Growing up, feminism felt like a dirty word. I agreed with the principles (whether I realised it or not) but calling yourself a feminist seemed like admitting you were an extremist. The aggressive stereotype had scared me off. Utterly stupid of course because feminism is just about women and men being treated equally, which is a basic human right.
Nonetheless, I ignorantly would never have called myself a feminist and thought women who took great offence to being pinched on the arse in bars or whistled at by builders were overreacting. Sure, it’s annoying but it’s just part of life. It happens to everyone. There’s nothing we can do about it so why bother getting angry?
But then, I had my own #metoo encounter and it truly opened my eyes.
It was a cold winter Saturday and I was training for a half marathon. Dressed head to toe in lycra, I dragged my beer belly for a long run. FYI, I run like a distressed penguin that has recently soiled itself. It’s not a good look.
Anyway, I was “running” alongside a river when I suddenly felt someone grab my (rather flat) arse. It was an unmistakable, full-on grope. I was momentarily taken aback, then quickly realised that the culprit was on a bicycle and had now gone past me.
I ran behind the bike until we got to a pedestrian crossing. Not keen to stand next to the groper whilst waiting for the lights, I ran around the passing cars and continued on the other side of the road. Then I realised what a colossal idiot I had been. The arse-fondling cretin was now behind me again.
Realising that I would soon be leaving the city and running through a fairly secluded path for the next few miles, I quickly calculated my options in case he decided to follow me. For the next 30 seconds, I kept looking over my shoulder. Eventually, he caught up and as he rode past I jumped onto a nearby embankment. He looked me up and down and grunted before riding down a nearby street.
Yes, it was strange and yes for a few moments I was quietly panicking, but it was just the normal “worst case scenario” calculations that all women do instinctively and on a regular basis. By the time I got home, I didn’t think too much of it. I wrote it off as a strange encounter with a dickhead on a bike.
Over the next few days, I shared the incident with family and friends. It was just an “it would only happen to me” anecdote until my father persuaded me to report it to the police, in case it was relevant to an investigation. Eventually, I did my civic duty, gave the best description I could and thought nothing more of it.
Soon after, I received a call from a detective who informed me that it was indeed related to another investigation. He was a previously convicted rapist who they believe had assaulted another woman a few weeks earlier. She had failed to identify him but if I could, then they would arrest him for sexual assault.
I went down to the police station, gave a statement and identified the man. He was afforded the luxury of picking his own line-up which consisted of several men who looked almost identical. But as soon as I saw his face, I knew it was him. He had a general aura of evil and deviancy about him that I still struggle to put into words.
Delighted with my identification, the police pressed on with the case. I was now required to testify in court.
The court case was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Both my sisters had taken time off work to accompany me. My parents wanted to come but I didn’t want my dad (quite possibly the nicest man on earth) to be in the same room as the rapist who groped his daughter, especially as he was the one who persuaded me to report it. Though I’m glad he made me do it, I knew he felt guilty for the anxiety it caused me. I didn’t need that extra worry whilst on the stand.
The courtroom was small and intimate. I could see the face of every single person in there, including my sisters in the gallery and the rapist, five meters away.
The stand was small and I was physically boxed in with a microphone. Every single sound I made was amplified. Every nervous voice quiver, every time I swallowed my own spit, every time I sniffed to stop the tear-induced snot from flowing down my face was audible to the entire court, including the rapist.
The whole experience was very unpleasant thanks to the defence lawyer’s aggressive questioning and the fact that a convicted rapist was staring at me. I hardly ever cry and I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve cried in front of other human beings, but even I couldn’t help myself. The whole situation was horrible and I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my face. I can only imagine how hard that must have been for my sisters to watch.
The lawyer’s questioning was ridiculously dramatic and I felt very stupid and small as a result, which I guess is the effect he was going for. I felt like an absolute dickhead. As the jury were not yet aware of his previous convictions, to them I just seemed like a stupid young girl blubbering on the stand because somebody had grabbed her arse.
The questioning ended quite abruptly as the court was adjourned. I was told to return the next day.
Day two was worse.
I had only been on the stand for about twenty minutes on the first day. The second day was closer to an hour. The lawyer continued with his aggressive questioning, asking me what I did for a living and whether attention to detail was important in my job.
I knew exactly what he was doing. The only ‘hole’ in the case was my description of the accused’s clothing. When I reported it, several days after the event, they had asked me to specify his clothing. I remembered that he was wearing a jacket and a hat. When pushed, I had said he was wearing a navy jacket and a baseball cap. He was, in fact, wearing a black leather jacket and a trilby.
Despite the fact that the second half of events were caught on camera (me jumping out of the way), this was the central point of the defence case. He was dramatically building up to this big reveal.
He made me watch footage of myself running on CCTV (which, considering my unorthodox running style, was not something I enjoyed doing in public) and then made me re-confirm the description I had given. The climax of his questioning was bringing the accused’s clothing over and asking me to hold them up.
I immediately jumped back in the stand. It was a knee-jerk reaction. It may sound trivial but the thought of holding his clothes made me feel physically sick. It still makes my skin crawl. Thankfully, the judge could see how disturbed I was and reasoned with the lawyer that it wasn’t necessary for me to physically hold up the garments to make his point.
That’s the last thing I remember from the case. By this point, I was crying and visibly shaking. I felt like I had been on trial. I’d been made to feel ridiculous and pathetic. I’d been made to feel as though I was making a fuss about nothing, like I was lying. I was beaten down. I was broken. I just wanted to get out of there.
The next day, I was informed that he had been found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison.
There are many things I learnt from this experience but the biggest lesson for me was re-evaluating how we as a society view sexual assault and harassment.
I had long been aware that rape and assault cases were notoriously difficult to prove and that the victims were often questioned as if they were on trial themselves. If someone like me (known by friends and family as strong and determined) was reduced to tears, then how badly affected would a more vulnerable person be? Despite not being traumatised by the assault itself, the aftermath affected me for years afterwards. I can only imagine the horrifying effect this process would have on someone who was violently attacked, raped or traumatised in the first place.
The part that really changed my outlook, however, was noticing the way in which I described the events. When I was telling the story, I’d always explain that I was dressed head to toe in lycra and not in skimpy shorts… as if that would have made his act acceptable or justifiable? That somehow if I was scantily clad or a more attractive runner, I would be giving him permission to grope me?
I also noticed that I brushed off that innate sense of panic after he grabbed me as just a normal part of life. Had I not been persuaded to report the matter, I would have thought it was just another thing that women simply have to put up with.
This made me realise that in my then 23 years, I had been assaulted and harassed several times before that day but had dismissed it as part of being a woman. Most of my friends have been assaulted and yet none of us have said anything, fearing that we’d look silly or pedantic. Or worse, not even realised that we had in fact been assaulted. I almost didn’t report my incident because I thought I’d be wasting police time. We’ve been conditioned to think that unless we’ve been beaten up or raped, it’s not a big deal.
Years later, I was informed of his release from prison. It had been a long time since the court case and I now lived on the other side of the world. I thought I was over it but the news had a surprisingly strong effect on me. I couldn’t sleep that night and on my commute to work the next day, I burst into tears.
It was undoubtedly the worst experience of my life but I would do it all over again. Even if I stopped him from hurting just one person, it was worth it.
Since my feminist awakening, I’ve noticed how truly rotten our society is when it comes to the treatment of women. Even when we’re not assaulted or harassed, we are repeatedly objectified and we rarely say anything out of fear of seeming ‘difficult’.
We’ve been brainwashed to believe that we have to put up with it, that it’s normal to be grabbed in a bar or accosted in the street. We’ve pushed that uneasy feeling it gives us to the back of our minds and convinced ourselves that we’re just overreacting.
It’s not OK.
We have to keep reporting these things, however trivial we think they might be. All of these seemingly small incidents add up to a much bigger problem.
We have to speak up. We have to fight back. We have to make it clear that it’s not acceptable.
It took a convicted rapist to make me realise that we deserve better. It’s on us to make sure that future generations of women don’t ever need to use the words ‘me too’.