Please forgive this deeply personal post – it’s been fermenting a long time and now is the time to post it, if ever. It’s longer than my usual pieces – but shorter than it could have been by many miles.
I was 17 when my then boyfriend, a year older than me, went off to college in London.
As a good Catholic girl with a strict upbringing, I wasn’t allowed to visit him for fear of – well, you know what.
At Christmas, or on one of his trips home – I can’t honestly remember – he told me about some ‘friends’ who’d been refilling the condom machine in the student union.
They’d decided, for fun, to stick a pin through them before filling the machine.
I was horrified. And so, I like to think, was he.
We are talking about a time when to become pregnant, if unmarried, was likely to ruin a female’s life.
Just a year or two later a girl from my school, who had gone to university, became pregnant. Her father – a doctor – disowned her.
But back to me.
I had my first wolf whistle when I was 16, in Norwich, volunteering on a dig. I was walking to work, wearing a yellow vest-top and jeans. And I was shocked.
My first thought was, I’d better wear a shirt over it tomorrow.
OK, so when you’re in your forties (those were the days) and still get occasional catcalls it’s kind of reassuring, but I can’t say it’s welcome.
Moving on. Me in my early twenties. New graduate, working in a library.
I have a ‘serious’ boyfriend who thinks it’s fine to rape me as I sleep.
‘Asleep?’ you may wonder. ‘In the same bed? Is that really rape? Hmm, not sure about that. And anyway, surely because she was there it implied…’
Let us be clear. I did not give my consent.
I was not drunk, nor was I drugged. I was asleep.
He used me. Without my permission.
What about that is not rape?
There was no violence, but that’s not a prerequisite for rape.
I found out when I awoke next morning. I had to get on my bike and go to work, knowing that he had used me. Abused me.
I felt ashamed – yes, ashamed. I felt dirty, upset, disgusted. But I was supposed to be flattered. Oh, yes, I was just so irresistible he couldn’t resist pleasuring himself in my sleep.
At least I didn’t become pregnant.
I’ve tried to write about this so many times now I’ve lost count.
I’ve tried to set it in various wider contexts which outrage me.
The general shrugging off of the horrendous statistics for rape in this country, for example.
In the year to June reported rapes have gone up in England and Wales by 22% to 45,100. Bad enough – but it’s well known that rape is a hugely under-reported crime.
The annual Crime Survey of England and Wales arguably paints a more accurate picture, suggesting around 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales every year. Figures which don’t include children.
Now, if 7000 or more armed robberies or murders were happening every month, instead of rapes, what do you suppose would happen? Outrage?
But, back to younger me. And skip forward to London. My first serious job.
Walking home one night, I stopped at a phone box in a nice neighbourhood, in the north of the city, to make a call.
There were no mobile phones. And no phone in the room I rented.
As I listened to ringing at the other end of the line the door behind me opened.
A man pushed into the box and the door swung shut.
Luckily for me a couple walking a dog came to the rescue and my attacker ran off.
Did I report it?
No. What would I report?
It was just the kind of thing that happened. A young woman out alone at night. What do you expect?
Then there was the taxi.
Leaving Ronnie Scott’s – a famous jazz club – after 2 am. No night buses, no tubes.
And cabs weren’t willing to go beyond four miles north.
One finally took me to a rank at a mainline station – where taxi after taxi left me standing. I grew colder and more desperate, turned to the rest of the queue, asked if anyone was going in my direction.
One man was.
Youngish, in a bobble hat. A bit like Mike Nesmith of the Monkees. With a frayed bandage on his arm. I can still see him now.
The next taxi took us.
As we sped north, he leapt on me. Thrust his tongue in my mouth.
I shoved him off, asked the taxi driver to stop.
He did. And after a lecture on never, ever doing such a stupid thing again, he waited as I walked to my door, put in the key and shut it behind me.
I was young. But believe me, it doesn’t stop as you get older. Just when you think your age is an armour of sorts, you find tradesmen mistaking a cheery demeanour and cups of tea for an invitation.
It’s very, very depressing.
One post I read this week pointed out that this problem is often regarded – if it is regarded at all – as a women’s problem.
Women are raped.
Women suffer domestic violence.
Men – many of them – rape.
Men – many of them – are violent.
Men violate women.
Not all men – and not all women. But many.*
And they almost always get away with it.
Bear in mind we’re not just talking about ‘minor’ things such as a pat on the behind, a leering catcall or an ‘accidental’ brush of the hand on a breast.
We’re talking about men sticking their penises in women (and men) without their consent.
Why do they get away with it?
Too many reasons to enumerate. But I can tell you the victim’s shame is one of them.
It’s time a large part of our society – men – not only took notice, but responsibility for doing something.
I saw a letter to a quality newspaper, responding to the Harvey Weinstein story, highlighting how women use flirtation to get ahead in life. As if that’s comparable.
But flirtation is not an invitation to rape or molestation.
And a man can ignore it if he chooses.
So let’s not go down that or any other diversionary route, shall we?
It’s not a women’s problem or women’s fault.
Men who rape are criminals.
And thousands of them not only get away with it, we women shrug it off, knowing we will face at the very least disgusted looks, at worst the shame and intrusive questioning of our morals and habits.
There’s plenty more to say – about that fuzzy line between compliments and harassment, for example.
But I suggest we start with rape. And violence. That’s pretty non-controversial, isn’t it?
And as domestic-abuse statistics rise, why not consider all those domestic violence units that are having to close?*
It’s time for the world to man up, in a good way.
Men – and most especially, men in power – over to you.
* I was criticised on a previous occasion when I wrote about rape for saying ‘men rape women’ by a man who said he didn’t. I shouldn’t generalise, he implied. Well, fine, I didn’t say all men did. But it’s not women doing the raping and the statistics are horrendous.
* The police recorded 511,319 offences that were domestic abuse-related in the year ending June 2017, a 18% increase on the 431,768 offences recorded the previous year.