The Financial Times have done a piece of undercover journalism that you might think happened in 1958 but in fact occurred in 2018. In case you haven’t seen it, you can read it here – they’ve dropped the paywall so off you go, no excuses now.
It’s been written carefully enough so that although people have been named and shamed, no one has been directly accused of anything and there is even a disclaimer to say that the seating plan the Financial Times has seen is not a guaranteed understanding of the list of actual attendees. But to be honest I don’t care. It’s enough of a totally galling blow to the concept of respect for women or treating us like humans that this event exists. It’s enough that the men invited are at the tops of their fields, are influencers and big names. It’s enough that the only women who are in the room are the ones who are there for entertainment, for display. It is enough that this event has existed for 33 years in whatever iterations it has been and not one of those men has ever thought to blow the whistle. For. Shame. All of them should feel as sick about themselves as I do.
While reading this article I kept thinking “oh it can’t get worse, can it?”
But of course, it can. You’d think I wouldn’t be quite so naive as to think that all those things are enough. The exposé mentions that the dinner raised more than two million pounds for charity…but what is the cost of that? Sure, these men are cracking out their cheque books and bidding on mostly innocuous high end prizes (the slogan “spice up your wife” for the plastic surgery prize was a fresh wave of totally disrespectful, reductive to women nausea) but who is really paying the price of this event for these charities? Because to me it looks like that money comes at the cost of the safety of 130 young women. Someone might bid £400 000 on
feeding his ego sorry, on naming a children’s hospital wing after himself, but if he’s doing it while sticking his hand up an 18 year old’s skirt who thought she was coming to do a black tie event as a hostess…doesn’t that somehow defeat the point?
“Oh but it’s not the men’s fault that there are young women there” – sure, the men didn’t hire them and we’ll come on to who did in a minute, but it’s funny because I’ve been in a workplace or a restaurant before as a customer or an employee or a visitor. I’ve never felt the need to grope someone. I’ve never felt the need or the desire really to just sexually assault and harass someone while they offer me a drink. You’d think these moguls and businessmen might be able to take some kind of responsibility for their actions right? We all get to decide how we behave. One of them could have blown the whistle. One of them could have decided this wasn’t an acceptable way to treat other human beings. I’ve also worked as a hostess for events before but you know what? I’ve never had someone stick their hand up my skirt while I’m offering round canapés and been told that “it’s a Marmite job. Some girls love it, and for other girls it’s the worst job of their life and they will never do it again” by the woman who has hired me. As if I’m supposed to just take it as part of acceptable working conditions.
So speaking of Caroline Dandridge…I find it really hard to contain my loathing of this person. To put it bluntly, what kind of person, what kind of woman sends young women into an environment where there is such a high risk of them being sexually assaulted, they’re basically meant to expect it? Except they’re not. The men are referred to as “annoying”. Not “harassing you and illegally touching your body without consent.” Not “in an environment set up for them to feel like they’re allowed to commit a sexual crime.” Just “annoying”. I can think of lots of things that are annoying – people humming, public transport being delayed, when I leave the house without an umbrella because it’s sunny but then the weather changes really quickly and suddenly it starts to rain and I wish I had that umbrella. Those are all prime examples of annoying things. You know what’s not annoying Caroline? It’s when you go to work as a young woman expecting to serve drinks and instead of that you get groped and touched against your will.
But it’s ok everyone, it’s ok because Caroline Dandridge’s organisation Artista has what the Financial Times calls “an enforcement team” and when you read that phrase you think “oh phew, good they’ve got people in place to protect the young women in case things get out of hand” but no that’s actually not what they’re for. They’re there “prodding less active hostesses to interact with dinner guests”. So the enforcement team are there to make sure the young women don’t take themselves out of an uncomfortable or difficult situation where they feel their personal safety is compromised. The enforcement team are there to make sure the women don’t escape to safety or take a break from being physically violated.
“Maybe they can go to the toilets!” You might think, in a desperate attempt to find a place of respite. Yes! Good idea – the toilet! That’s a place where for decades women have sought refuge, hidden and cried and regrouped themselves to return to the battle that is working and living in the patriarchy. The toilet – that will feel safe. They can hide there for 10 minutes and-Nope. According to the report from the Financial Times:
“Outside the women’s toilets a monitoring system was in place: women who spent too long were called out and led back to the ballroom. A security guard at the door was on hand, keeping time.”
Oh did I mention also that their phones are taken away? But if something awful does go down, they’re told by Caroline Dandridge to contact her except she phrases it as “if any of the men become too annoying”. How does she want them to contact her? By pigeon? By standing a minute and looking for her? Oh no wait, stand for too long and you’ll be hustled by someone throwing you back into the threatening situation you’re trying to leave. This woman has systematically stripped 130 young women of their ability to have any kind of safety. She’s taken away their ability to rest for a minute and regroup. She’s timing them on the toilets. No partners are allowed at the event. No support system. And she’s taken away their phones. So no outside contact or ability to call for outside help. This woman has single handedly enabled a room full of already entitled men to take advantage of women who are younger and more vulnerable than them. Caroline Dandridge tells them their phones will be “safely locked away” but there’s nothing safe about it. Well OK maybe the phones will be safe, but the women certainly won’t be.
“But these women are choosing to be there and some of them have done it before and some of them love it!” I hear you defend. You might be right. Some of them probably need the money and make that choice knowingly. And some of them are strong enough to draw their own lines and decide what they do and don’t want and will be confident enough to say no when it’s too much. And some of them weigh up the choices and decide that even if they hate it maybe it won’t be so bad. But to me it sounds like it would be horrific. I mean, I’m not tall or particularly thin so I’d never make the cut but tables of older, rich and entitled men who think that because they have enough money they’re entitled to touch me wherever and however they want, who are then put into a room where they’re basically told that yes this is true…that’s a combination of about 7 different nightmares for me. These are men who have real power, real influence and could be part of more than just giving money to places. These are men who could be part of a social change, who could ensure their companies and spaces are safe not just for men but for women too. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man but if I were in that room and I knew that there were women being touched in ways they don’t want I couldn’t sit back and let it happen. I couldn’t just keep presenting or eating or standing there. I’d feel a sense of responsibility to them.
This is not the same as sex work or the sex industry. Because I imagine for this “black tie event” the job description doesn’t outline the need to accept a man groping you as part of your duties. There are many varying circumstances around sex work but I think generally the people know they’re going to do a job that involves some kind of sexual interaction. I don’t think that’s the case here and if it were made clear from the start I wonder how many legal ramifications Artista would run into. I wonder how many applicants they’d get. I wonder if the whole event would still want to run this way if they admitted openly what they’re doing and how they’re operating, if they directly addressed what they’re expecting of the young women who come to work there and what they’re allowing and enabling for the men who leer at them. This event happens and keeps happening because it’s allowed to be a well kept secret. The men won’t tell and the women have to sign non-disclosure agreements, so they can’t tell…or at least not without serious legal and probably financial consequences. I don’t imagine any of the “students…actresses, dancers or models [who] did occasional hosting work to make ends meet” can afford those kinds of consequences.
There are so many points of disgust for me that I could go on. I could write thousands of words about the power imbalance, the system, the patriarchy, how women are set up again and again to be taken advantage of and used and disregarded as people. But I have to end somewhere. So my final port of call is to commend the two women who went undercover and reported on the event. The women who may or may not have known what they were in for, the women who had to be “tall, thin and pretty” (the three criteria us women must have for any job of course) for £150 for a night’s work plus £25 for a taxi home. The undercover reporters who may well be those three perfectly fine things to be but who had to reduce themselves to be seen as being only those things for the sake of this job. And what a totally fantastic job they have done. If this were a show I’d be on my feet applauding and I don’t think everyone deserves a standing ovation. But these women do and I hope the consequence of their stellar reporting is that this event is brought to its knees. I hope that at every point there are people who will take a stand – the organisers, the supporters, the members and the charities who benefit from this event. I hope they all rethink what they’re doing; why they feel the need to behave this way and why they want to treat young women in this way.
I hope they raise even more money next year by inviting women to sit at the tables, rather than parading them to grope and sexually harass in their evening’s workplace.
Update: within hours of the story breaking but after I wrote this piece, it was announced that the Presidents Club will no longer be operating as a fundraising body and the charity dinner will not be held again.
A few years ago, I went to a wedding and was sat next to a guy whose name is being changed to David because even though he didn’t respect my physical space or the law of consent, I respect privacy and the laws of defamation. I’ve actually written about him before but this is a brief summary of what happened:
He – a man I knew only as an acquaintance – grabbed my breast under the pretext of tickling under my arm when I happened to lift it. I had given consent for neither of these attempts at intimate physical contact. He did this at a wedding dinner. He did this in front of his wife to whom he’d been married for 6 weeks. He did this at a full table of wedding guests.
When I yelled at him, humiliated and shocked, he laughed. I was told to calm down and not make scene. I was shushed. His wife rolled her eyes and said nothing.
Everyone. Said. Nothing.
When I told a friend of mine about it a couple of days later, she shrugged and said “That’s David.” As if that makes it OK. That’s just who he is and we all accept it and allow it and what can you do?
It is being reported that people are coming forward now in higher numbers about Harvey Weinstein. The implication from these reports, to me anyway, is that Harvey had so much money, power, influence and privilege and that’s why no one spoke up. I understand he was intimidating and people were afraid for their careers..but David wasn’t intimidating. He was an extremely privileged, entitled shit. To me David and Harvey are interchangeable because although he was no Harvey Weinstein, the attitude is the same – we know what he’s like but we say nothing.
And so to Harvey – countless assaults, harassments even rapes later and you have a man who is serially high on his own power. He is above the law because everyone else has let him be. It is constantly reinforced that he can do whatever he wants because…he already is doing whatever he wants, however he wants. So he makes women uncomfortable, he takes from them whatever he desires. Their desires or consent don’t enter into it. Isn’t it funny how we talk about consent? As if it’s a social requirement and not a legal one. There are numerous reports of him ignoring consent, threatening careers, paying 8 women off and now multiple allegations of rape are emerging. This man hasn’t broken social etiquette, he has broken the law. And people let him. Just as people let David assault me with a classic shushing of the angry woman and an apologetic shrug of their shoulders at him.
In 2015 Courtney Love was asked if she has any advice for aspiring young actresses in Hollywood. Her response, caught on film is
“I’ll get libelled if I say it…” (She looks around furtively)
“If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party in the Four Seasons, don’t go.”
That was two years ago.
Now people like Colin Firth who knew 25 years ago are coming out and saying they feel guilty. This is Colin Firth’s statement in the Guardian
“I am extremely pleased that Sophie [Dix] is speaking out after so many years,” he said. “I ran into her at a party some time after filming Hour of the Pig – around 25 years ago. What I heard, it turns out, was part of a horrifying pattern. Other women have been hurt since. And those of us who didn’t act on our one bit of knowledge – and especially those of us who went on to work with Weinstein – have that on our conscience. I admire Sophie’s courage. This can’t have been easy.”
Good. He’s right. He and everyone else who knew should feel guilty.
From the moment they knew what was happening and stayed silent they became complicit in his acts. They became partially responsible for every future sexual assault, for every possible rape, for every moment a woman was invited to see Harvey Weinstein and made to feel small or threatened or abused because the people who knew allowed it to keep happening. Many of these people have power in their own right. Many of these people could have prevented years of this. Every one of these people stayed silent.
I understand that 25 years ago Colin and the rest of Hollywood didn’t have the Internet as we do now, so public exposure wouldn’t have been as widespread and instantaneous. It shouldn’t matter. I understand that 25 years ago it was a different time and everyone just accepted that women get sexually harassed as part of their daily lives. I don’t even need to comment on why that’s so fucked up. But the list of women speaking up now is much longer than it could have been. More than 30 women have come forward. Women who are actors, producers, established or up and coming. There are stories of women pairing up to go to meetings with him to protect each other. People knew what was happening.
Some of the reports are focusing on how unattractive he is and suggesting that it’s all much worse because he’s old and ugly. So…if he were young and fit this would be fine? His physical appearance is totally irrelevant. We’re still perpetuating such problematic narratives and ignoring that this happens everywhere, all the time at multiple levels. If you look at social media today you’ll see #metoo filling up a lot of timelines. You’ll see a lot of women speaking out about their experiences. It’s an attempt at progress – the idea that all women who have experienced sexual harassment or assault or even rape come out into the open about it and break the taboo of silence that exists around such acts is great. It’s intended to show how many of us have been subjected to this kind of abusive treatment and don’t talk about it all the time. That all of us have encountered a Harvey Weinstein of sorts and all of us have stayed silent and allowed it to pass. It’s a great, brave idea until you realise that it’s not so easy for all women to do, it’s putting the onus on women (again) and is quite a flippant way for some to share what might be deeply personal and traumatic experiences. For more information on that read this article, “Don’t you think we’ve done enough? by Elisheva Sokolic. Reports suggest that this whole business with Harvey Weinstein was one of the worst kept secrets, known by half of Hollywood. Comedian Andy Hamilton appeared on ‘Have I Got News For You’ this week and he said on Harvey claiming to be fighting his demons:
“Rich people have demons, poor people go to prison.”
If he didn’t have money he’d be a convicted sex offender by now. This is one of the most powerful men in Hollywood and he is finally falling backwards over the mountain of women who have built up as he thought he had trampled over them. I’m so glad they’ve finally risen up and toppled him over.
There are at least 8 women who have been paid for their silence. It’s hard to know how to feel about these people who threatened or tried and failed to stand up to a bully. Sometimes it’s not possible to speak out. If you have no support network, or the powerful party threatens to ruin your life by overwhelming you with their resources, burying you in debt and legal procedure, I imagine it can feel impossible to fight back. The mental strain of this on top of the ordeal you’ve been through – a violation of your body and rights – can be too much. On the other hand they played into his narrative of being above the law and untouchable. With enough money you can buy off any problem.
So if you can speak up against this kind of abusive, illegal behaviour you must.
You must because you can and someone else can’t.
You must because you could be, no, almost certainly will be saving the person going into that hotel meeting room after you. The one who doesn’t have a buddy to go with her. The one who hasn’t been let in on this sickening secret…yet.
It’s preventable. It really is. I am certain we all know someone who treats people worse than they should. But that person still has friends, lives their life as if they are entitled to be however they choose. They see no consequences to treating women like pieces of free meat to which they can help themselves.
We have a collective responsibility to act if we can, when we know of such things, when we see them or hear of them. We must break this culture of silence around so many issues. In this case it’s sexual assault.
My grandma sometimes says to me, “Silence means assent” and frankly it’s a really creepy phrase that’s always bothered me but in this case it’s true. Staying silent says “Yes that’s allowed” to the actions of an industry-known sexual predator. Staying silent says yes to David and the men who thoughtlessly leer, catcall, whistle, harass, grab, abuse, assault, rape, demean, pressure, threaten, intimidate, reduce and chip away at women.
It’s endemic, woven into the fabric of our society that this happens and we say nothing. We are afraid of the consequences of whistle blowing but we should be more afraid of the consequences of not whistle blowing, for they are far more sinister. It happens and it happens and it happens again. It is not good enough to know and do nothing to help. It is not acceptable to come out, but only after 20 other people did, with utterly impotent regret. Now, when we all know about it and it’s safe when in reality it’s been safe enough for those people for years, they suddenly jump on the bandwagon already full of people who did nothing.
So to the silent bystander who does not speak out against the things they know are wrong –
You are not as bad as the perpetrator but you are not much better. You are an enabler. Your silence enables someone to hurt others.
You have power, more than you know. So what will you do with it?
If you can, I urge you to speak out. If you can’t I hope you know someone who can and that they do.
We are all responsible for what happens around us when we have knowledge of it. We must do better than this.
And no… it was not in a Bey way. Not all of us are #Flawless upon arising. In fact I would say many of us wake up, get through the day and go to sleep again as deeply flawed human beings.
Within one minute of waking up I was inexplicably crying. Four bouts of tears later, holding a coffee and a pastry as I walked up the hill trying to get my shit together, I realised something. This was an achievement. Yes, this basic walking up the hill to work business was in fact something to be proud of. And all the steps before it were too.
Here is the list of things I did before that point that I believe were worthy of encouragement, congratulations and metaphorical pats on the back. They might not be every day but they really were today:
- I managed to make it out of bed – this one is particularly impressive because I did really want to stay there and sleep for the whole day.
- I got dressed
I brushed my teeth and hair (yay hygiene and grooming!)
- I took a raincoat just in case (indicates an intention to make it to outside)
- I took 2 different outfit options for my important meeting. It wasn’t even a fashion show meeting
- I didn’t cancel said meeting even though I thought quite seriously about not going to it
It may sound patronising and if you’ve never experienced anxiety you might not understand but something happens to your brain when the anxiety shit hits the functioning human in life fan. These basic things felt like the most daunting tasks in the world when my alarm went off this morning. They couldn’t possibly be done. I couldn’t do them. I didn’t have the supreme amount of superhuman energy it would take just to get my sad behind out of bed.
I managed it. I did all of those things that most days take no thought at all and today took a careful strategy of gentle encouragement, talking myself through each task. And then after I got to work I did a whole load more, one thing at a time.
The goal posts of achievement have to change when your brain decides that it’s going to fold in on itself and flat out refuse to function for no apparent reason.
“Come on,” I reason with it. “Just tell me why I feel like this and we can all get on with our day. If you’re not going to work properly at least tell me why!”
Nope. Nothing. I can’t even figure it out for myself, let alone other people. Cue two more lots of crying once actually at work when lovely, kind people in the office ask if I’m OK. It’s actually really frustrating because I’d really like to know what my brain is doing but IT JUST WON’T TELL ME. So I can’t tell you. Maybe it’s stress? Is it stress? Well I do have a lot of work to do at the moment so maybe I should sit down and try to do some of that. Great. Now how do I get rid of this paralysing feeling of dread and fear in me that makes me feel like I can’t do anything? I can’t concentrate. And the longer I don’t do any work, the more work I feel I have piling up with less and less time in which to get it done. This doesn’t make any sense. I’m becoming my own worst enemy and I’m stuck in a horrible vicious circle.
And you know what else? It’s totally counter intuitive to be your own worst enemy when you know you have to go to work and present your best self in an important meeting where impressions are everything, and I’m not talking about the kind where you put on the strong accent and pretend to be Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver (“You talkin to me?“)
So you move the goal posts. You say “It’s not going to be a normal day today. And that’s OK.” And you forgive yourself. You forgive yourself for not being perfect and happy all the time. You forgive yourself for being sad and not even finding the reason. You tell yourself you’ll do your best, whatever that looks like today and that will have to be enough. And then you hope that other people will forgive you too and understand that you showed up today when it really looked like you wouldn’t. That your achievements look different today compared to another day or another person. But they still count. And you should be the one counting them because you did that, all by yourself. Well done you. Well done me.
I got through a horrible anxiety day today. Maybe tomorrow will be better.
Here comes the Summer sun.
And with it the looks, the stares, not to mention the hi fives (directed at my arse),
The ever tiresome catcalls, so frequent they
Blend into the background of cars and buses and
The layers removed to head turns and whistles
As jumpers come off and men come on
To women who just want to walk to work.
The gazes are returned with eye rolls or hair flicks or
Tiny tensing shoulder shrugs.
And yet it doesn’t put you off.
Look, I can’t stop you.
And I’m not looking at you…that is
Until I feel your eyes on me and suddenly my arms want to close my shirt
And wrap my scarf tighter around my neck to hide my breasts,
My lips curl in a sneer and my eyes narrow in disgust,
My legs move a little faster as my entire body viscerally reacts to your entitled gaze.
a top and leggings and- A baggy t-shirt or A dress Jeans and shoes
It shouldn’t matter what I’m wearing.
It doesn’t matter what I’m wearing.
The reaction is always the same.
You don’t have my permission to make me feel undressed
When I am fully clothed in the street.
I know some women like it or don’t mind it or don’t say anything even if they hate it.
I know some women want to feel like they’ve still got it, that it’s a compliment, appreciation,
As if they’ve aged so much that they’ve stopped being human
And instead become a piece of meat,
As if self esteem is measured in whistles or length of stares.
As if value and worth depreciate, inversely proportional with age.
But I don’t get dressed in the morning for you.
I don’t show more skin in the summer so you can see it.
I don’t imagine how you’ll react to my body or the clothing around it when I walk down the road
Because I don’t care what you think or want from the women, the strangers who walk past you in the street.
My life, my body, my decisions
Are not about you.
Because I don’t know you. I owe you nothing. You are entitled to nothing of me. And yet you act so entirely entitled.
Look, I can’t stop you looking.
But I would if I could.
If I knew a magic clothing formula to stop you staring I’d probably wear it every day.
Even while I know it shouldn’t be on me – the responsibility to clothe myself “responsibly”, responsively.
I don’t want the attention and no, it’s not arrogance on my part.
I’m attractive, sure but I don’t believe
I’m so beautiful or special.
I just have arms and a
I’m a woman. And it is Summer.
On this day, one year ago exactly I was on my way into work. I had just started my new job in an organisation that requires security at the entrances. I have an ID badge that allows me to go in and out of the building without being stopped.
On this particular March day it was cold and I was running late. I ran to the gate and flashed my badge at the man standing before me, whom I did not recognise, wearing a balaclava over most of his face and a hat pulled down so only his eyes were visible in his large frame.
I flashed my badge and tried to continue at my (admittedly unfit and quite slow) running pace.
An arm came out and stopped me.
“Excuse me, stop there, can I see that badge?”
I stopped and waited, slightly hopping from foot to foot, anxious to get in. I don’t know if you, reader, are a late person but I am. I am constantly battling the passing of time and losing. I am permanently overly optimistic about how much (or rather, how little) time something will take me and I am frequently anywhere from slightly to hugely annoyed with myself for not remembering that traffic lights, traffic, other people, bus stops and public transport problems exist. Oh and of course it takes more than 2 minutes to get to most places.
He held my badge, studied my face carefully and sternly, scrutinised my badge, stared at my face again and a minute later I realised who was standing in front of me – it was the head of security.
“Dude*,” I said (except I didn’t call him *dude, I called him by his name but you know, identity protection). ” What are you doing? You know who I am. You printed my badge.”
“Yeah I know,” he replied. “I just wanted to keep you here to look at you longer because you’re beautiful.”
“Ugh,” I snorted back. I snatched my badge back and quickly walked into work, now that I was allowed to, feeling my skin crawl from his eyes on me watching me walk away.
It bothered me all day. I got on with the business of learning new things about the company, my job, processes, people, politics…but in the back of my mind it nagged. I felt weirdly protective of myself, like a safe space had been violated. The thing is, I wasn’t sure what it was. It was that murky in-between territory. Was it banter? Flirting? He didn’t touch me. But he didn’t have to – I still felt my arms go up around me as if to hug myself.
I talked to a friend about it at lunch and that confirmed it for me – it wasn’t banter. It wasn’t flirting. It was unwarranted, uncalled for, unasked for, permission not requested or given, sexual harrassment.
Get yourself ready because it’s fun facts and statistics time!
1 in 3 American women experience sexual harrassment according to research performed by Cosmopolitan who surveyed 2,235 full-time and part-time female employees aged 18-34 and found that one in three women has experienced sexual harassment at work at some point their lives (OK I know Cosmo isn’t exactly the go-to reliable news source but a poll is a poll guys).
In the UK it’s not better.
“Researchers from the Trades Union Congress and the Everyday Sexism Project found that 52% of women had experienced unwanted behaviour at work including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes. Among women and girls aged 16-24, the proportion reporting sexual harassment rose to 63%.” – The Guardian, 10.08.2016
So in other words the younger you are, the more naive, the more vulnerable, the less well-equipped you are to deal with something as intimidating as sexual harrassment from someone in authority, the more likely it is to happen to you if you dared to be a girl / woman / female and enter the workplace (or leave the house and walk on the street, but that’s a whole other issue with its own set of depressing statistics. One issue at a time guys.)
I went back to the office after lunch, this time with no hassle because a different person was on the door. That afternoon I had a meeting with one of my managers. We sat and after a few minutes I ummed and errred a bit and eventually said “I’m not sure what this is and I don’t want to get anyone in trouble if it’s nothing but…” and I told him.
He looked horrified, apologised profusely for the behaviour of the person in question and asked me to put it in writing along with 2 other incidents that had made me uncomfortable. Together they formed a picture of a person in a position of authority abusing his position to sexually harrass a young, female new employee. My manager took me seriously, took notes, apologised, assured me it was not in the ethos of the company and offered to walk me into the office for the rest of the week to ensure I felt safe.
I could not have had a better experience reporting this issue and I cannot stress enough how important it is that more women must come forward when things like this happen. I was lucky that it wasn’t someone in a managerial position who was my direct line manager. I was lucky that I had a safe person to report it to, who took me seriously. I was lucky that the organisation is an absolutely glowing example of how we can and should look after employees, treat them equally whatever their gender, sexual orientation or identification, race, background, health or abilities.
It turned out I had opened a can of worms. This person had bothered other young women who worked at this organisation and they started to come forward. Following a separate issue we happened to have a session from a human rights lawyer on employment law and rights in the workplace. We were told that when someone is harrassed and they report it, one of the key things that happens after as a result, is victimisation – further bullying after the harrassment.
My job was made harder. The man in question was so angry that I had reported him and he had been reprimanded. I had asked to remain anonymous but due to the specific nature of the problem and part of his warning in how he should be treating female employees, particularly me, it was unfortunately clear that I had reported him. He began to refuse legitimate requests that I made for things that I needed to do my job. He made it harder for me to do any part of my job that he could have an effect on and he became rude and unpleasant when I had to interact with him. Before I had wanted to avoid him in case he made me feel uncomfortable, now I dreaded every interaction with him.
Eventually, after I made a second complaint and other women in the office came forward with their own complaints against him, he “was reassigned” somewhere else and someone new came in. Things improved and the workplace felt safe again.
When I told a couple of people what happened they asked me why it wasn’t OK to call me beautiful, told me I was overreacting and said that it seems ridiculous that you can’t meet people at work any more.
This is what I said to them:
This is a man in a position of authority – he can, if he wants to, stop me coming into work but he shouldn’t without a valid reason. He can stop any person coming into the building if he feels they are a threat to the security of the people in the building. He stopped me coming in so he could look at me. So he could objectify me. So he could assert his authority over me. Because he thinks I’m beautiful. This is in my place of work, where I come to be professional and do my job. That’s not flattering, it’s controlling and it’s an abuse of his position. That’s not the same as asking me, asking if I want to go for a drink sometime because he’d like to get to know me better. Here’s how that conversation goes:
Him: Hey, I think you’re great and I’d like to get to know you better. Would you like to go for a drink?
Me: No thanks, I’m not really interested in you like that and I prefer to keep my work life professional.
For me, there’s no problem asking once and seeing if you get an answer that is positive, as long as you accept that the answer might be negative.
Calling me gorgeous, sexy or beautiful in my workplace reduces me to my physical appearance. And I might be all those things but calling me that where I work undermines my position as a professional and worse, it does so while hiding behind the guise of a compliment or banter, making it harder for me to complain when I feel uncomfortable.
I didn’t overreact. I spoke up when a situation was created to put me in a position of discomfort and take away my voice. I said something when I was made to feel small and vulnerable and I didn’t let the person actually make me feel those things. I made myself bigger and louder and as a result, other women felt they were able to as well. I took more bullying for it but it feels oddly worth it. I led by example, I didn’t back down and in doing so I gave other women permission to speak up for themselves too.
So on this day, International Women’s Day 2017 I ask my fellow awesome women to look after yourselves, look after each other and remember every time you stand up for yourself against something that is sexist and unfair, you smash the patriarchy a tiny bit more.
Today in the park I saw the man who raped me.
He was the first man who had sex with me. I don’t phrase it as the first man I had sex with because that makes me sound like I was an active participant and I wasn’t really. And on a warm September day more than 10 years after he raped me, he walked past me. He was with his dad – yep, weird to remember that he has a family and they knew him as a tiny child and his history extends so far beyond how I know him – and I was on my own and there he was. Just…there. He’s not even supposed to be in this country.
I don’t know if he saw me. We walked past each other as if we didn’t know each other, like ships that pass in the night. Or in this case, like boats that pass in the day. But we did know each other. We definitely did.
I’ve been listening to The Archers as they went through Helen and Rob’s trial dealing with domestic abuse. Despite the fact that it’s Helen on trial for the attempted murder of her husband Rob, during the court proceedings it comes out that he raped her on a regular basis. She talks about how she switched off and became numb in the end and something struck a chord. I know that feeling.
I remember being raped like an out of body experience. I don’t remember it happening to me – it’s more like I was hovering above watching as it happened. I remember the conversation and the instructions he gave but I don’t remember….
I remember it not hurting and being confused that it didn’t hurt because the first time is supposed to hurt isn’t it? Why didn’t it hurt? But I don’t remember how it actually felt.
I remember him commanding me to tell him I love him even though I didn’t.
I remember crying after and not knowing why.
I remember but I don’t remember.
He looks exactly the same. I don’t think I do. I don’t feel the same – I can’t possibly look it. I’ve grown outward and upward and inward and in all the directions a person can grow. I have expanded to fit myself in ways that I never thought I would.
Three thoughts went through my head as we walked past each other.
1 – No. That’s him. Why is he here?
2 – Thank God he didn’t see me.
3 – Nothing. I feel nothing.
And after the initial shock it was strangely liberating to know that 10.5 years on, walking past him I felt nothing.
And yet I know on a different day I might have felt something.
On neither of these days would I be able to talk to him. To look at him properly, hear his voice; speak to him without fury and pain and questions that I don’t believe he’d ever answer. I wouldn’t want to meet his eye. I wouldn’t want to try because I don’t believe he’d ever see that what he did was wrong. He remembers it differently. His story will never be, “I raped that 17 year old girl”.
And that’s such a big part of the problem.
One of the other things The Archers dealt with was the shame. The shame of admitting it happened. The thought of talking to my family about it fills me with terror and dread and an intense desire to hide or run away because I don’t want them to carry that knowledge around. I don’t want their picture of me to be this picture of me. It’s not shame for me but the thought of giving them that pain…I couldn’t look at them. They don’t need to be hurt like that. They can’t un-know it once they know.
I didn’t – couldn’t – tell anyone for 8 years because I didn’t acknowledge it myself. And just like Helen in The Archers, I knew it wasn’t right. I didn’t say anything to anyone about it. If I talked about losing my virginity I lied. I said it was when I was 18 over Christmas with the next guy I dated.
I suppose what I want to say is this:
It’s not ok. It is horrible and awful and violating. It’s not ok that it happened to me or to you or to anyone you know.
It’s not ok that I didn’t really know what it was. That I didn’t report it. That I didn’t even know what had happened to report. It’s not ok that when rape is shown on TV or in films it’s nearly always violent and angry and down a back alley. It’s not sneaky and manipulative and on your boyfriend’s bedroom floor. How can we recognise it in reality if we don’t know the most common forms it can take?
It’s not ok that there are men manipulating, taking and violating women. It’s not ok that people like Brock Turner aren’t being punished severely for this because they can swim really well guys so yeah it doesn’t matter how they treat women because whatever it’s just a woman right? Those people are making the world less safe for everyone. They’re doing a disservice to all the men who respectfully don’t go around raping women and then denying responsibility for it after the fact. They’re sullying your reputation and what it means to be a man. And what they’re doing to women is much, much worse.
But I’m ok.
And it’s ok that it took me a long time to acknowledge it.
It’s ok that I didn’t know how to talk about it, that I felt nothing for 8 years because I didn’t allow myself to think about it for that long.
It’s ok that I cry now when someone talks seriously about rape, fictionally, a book, an article, on the radio, in reality…anywhere really.
It’s ok that I find it hard to say that I was raped, that what happened to me was rape, that the man I saw in the park is the rapist who raped me. My mouth sort of gets stuck around the words and they stop in my throat and they choke me a bit but I feel like I have to force them out. It’s hard to say it out loud.
It’s ok that I feel a bit weird when someone talks about the statistics around rape and women because I slot myself into them and I don’t like it but I know I’m there. And there are so many of us. We are an ocean of faces. And those are just the ones on the surface – the ones you can see.
It’s ok that I felt nothing when I walked past him. It’s ok that on a different day I might have felt everything. Because I did my best and I’m always doing my best to deal with it. I’m lucky it doesn’t haunt me every day of my life. But it sneaks up on me and surprises me with its impact sometimes.
I went and sat on the grass in the sun for 45 minutes before I went back to work. Everything carried on as normal around me.
This boat is still afloat, sailing strong and beautiful. Today I am OK.
I often feel that I am a bit of a grinch when it comes to feminsim. I spend a lot of my time thinking that although things are progressing, they are not progressing well enough or fast enough for my liking. I have to remind myself on a regular basis that these things take time, more time than they should take, that I must be patient, that equality does not serve everyone’s agenda equally (even though I think those agendas are often terrible and don’t deserve to be served at all). So it is with a heavy sigh and a weary feeling that I write this piece.
Buzzfeed reported that Uber had an alarmingly high number of sexual assault and rape complaints registered, in an exposé written about internal data and customer safety. The numbers in the below quote from the article are disturbing and scary and no doubt lead to justified fears for female safety.
“In one screenshot, a search query for “sexual assault” returns 6,160 Uber customer support tickets. A search for “rape” returns 5,827 individual tickets. Other variations of the terms yield similarly high returns: A search for “assaulted” shows 3,524 tickets, while “sexually assaulted” returns 382 results.”
So far nothing seems too grinch-like from me right? Buckle up. I’m just getting started.
Michael Pelletz from Boston used to be an Uber driver and was so horrified by the notion that women wouldn’t be safe in Uber that he blew a massive whistle and started a nationwide investigation into each and every claim against drivers for sexual assault and rape.
He didn’t do that at all.
What he has done is created an app called Chariots for Women, a taxi service app that only women and boys under the age of 13 are allowed to use to ensure they get home safely, because all the drivers are female.
“What’s wrong with that?” I hear you wondering.
“I AM SO GLAD YOU ASKED LET ME TELL YOU,” I would reply if I weren’t imagining this exchange.
1 – Segregation is not the answer. If anything it may make the situation worse. What if I want to or have to or choose to use uber after Chariots for Women is available? What happens if I use uber, and I am assaulted or raped? There is suddenly a narrative created where it’s very easy to say “well, you could have used the ladies one where you wouldn’t have been raped.” Doesn’t that sound disturbingly similar to the classic victim blaming “Here are all the things you could do to not get raped” line of thought? By giving women the choice to use “the dangerous rapey Uber” or “the safe and friendly ladies only one” you put the onus on the women to choose and you condone the behaviour of the people who are raping. Because what is their punishment? Also can you just imagine if someone segregated cabs based on race? Or sexuality? How would we all react to that I wonder?
2- Women also commit crimes. Michael Peletz said that an incident where he thought a shady passenger might be about to pull a gun on him made him wonder if he’s this scared how a woman might feel. And in this Dose article, he is thanked. Why are we thanking him for assuming a man will handle a gun being pulled on him better than a woman? If someone pulls a gun on you while you’re driving, it doesn’t matter what your gender is, you’re probably screwed. It is sexist nonsense to think that a) a woman won’t ever carry a gun IN AMERICA WHERE YOUR GUN LAWS ARE LUDICROUS, and b) that a woman would be more afraid than a man finding out that a passenger has pulled out said gun. Sexist. Nonsense.
3 – Segregation is still not the answer. Taking women away from men wraps us in mystery, like placing us in a tower and calling us princesses. I am not mysterious and I do not want to be held apart from men as some kind of mystifying creature. I do not need to be shut away in a separate room / building / car and protected. I need people to be taught that they must treat women with respect. I need people to have better education on what it means to consent to sex. I need people to stop buying into a narrative where I am, and all women are a temptation that must be removed. I don’t need to be hidden. Women do not need to be removed so a man doesn’t rape us. Men need to control their urges and respect us more and so they don’t rape women. Don’t punish us and call it protection.
We still have such a long way to go with acknowledging women’s rights. In the UK, in Northern Ireland, where a woman can be prosecuted for having an abortion. Still. In 2016. We have a 25% pay gap. Still. In 2016. The latest NHS junior doctor contract has basically just decided to make it harder for women to become doctors or at the very least has ensured that sneaky pay gap won’t be going anywhere any time soon in the medical industry. And don’t even get me started on places like Saudi Arabia – where a woman may not drive, try on clothes in a store or apparently go into an un-segregated Starbucks herself to buy her coffee. Lest she be seen. Lest she be heard. Lest a man cannot control his urges and desires upon knowing a woman is behind a closed, locked door, removing clothes or upon hearing the dulcet tones of a female voice ordering a grande skinny mocha iced latte, extra cream, double blended. They’re right of course. That is just too sexually arousing. I wouldn’t know how to contain myself either.
I am so tired of feeling frustrated with a world that does not want to catch up. I am so tired of hearing stories of women who are pushed to the back, who are concealed, who are separated and segregated and told that we must not be seen because if we are, we’ll be in danger. And we’re supposed to be grateful. I’m supposed to be delighted by the fact that I can be separated from men and have my own special woman car service. Am I grateful? Am I fuck.
Stop punishing us for being women and start punishing the men who are perpetrating these crimes for being criminals. To draw the racial comparison again – if a white person beats the crap out of a black person, is the black person asked to stay indoors? Or hide? Or somehow make themselves look less black? No. Of course not. And yet with women….
There is no such thing as non-consensual sex. That is called rape. There is consensual sex and there is rape. Sexual assault is a crime. Rape is a crime. Stop telling the story that women are to blame by hiding us away. Giving us our own special app is not a gift – it’s a cop out that allows rapists to get away with raping. I am not a temptation that just needs to be removed. So can we just stop pretending that we’re doing something good every time we perpetuate the problem of sexual assault and rape being a socially acceptable crime that we pussy foot around and repeatedly don’t deal with?
Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel from 1969-1973 and there was a discussion in parliament about a number of rapes and sexual crimes occurring. There was a suggestion that a curfew should be enforced for women, that to keep them safe they should be indoors by nightfall. Golda Meir famously replied,
“But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home.”
Stop punishing women for the crimes that men commit.
We place a lot of pressure on ourselves to be all sorts of things. The phrase “I should be…” resounds in our heads all too often. It took me a long time and the end of a terrible relationship to realise that I was not happy. I look back at my 22 year old self and I think about the things I would like to tell her. It’s not so much advice as reassurance and some warnings. I suppose it’s mostly a heads up on what to expect, to 22 year old Abi from 27 year old Abi.
Your hips will get wider.
Your arse will suddenly appear where previously little to no arse was. Do not be alarmed. It’s a good arse.
You won’t be able to do all nighters any more. You’ll think you can but you’ll get to anywhere between 1 and 4am and suddenly it won’t be worth it and all you’ll want is your bed.
It won’t be as easy to get back to sleep if you wake up early, regardless of the time you went to sleep. That one will annoy you. Loads.
You still won’t be tidy but you’ll be better than you were. It will continue to be a constant battle.
You won’t have to work in an office. I mean, you’ve aged 5 years but you’re not a totally different person. You’ll be resourceful and find work where you can to earn enough money to get by. You won’t be rich…yet.
You won’t be living all your dreams but you’ll be working towards them. You’ll know you’re going to keep doing that, slowly and steadily. It won’t stress you out that you’re not there yet.
You still won’t have grey hair nor will you be bald. You should probably stop worrying about going bald. It’s really very unlikely.
Gravity already affects your breasts. It’s going to keep doing that. Increasingly so. They’ll still be big. You won’t get a reduction. The great descent will continue. No one else will mind.
You’ll have different friends but they’ll be better and stronger friendships than you could ever have believed. They’ll be filled with laughter, support and love and the kind of acceptance you don’t yet know because you’re 22. They will be wonderful friendships with incredible people and they’ll be a testament to both you and the people you will choose to give parts of yourself to.
You will make better choices all round.
You will still sometimes make terrible choices. You’re not perfect. You never will be. But you’ll no longer be putting pressure on yourself to be perfect.
You won’t care what people think of you. You really won’t. You will feel so entirely liberated by that.
You’ll still be loud but it will be about things that matter. Mostly. Sometimes you’ll still just be loud.
You’ll be able to spend time alone and it won’t feel like you want to panic and run away from yourself.
In fact you’ll really like spending time alone. You’ll relish the peace, space and quiet.
You’ll find romantic trust and love much harder. It will scare you more.
You’ll exercise. Seriously. Believe it.
You’ll have had 3.5 years of therapy and it will have been one of the best decisions you ever made for yourself. You’ll still be going to regular sessions now. Because of it you’ll understand your own mental health much better and you’ll be more open and empathetic towards others.
You’ll have started to understand what it means to be kind to yourself. How to look after yourself and read the signs of when you’re trying to do too much or running from something you want to avoid dealing with.
You’ll be a massive, raging feminist, amongst other things.
You’ll want to help the world. A lot.
You’ll be more politically engaged and educated and interested in the world around you than you ever have been.
You’ll believe very strongly in adoption.
You’ll believe less strongly in religion.
You’ll still believe in God but how you define that God will have changed and probably will continue to change.
You’ll get to 27 and you’ll have never felt more sure of what you think and how to express it.
You’ll get to 27 and you’ll have never felt more beautiful or attractive or wanted, by friends or partners or colleagues – by people in general.
You’ll like yourself – your personality and your body – more than you could ever imagine at 22.
And even though you’ll know it won’t last forever because stuff just happens all the time, right now in this moment, at this age, you’ll be delighted by life.
22 year old Abi. It’s going to be ok. You’ll see. You’ll get there.
And when you do, you won’t believe how wonderful it feels.
You’ll get to 27 and you’ll be happier than you’ve ever been.