I was walking home at the end of a long week when I remembered that one of the boys I knew as a child had touched me without my consent.
I say this nonchalantly because that’s exactly how it felt – a dull awakening, a dimmed bulb slowly brightening rather than a real ‘lightbulb moment’.
When I got home I put my tea in the oven and went into the spare room where I keep all of my primary and secondary school diaries in an old suitcase. I dug out a couple that I thought were roughly around the right date and looked through them while balancing on the edge of the bed. There it was in my 11-year-old scrawl:
14th March 2003: “James* is up to his usual tricks but this time it’s a bit worse. We were taking photos with my mobile and he started sitting next to me and sort of squeezing my bum. He even put his finger down my back.”
16th March 2003: “He kept doing it again today. He was practically asking me to sit on his hand. He puts it right down my trousers and feels the edge of my knickers. But every time some adult came near he flinched and acted all innocent.”
6th April 2003: “We stood together and he was practically fingering me. His hands were right down the FRONT of my pants – yea, I know. He felt my boobs too – he was squeezing them.”
James was three years older than me and his parents ran the youth club that I went to – a horny boy in what I guess was a kind of position of power. According to my entries, he did this with several of the other girls, too – and I was sad when he gave them attention and not me. Does that mean I was complicit? I talked a lot about boys I fancied, and wondered if he would be my first real boyfriend. Does that mean I consented?
Remembering James and what he did knocked me for six. I had never blocked it out in the psychological sense, but the huge media coverage of recent sexual abuse allegations and the rise of the hashtag #MeToo made me re-evaluate my sexual experiences – every cat call, every grope in a club, and every intimate partner. In my mind, I rifled through those moments that had I left by the wayside of my memory – not because they were too small to be upset by, but because they were so normal.
What recent weeks have shown is that we all know someone with a story – one they haven’t told because it’s just “part of life”. I guess this was mine. Now, what do I do with it?
The reality of assault among children
A report published in October 2017 revealed the shocking number of schoolchildren who deal with sexual harrassment and assault from fellow pupils. Schools are under no legal obligation to report these incidents (only ones by a teacher on a pupil) suggesting that we’ve barely scratched the surface of what a lack of sex and relationships education is doing to the UK’s young people.
I wish I could say that I think times have changed since my 2003 diary entries, but I’m honestly not convinced. This year a girl had to share a classroom with a boy who had raped her. Boys under the age of criminal responsibility are routinely not charged for sexual assaults. If anything, offences are going up, not down.
So where does this leave me?
Many women suffer from PTSD, flashbacks, and have trouble forming relationships after a sexual assault. I suppose that makes me one of the lucky ones.
And of course this experience is miniscule in comparison to others that have happened to women I know and love. But most of us don’t simply have one, life-defining sexual assault. It’s the tiny micro-aggressions, the little comments, the gender stereotypes that become life-defining. It’s the belief so many of us have that institutionalised sexism and misogyny are something to grin and bear for the sake our of careers, our families and our emotional wellbeing.
It sickens me that we’ve had such an outpouring of assault allegations over the past few weeks, but in some ways I’m proud and relieved that women are starting to feel they can speak out. Only by opening the floodgates – by acknowledging the crimes we thought were petty as well as the violence and the rapes – can we stand any chance of changing things.
*Names have been changed