I was very happy.
But all that changed one mid-spring morning. The weather had turned overnight and there was no sign of the 7:30am sunshine but instead dark clouds and grey skies – I guess you could say it was foreboding. Regardless of the weather, I’m of course, a grown woman and I have a job to do. I need to get from A to B and that bike was my way to do that. So, I go my usual route which cuts through a public park. It has a few open fields, a play-park and is usually filled with dog walkers around this time in the morning.
But not this morning, this morning there was just me. That was until I saw a man start to emerge from the play area near the cycle path. Now my long distance eyesight is poor, but I could tell that the guy noticed I was coming his way, and so he started walking on the path in the same direction as I was going. Annoyingly, he placed himself smack bang in the middle of the path so I could not easily fit by him either side. Of course, I was a bit peeved that he was being inconsiderate and as I got closer I decided to steer off the path and onto the grass to avoid brushing up next to him altogether. Again, I feel lucky that my instincts led me to create space between us, because as I passed him, he reached out and tried to yank me off the bike. In that moment, my only saving grace was the fact I was just far enough away that he missed out on the chance to get his hands on me. And even though he only grazed me, I could tell what force he was planning to yank me off my bike, and that alone gave me this horrible gut-wrenching feeling.
Immediately, I was in shock, but stupidly, my initial thought was ‘perhaps I have misread the situation?’ because for some reason, us females are conditioned to think that even when someone is trying to literally attack us, perhaps it is somehow our fault for misunderstanding their intentions. When I turned my head back to eye up what this guy was doing, his face made it abundantly clear that I had not misread anything. He stared me down like I was prey, and I felt a wave of fucking terror fall over me. It’s years later and I still feel haunted by his unnerving stare, knowing that without question, he meant me harm if he got his hands on me.
He started running towards me with every intention of trying again, and I peddled faster than the bike was bloody capable of going because I needed to get the hell out of there. After gaining some distance, I pulled some courage together and looked back, even though I didn’t ever want to see that face again. I needed to know if what happened really just happened, and I had a paranoid feeling that he was still right behind me. He wasn’t. He was still on the path pursuing me, but I had gotten far enough away that he was not going to catch up. Even with my terrible vision, I could see that he was still looking directly at me, and I could feel his glare burning into my skin.
I never cycled that way again. For weeks afterwards I got a lift to and from the station everyday because I was too scared to cycle anymore. He stole from me my favourite part of the day and I felt pathetic for letting him do that. The whole incident still makes me feel so ashamed and weak, and again I’m considered ‘lucky’ because I got out of there untouched. Do you know how twisted it is to be brought up in a society that teaches you to feel grateful for the times when a man spares you?
When I told my boyfriend what had happened, he insisted on picking me up from the train station that evening when I finished work. Of course, I tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal, just like I had acted about every incident of harassment and assault that I had ever experienced. But this time I couldn’t hold it in, I burst out crying on the car ride home, because for the first time I had someone who offered me a safe space to react honestly, without having to keep my guard up and pretend that this type of shit is okay. I was exhausted from years of being made to feel scared and I still am.
In this case, I am lucky, because for some people, nowhere is a safe space to let it out. For many of us, we have to bottle up these incidents and carry the weight of what someone else chose to do on our shoulders for our entire lives. The world just expects us to adjust ourselves to accommodate for their actions. It shouldn’t be that way, and it’s our collective responsibility as a society to change the narrative, and give everyone a safe space to open up.
When I told my brother what happened at the park, he immediately ordered me some pepper spray to attach to my keys. To this day I now carry the pepper spray in my purse everywhere I go and for a while I would even carry it up my sleeve whenever I walked anywhere by myself. Even going five minutes around the corner to the local shops, I would have my finger resting on the button because I never wanted to be caught off guard again. I still never leave home without pepper spray, except when going abroad because I was pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to get it through airport security – but if I could, then I would have taken it too. As time passes between incidents the overwhelming sense of dread starts to dull whenever I am tasked with going anywhere alone. But sometimes I still have this random wave of terror sweep over me, because I know the next incident could happen at any time, and it could be worse than the last. Some might call that paranoia, but most women would just call it lived experience.
Now it’s 2021 and I can’t fully enjoy a walk or bike ride alone. Every time I try to go out by myself, those memories and others like them are the first thing that comes into my mind. I’m forced to shake it off and tell myself that I’m just being silly, it probably won’t happen again today. And to be fair, sometimes I’m right, but sometimes I’m wrong.
Everyday my job as a journalist is to write and tell other people’s stories and it’s my passion too. Yet for years I didn’t want to tell these types of stories, because of the backlash women get for talking about these everyday incidents of sexual harassment and assault. The one thing you get taught early on as a female is the world won’t protect us, because the men in it refuse to hold each other to account and they refuse to change the narrative, so we have to work around that. When we speak up, we get blamed. I know that some people reading this will say it was my fault for walking in the dark between uni campuses and that it was my fault for biking in the early morning without many people around in the park. Other people will read this and say that I can’t possibly be so scarred by a couple of close encounters where nothing really happened.
But that’s the point, I’m not choosing to share my worst experiences with men, I’m sharing just a few examples of moments that caught me off guard, to show you that even the ‘untouched’ incidents disrupt how you live. Men whether you like it or not, you have been part of creating a culture of fear which makes even essential things like going to work or university a safety issue for us. Women are expected to accept the risk your gender poses and get blamed when things go wrong, because we should have known better. But that’s not good enough, men should know better, do better, be better.
For the 97% women and all the survivors of assault and harassment, I want to offer you the same thing my friend offered me, to hear that someone wants to hear your story, if you want to tell it. Perhaps if we all decide to put the blame, shame and guilt back on the culprits themselves, and work to shine a torch on the seedy shadows of society, then together we’ll be able to create a constant daylight that lets us walk outside safely, no matter what the weather.