Have you seen the Twitter hashtag Not okay (#notokay)? I came across it via a friend’s link on Facebook and clicked through from a mixture of anti-Trump sentiment and prurient curiosity about other womens’ experiences. Yes. I admit it. I was smugly voyeuristic as I read through horrifying account after horrifying account, each of them summed up into a neat 140 characters or fewer, because I was one of the rare, the lucky few, who had never been assaulted.
I searched through my memory banks and nope, it was true, I had never been univitedly, inappropriately touched. I felt sorry for all these poor women, but I was not one of them. I felt anger at the men who had taken advantage and assaulted them, but I had nobody specific to direct it at. I even remembered feeling vaguely disappointed (as a naive and, it would seem, rather stupid, teen) that I had never been hit on or had my bottom pinched when out and about of an evening.
I tried to remember some of my nights out when I was that age. I experienced a long period of ill health in my late teens/early twenties that precluded much of a social life, so this was easier than it might otherwise have been. Nights at the local watering hole, the odd club with friends, a trip to a Salsa club with my friend visiting from Brazil… hang on a second.
I remembered the dress I was wearing (black, clingy, with a ruffled hem). I remembered the drinks we were having (Caipirihnas. Delicious). I remembered the men I had danced with – men who could salsa and taught me the basic steps then twirled me round the floor until I felt like an extra in Dirty Dancing. Then I remembered one man. His dark dark skin, his amazing dance moves, his Goan accent, his erection being rubbed against me no matter how much I tried to pull away. His hands holding onto my wrists when I tried to make excuses to get off the dance floor and back to my friend. My embarrassed humiliation when I explained it away to myself afterwards. I was 17 and I felt like I had been asking for it because I was dancing, because I had a push-up bra on, because I had a vagina – who knows. I just remember feeling hotly embarrassed by the memory for a few weeks and then I forgot it. I forgot it until yesterday. I forgot it until I realised that, yes, probably #AllWomen.
And now I feel that way again. Embarrassed, foolish, on the verge of tears, humiliated because I was so smug, so pitying, so gleefully ‘apart’ from all these victimised women. But here’s the truth, the hidden thing that allows this disgusting abuse to be perpetrated against woman after woman even in our so-called enlightened Western society: we’re completely and utterly programmed to just accept it. To view it as so normal that we write off our own feelings in order to normalise it.
We’re brought up to be objects and people pleasers so we’re pleased when we’re treated as objects and we subjugate our own feelings to other peoples’ pleasures. We even lock it up tight in a box in our head, make it smaller by comparing it to others’ experiences: “well at least it wasn’t as bad as X”, and smaller still by minimising the harm done: “he didn’t actually hurt me”, as if hurt done to our self-worth and our burgeoning sexuality isn’t worth categorising. Then, when it’s as small as we can possibly make it, we squash it down into a dark little box in the recesses of our mind and the only remnant left is a lingering wariness of unlit streets, of crowded dance floors, of men we don’t know, or men we thought we knew, or men offering to do us a favour for no good reason.
I told my husband about this memory, watched his face twist up as he pictured our daughter in 16 years time being ground against by a stranger’s erect penis, watched his fists clench as he felt the powerlessness of the father. I was halfway through my monologue on how foolish I felt, making myself out to be exempt from this casual abuse when I realised there was another, more frightening incident, stored away on the same back shelves of my mind as the dancefloor one.
I was 18 and alone in Florence, staying for a month on a sort of mini gap year. So fucking innocent and stupid I was wandering the streets at 10 o’clock at night, exploring the city in a mindless sort of dérive. I was on a bridge, watching the Arno flow restlessly under me, reflecting back the city’s lights in a shimmering magic when a stranger came up behind me and put his arms either side of me. Trapped within the enclosure of his body I froze in fright, thinking only enough to murmur “Basta” – “enough” – which was not nearly enough to cool his ardour. I was just beginning to panic when a girl came barrelling up to me exclaiming “there you are!”. Taking my arm in hers she led me away to where her friend was waiting, talking nine to the dozen all the way. I had never met her before in my life.
At the time I felt grateful for her quick-thinking rescue and her boldness in interrupting when so many others might have left well alone. I thought I had escaped an intensely uncomfortable situation. Looking back with the wisdom of fifteen years I suspect she rescued me from far worse. As with the other incident I had suppressed this memory so completely that I didn’t even realise it was there at all. So completely, in fact, that there are missing bits and there are bits that make no sense. I hope (unrealistically, perhaps) that she might read this, the girl who was in Florence 15 years ago and rescued a stranger on a bridge and know how very grateful I am for her act of sisterhood.
I wanted to end this with some kind of stirring incitement for all women to protect each other from the predators of the world, but not only did it sound trite, but it misses the point entirely. It’s Not okay that women are treated like this and that they are conditioned not to challenge it, but I can’t see that changing until heinous hate speak, like that spewing from the craw of the Misogynist, Trump, stops being discounted as some kind of harmless banter under the guise of ‘locker room’ talk. What the fuck? Stop denying that sexual assault is what it is. It’s. Not okay.