By Rebecca Lewis
As allegations against Oscar-winning Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein continue to dominate national media, social media and dinner conversation, the hashtag #MeToo began to open up another heart-breaking dialogue. Actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or/and assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. #metoo’
Soon, thousands of women and men were sharing their stories of assault, harassment and rape. According to Twitter, 1.7m tweets with the hashtag #MeToo had been shared in more than 85 countries. Moving tales from women of all ages, sizes, abilities and religions flooded social media with one common thread – they too had been a victim.
I don’t remember the first time I was harassed or assaulted – it has become something so ordinary and every day for me. I don’t remember when I started to change my behaviour to avoid these assaults, or change the way I dress, or where I walk or ran. But there are a couple that stick in my mind, and a few memories that I can’t shake off.
I’m fifteen, walking home from school with my uniform skirt rolled up so much it looks like I’ve got an inflatable lilo underneath my brown jumper. A man sitting on a brick wall tells me to smile, he repeats the request when I don’t, demands it for the third time, and I smile, bowing my head to let my hair fall in front of my face and hide it.
I’m seventeen, eyeliner like Amy Winehouse, and we’ve snuck into a club and we’re dancing under the blue and green lights. There’s someone’s hand on my back, and then on my bum, and then under my skirt.
I’m nineteen and emboldened by lurid blue WKD, I’ve had enough, someone’s hand is on my bum and I feel the familiar squeeze. I whip round, eyes blazing, and grab his junk, squeeze until I can’t squeeze anymore and then let go. He shouts, before his friends appear and laugh at me.
I’m twenty, walking home from a club down familiar university streets. It’s dark and late and maybe I’ve drunk too much but when he appears behind me, then beside me I know this isn’t right and I want him to leave me alone. Leave me alone, I say, and he steps in front of me, blocking my way, his hands touch my waist, my hips, grazes my crotch, then he puts his palm against my chest and pushes me back into a darkened driveway. He undoes the button of my skirt, then undoes his belt. Stop, I say, I cry, do I yell? All I see is his red polo neck top and his hands are in my knickers, they’re on my thigh, he’s undoing his jeans. Another man appears and asks what’s going on, but he can see I’m crying and red polo neck man’s jeans are undone and my skirt has ridden up, has been pushed up, around my hips. My saviour yells at the man who’s had his hands under my skirt and then takes me home.
Four days later, still twenty, I’m at a house party with my gobbiest, loudest friend when I spot the man in the red polo neck top. That’s him, I say, and my gobby, loud friend, marches me to him and yells at him. He looks at her, then at me, and in between draws of a cigarette denies touching me. Rage builds inside me, from my feet to my knees, through my hips and waist where I can still feel his hands on me and I shout, I scream, I yell. He’s tall, the three male friends he’s with are taller, and they all look at me, 5”1 and shaking, and start to laugh. I turn on my heel and retreat as my loud, gobby friend yells at him again and again.
I’m twenty-one, there’s a story about a rapist on university campus, there’s talk of an epidemic of sexual assault, and I think about that night with the red polo neck man and wonder if I should have told someone. But I was twenty, and I’d had vodka Red Bulls for £1.50 and I was in that tiny dress I’d bought from Primark that afternoon, and no one would believe me anyway.
I’m twenty-two, dancing in a warehouse to Ashanti and four men my age, men who look like they could be my friends, or my friends’ friends, or my friends’ boyfriends, are staring at me, smirking and leering and pointing. I walk past them to get a drink and one thrusts his hands under my skirt, finds his way into my knickers, and pushes his fingers inside of me. It’s over in a few seconds and I turn and stare at him. It’s only later, when he starts throwing homophobic abuse at my two gay friends kissing, do I find the courage of a man twice my size and start to hit him, punching his chest, his arm, anywhere that I can reach.
I’m twenty-six and we meet in a pub after swiping right on an app two days before. He buys me a drink and four hours later we’re in his bed, he’s on top of me and his hands are around my neck. ‘Stop’, I say, but the word dies in my throat, is squeezed out of me by his fingers and the next morning brown and purple bruises pepper my skin.
I’m twenty-eight and I’m in a changing room, trying on a slinky top with a low-cut neck. I think of sitting on the bus with that top and can feel eyes on me as if a dozen men are in the room, all bigger than life-size, their stares leaving physical marks on my cleavage. I buy the one with a higher neck and sleeves. I’m twenty-eight and pretending to be Beyoncé in a dimly lit bar, I feel a squeeze on my bum and so I tell my friend I’m going home. I’m twenty-eight and I lace up my trainers to run. In between my own haggard gasps a man leans out of his car window and yells about my chest. I turn up the volume on my phone so the next time all I hear is Nicki Minaj. I’m twenty-eight and I’m terrified of sending intimate pictures to my boyfriend in case he grows to hate me and uses them against me.
I’m twenty-eight and a man my age asks ‘but do we need feminism anymore?’.