The things you wish you didn’t have to say

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Last weekend, amongst the wonderful events of ScienceGrrl’s celebration of International Women’s Day, something happened that broke my heart. I’m a fairly resilient soul, so I don’t say that lightly, but it’s a long time since I’ve felt such gut-wrenching pain and anger.

On Friday night, I found myself sitting around the dinner table with three very good friends after the end of a long day, one that had been productive and tiring-in-a-positive-way. The mood was incongruously subdued. We were talking, with some difficulty, about the other girls’ experiences of sexual assault. Michelle had been violently assaulted only the day before, and had just returned from reporting the attack to the police. She was exhausted and still somewhat in shock. Ellie had been accosted by a frotteur on the Tube back in August 2011, but two days previously had returned to the very same train carriage to dance in protest against the casual sexual abuse she and so many women suffer on the Tube. She was worn out after a week of publicly protesting and dealing with the media attention and the comments of supporters and idiots alike on-line. Anna opened up about men touching her inappropriately as she travelled on the Tube, and whilst standing at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial (of all places!) when she was just 14.

I was inspired that these women felt able to speak, and had also done so publicly through social media. Toooften women feel shamed into silence when such things happen, but speaking out not only highlights the problem and rallies support for those who have suffered abuse (and against their abusers) but also puts the power back in the hands of the woman, who now feels able to share her experience rather than feeling it is a guilty, dirty secret she must take to the grave. Project Unbreakable is achieving similar things for victims of rape.

Yet I had nothing to say. No experience to draw on to summon the right words, the necessary empathy. I should have felt grateful that I’ve never experienced sexual abuse, instead I felt so deeply saddened that this is such a common occurrence. Three quarters of the women at the table that night had.

Society may look at us, look at them, and look at me, and draw its own conclusions. I’m older, less attractive, less jovial, married, Northern. But that would infer that these beautiful women are somehow at fault, have somehow encouraged this invasion of privacy, this theft of intimacy; that they somehow deserve what they have suffered and there is a set of circumstances that would justify their abuse. I stand solidly against that, and shoulder-to-shoulder with my friends.

The worst thing is that not only does society often blame women for abuse and rape, but the criminal justice system often fails to side with the victim. Too few abuse and rape cases ever lead to conviction, and the process of taking these cases to court can often leave the woman feeling like they have been abused and raped all over again, with nothing to show for it. Whilst I appreciate it is often difficult to prove these offences in a court of law, it is of no comfort to know that your country’s legal system cannot (or perhaps, will not) leap to your aid if you suffer in this way.

It could just as easily have been me. Pondering their experience, I couldn’t help but look back on all the times I’d walked home by myself, travelled solo, or chosen to trust a man enough to spent time alone with him. All the times I’d made myself vulnerable. I looked again at these freedoms, so innocently embraced and accepted, with suspicion and fear, and a feeling of intense vulnerability. I recalled the chapters from The Women’s Room (the feminist classic by Marilyn French) which tell of Chris’s rape, how the police and courts responded, and the reaction of her mother, Val – from fury, to detachment, to misandry and self-imposed exile from patriarchal society in an attempt rediscover her sanity. I realised the deep, raging sadness I felt for Michelle, Anna and Ellie that night could so easily poison me too, I could so easily descend into a paranoid half-life, avoiding any situation that could be considered risky, and looking upon all the men in my life as would-be abusers, would-be rapists.

Fortunately for me (and my friendships with those wonderful men), I didn’t spend too long in that dark place. You can’t afford to when you have sons. You have to believe that there are a lot of good men out there, and that your boys will grow up to join them. I can testify that there are plenty – those who have walked me home, shepherded me to train stations and into cabs, and kept a respectful distance when they so easily couldn’t have done. I will raise Lars and Bryn to do the same. Every boy should be brought up knowing that no matter how short her skirt is, how drunk she is, what you’ve already said and done, wherever she finds herself alone – a woman’s body is her own and no-one else has any right to it without her express permission.

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