It’s taken me a long time, but I finally feel like I’ve found my voice. I was a chronically shy teenager. I rarely voiced my opinion on anything. I lived in constant fear of judgement and ridicule. Looking back, there were times when I definitely should have spoken up. In hindsight, I’m so annoyed at myself for remaining silent. But I guess at the time I didn’t want to make a scene.
Once again, I find myself toying with the idea of remaining silent. This time, I’m afraid of being labelled an angry man-hater. I don’t hate men, but I'm certainly wary of them. Here's why:
I was 16 when I experienced my first bout of harassment. Up until then I had received very little attention from the opposite sex. My awkward appearance had served as an invisible shield of sorts. I began working part-time in a shoe shop, located in a busy shopping centre. It was common for me to spend my lunch break in the food court, munching away on my beloved McDonalds.
One day, whilst I was waiting for my order, a male staff member began talking to me. He appeared to be in his early 20's. I was immediately uncomfortable. I was nervous around boys my own age, so you can imagine how uneasy I was talking to a grown man.
This became a regular occurrence. Every time I went to McDonalds, he would go out of his way to make small talk with me. Even if it was busy, he would stop what he was doing the second he saw me. My trip to McDonalds used to be the highlight of my shift, but now it gave me anxiety.
Eventually, I decided to eat elsewhere. I had managed to avoid him for several weeks, until the day he decided to pay me a visit at work. I froze immediately. There was nowhere for me to hide.
He proceeded to tell me that he was moving, and wanted to take me out before he left. I was both startled and confused. Why me? I was nothing special to look at, plus it was obvious that I was much younger than him.
With my voice shaking, I told him that I didn’t think it was a good idea. I walked away from the counter, pretending to look busy. He followed me, insisting that I take his number. His tone had become aggressive. I reluctantly accepted the piece of paper he had written it on, and thankfully he left. It took ages for my heartrate to return to normal.
I found solace in the fact that I would once again be able to go to McDonalds. I enjoyed weeks of stress-free lunches until one day, out of the blue, I spotted him in the distance. I instantly turned around and walked the other way. Much to my dismay, he followed me.
Before I knew it, he was standing in front of me, demanding to know why I hadn't called him. He insisted that he was a good guy and that I should have given him a chance. I stood idle, like a deer in headlights. I remember feeling a combination of fear and anger. Still, I said nothing. After all, I didn’t want to make a scene.
Two years later, I started working at a convenience store. At lunchtime, the store would become flooded with nearby construction workers. One man in particular, always managed to find a way to touch me.
If I was refilling the fridge, he would pretend to trip, and fall onto me. His hand always managed to land right on my arse. If I was restocking the chocolate bars, he would come up behind me and reach over, close enough that I could feel his breath on my neck. I resorted to hiding in the stockroom every time he entered the store. Why didn’t I say anything? Again, I didn’t want to make a scene.
In my early 20’s, I flew to Australia to visit my sister. On the flight back I was seated next to a man, who was also on his own. We made small talk, I was being polite but that’s the extent of it. I was exhausted, and ended up falling asleep with a blanket over me. I woke up to find his hand on my thigh, stroking me. I was in complete shock.
I tried to convince myself that it wasn't intentional. Perhaps he didn’t realise that it was my leg that he was touching, after all I had a blanket over me. I repositioned myself, and thankfully his hand disappeared. I eventually fell asleep again. When I woke the second time, there was no mistaking it. He was clearly feeling me up.
His index finger was making little circles on my thigh. I was disgusted. The sound of his sporadic groans made it even worse. But still, I said nothing. I didn’t want to make a scene. I spent the remainder of the flight afraid to go to sleep. I was practically curled up in a ball, leaning as far away from him as possible. I may have been silent, but my body language spoke volumes.
The woman I am today looks back on these incidents with a mixture of sadness and anger. I’m sad that I didn’t have the confidence to stand up for myself. Instead of demanding that these men stop what they were doing, I changed/adapted my own behaviour.
I’d like to think that if something like this happened to me now, my response would be very different. But then again, there’s clearly still a part of me that fears making a scene. The idea of this story being published terrifies me. I know that I’m setting myself up for an onslaught of criticism.
That aside, I want men to know that our fear exists for a reason. I didn’t wake up one day and decide that men were the enemy. My fear was learnt. It manifested after several unsettling experiences. In addition to my own encounters, I’ve heard numerous stories from female friends, all of whom were the victim of harassment and or assault at some point.
And then there’s the news. It’s become an all too familiar scenario. Time and time again we hear about a woman losing her life at the hands of a man.
The murder of Sarah Everard has served as yet another reminder of just how scared we should be. Sarah could have been any one of us. To make things worse, our fear and our anger is being trivialised by responses like “not all men”.
I understand the frustration. If you’re a good, decent man, it can’t be nice to feel like your gender is being attacked. But if that’s the only thing you have to worry about right now, consider yourself lucky. You're worried about your reputation, while we’re worrying about our safety.
What we really need is for men to join us in our outrage. Stand with us, voice your disgust at the men who commit these heinous crimes. If we had you support, perhaps we wouldn’t feel so alone and segregated in our fear.