Magic is a shift in perception, they say. There’s been a lot of magic around lately as my female friends, colleagues and peers have started to feel like it’s OK to share their experiences of being a female in London. It’s been sad to read how we as women have adapted to avoid certain male-bodied beings, who had either stalked, harassed or assaulted us.
So it was a strange twist of fate that in the middle of this mass disclosure of female experience, that a man attacked me in my local park last week. I was going to see a house to buy, walking in broad daylight through a leafy area where kids play and mums gathered with pushchairs. I heard the words ‘you fucking cunt’ behind me. It was a male voice. I didn’t turn around, I just kept walking and my subconscious chalked it down to someone being drunk in the daytime. It got louder and louder and he repeated it — odd, I thought. My radar kicked in. I turned around to see someone coming for me, his eyes so sparkling with hate, calling me a cunt and his body lunging towards me. It all happened quickly. Another woman intervened, and he ran off.
I was physically OK (thank you, thank you, thank you). I was emotionally wrangled: heart pulsating, breath gasping and sitting with the memory of all that filled his eyes, all the threat, all of what he could have done.
So what did I do? I talked to the woman who bravely stepped in, shaking. Then I began to minimise. I shouldn’t get upset. I shouldn’t make a fuss. I shouldn’t let this stop me viewing the house. So I listlessly wandered around the creaky wooden floors of a warm home up for sale, admiring their light fittings and coving. Then I cried all the way home.
It was then the magic happened. Maybe I could feel it this time. Maybe it was time to not just get on with it. Of course, once I gave myself permission, I really felt it. The memories of the incidents that I’d buried deep came up. Although I couldn’t be sure that the attack in the park was sexually motivated, I began to realise the sheer amount of trauma at the hands of male-bodied beings that I’d pushed down.
There were memories of when I was a teenager in my small Yorkshire village. The unhinged boy that followed me as I walked the dog, and later sat outside my house, staring at me through the PVC porch window. There was the man who dropped his pants on the shelter of my remote train station and masturbated, staring at me, until his cum splatted on the concrete. There was the boy in my art A-level class who tried his best to pressure me into to have sex with him at a party whilst a group of his wide-eyed, smirking friends watched at the door. When I didn’t do it, they called me frigid for weeks. Then there was the older guy who pushed me against a wall and tried to have sex with me when we got some fresh air at the indie club in Leeds. There was the young man who walked into my room in a shared warehouse in London, climbed into my bed and raped me in the middle of the night.
Later, in my thirties, in my career as a Chief Executive, I had a schooling in what it means to a woman in leadership. A member of a board outside of my organisation tried to kiss me after a meeting where I’d just pitched for millions for vulnerable young people. There’s been the numerous meetings where I have sighed inside as I see the male politician or official listening to my pitch whilst watching my legs or my chest the whole meeting. This is the sad reality of being a young woman in senior leadership, and furthermore the cost of stepping into arenas where traditionally men are those with the voices and the position. It so often is not your well-crafted point that they seem to be focussing on.
It really is a lot. And what had I done with all of it? I pushed it down, away and far from sight. When I first disclosed the things that happened when I was a teenager, I was told I was seeking attention, I was told I was being sensitive. That was the Yorkshire way. I wasn’t fundamentally believed, and I certainly wasn’t supported. So when the sexual assault and the sexual harassment happened later in my life, how was I ever meant understand how to come forward and not feel I was going to be seen as seeking attention? It didn’t kill me, so it made me stronger. But do we need to go as far as being killed by a man to be noticed in this struggle?
Perhaps the fact I was estranged from my family made me more vulnerable. I certainly felt a pressure to keep going and earning through all this because I didn’t have a safety net. This has been my way of adapting — pushing it all down and not letting it get in the way of the greater good I knew I was capable of creating. Don’t let it dim your light. They wouldn’t win.
Until last week, after the park, when I realised, that winning was actually standing up and saying something, and, maybe, let these incidents actually affect me. I had permission from my female peers to do it differently. I could be a successful woman and feel this, talk about this, and say to all my male-bodied fellow humans THIS IS NOT OK. It hurts, it’s confusing, it’s petrifying and in its worst incarnation it’s abusive. The course that we have set up for women, inside and outside of the workplace, is brutal — navigating male desire is the game you learn you have to play in life. The cost of success and of inclusion seems to be not talking about the impact.
But I’ve let go of that idea of success. Because here I am, finally, like so many others, talking about it.