Before responding to every post, but this post especially, ask yourself if your response is kind. Sexual harassment can happen to anyone, though it has gendered and racial dimensions. Only the gendered dimension is (implicitly) explored here.
CW: sexual harassment
My secondary school was a fifteen minute walk from my house growing up. At the top of the road was a barbers, one I went to with a boyfriend once. Some time after that occasion, the man who worked there invited me in. Too obliging to refuse, I went in.
I remember him offering me a drink, I think he had wine. I remember him inviting me to dance, most likely the first occasion I had danced with a man. Quite soon after, I made my excuses and walked home.
I remember feeling confused. I couldn’t work out whether it was wrong (he was friendly, I didn’t mind dancing) but I knew I wouldn’t have initiated, and I knew I hadn’t felt able to say no (he was friendly, saying no would have felt like an accusation, and therefore unreasonable).
I also didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t feel like I had acted unambiguously enough for them not to be cross, or for them not to take this as reason to stop me going out. I reasoned that I hadn’t come to any harm, and so there wasn’t really anything to discuss.
This was the same reasoning I used when I didn’t tell my parents about a man in his fifties handing me a piece of paper with his name in capitals (ROBERT) and number, as we both got off the bus. “I saw you looking at me”, he said, though I hadn’t registered his presence before his approach.
The other thing that happened during this time they did know about. On my way to school, a car would slow to walking pace and a man would repeatedly ask me to get in. I told my parents at the first opportunity I had, which was the next day. I remember phoning the police, and them saying “it can’t have been that distressing if you’ve waited over 24 hours to report this”. Outraged at this suggestion, I sharply told them that wasn’t the case.
They couldn’t do anything about it they said. They did say they would note the number plate, and I should walk a different way to school. Only, these incidents were happening on my road. It happened a couple of other occasions after this, then stopped.
Other things have happened since. On one particular occasion last year, I got catcalled in the presence of a male friend who didn’t do anything, or acknowledge what had happened. Perhaps he felt too awkward. Perhaps the shock was silencing for him too.
I don’t record these incidents, I haven’t wanted to. I dislike recalling memories of powerlessness, and I dislike the power of men to have made me feel that way.
I also feel ashamed that these incidents have each impacted me, that they are formative memories. I dislike that as I have gone back to process them I still feel confusion thinking about them, and that as I remember them I still wonder at the ambiguity of my own actions and worry about being my own unreliable narrator.
These memories resurfaced this week because of a video of AOC denouncing a sexist slur used against her. Something about it prompted me to tally my own experiences only to find that what I had down in my mind as ‘a few one-offs’, can no longer be considered as such. The line has only gotten longer; the incidents are too regular.
Also new for me as I looked back this time around was that it is now over six years since the memories from secondary school, and I no longer identify as closely with who I was then. While I remember feeling adult then, all I remember now is everything I didn’t know.
And so, I have looked back angered that my reaction was often so matter-of-fact, and so focused on the management of other people’s reactions to those experiences.
I have looked back angered that men over a decade older than me felt able to approach me and indicate my desirability to them, and that they made me careful as I walked to school.
I have looked back angered that on many occasions I have depended on the confidence of a good supportive home environment, education, and sense of self to secure my safety. And that others do not have those available to them as they face the same.
Writing this post feels intensely personal. After each experience, I have wondered whether (and who) to tell. I haven’t wanted the scrutiny of others trying to determine whether I was in the wrong. At the same time (and this may seem strange) I haven’t wanted the absolution of wrongdoing to eliminate my own sense of agency and render me powerless again. It has always felt too easy to both understate or overstate.
Talking with friends in the last couple of days has been the first time I have recalled those first two memories. I can’t think of a good reason why, perhaps my silence has been a way to keep ownership of a narrative I was unsure of.
In these past couple of days I have thought of my youngest brother, who is the age I was at the time of these events. I imagine a woman in her fifties approaching him with the words “I saw you looking at me, call me” and the near-absurdity makes me burn with anger that I ever contemplated that I might have ‘sent the wrong signals’. I imagine him being invited out back of a hairdressers and an older woman trying to teach him to salsa and I burn with anger that revisiting home, I have waved a greeting to the man in that barbers more times than I have felt any anger.
And I have also felt sad. Sad that these men plausibly have no recollection of these incidents. Sad that no incidents of my harassment have ever made it into an annual crime report. And sad that I can imagine my brothers being in the presence of a female friend who gets catcalled, and them not knowing to acknowledge what has just happened to her.
I am someone who doesn’t consider myself to have suffered greatly from sexual harassment, who didn’t feel able to say #metoo for example, and yet in the process of writing this I have had to process that the content warning at the top is the term for what is recounted here.
Writing this is a way of me trusting the truth of these memories as I have them now, and to record the anger I have felt this week on behalf of my younger self, who examined her own actions far more than she considered the wrongdoing of the men who prompted them.
Previously, the bar I set for the men involved was whether it could be construed that they had acted with good intention. My own bar was whether I could prove without doubt that I hadn’t consented. Certainly in that first instance I didn’t feel I could.
This was part of the reason why encountering the critique of consent in favour of a model of coercion made so much sense to me years later.
May I ask, if you have read this far, to think about where you place the burden of proof in instances of sexual harassment? Consider changing the focus from consent to whether the person under question did everything reasonably possible to ensure the other was inhabiting the space on equal terms. (And yes, sometimes that cannot be ensured. In which case, the person under question should correspondingly be held more accountable).
Consider why you have higher tolerance for someone remaining in an organisation after an instance of sexual harassment than if they had slapped someone. Consider watching Three Girls on Netflix. Consider opening this topic with male friends and relatives and asking them what they would do if they with someone when they were catcalled.
I am now reconciled to these events and grateful to have been able to process them further this week when I didn’t know I needed to. I hope processing them here will help someone else too and start some conversations.