Welcome to my first ever blog post! As I generally don't do things in half measures, I thought I would stay true to form and start with a pretty big subject!
Before I begin, I must stress that this article does not set out to condemn all men or put them all in the same category. I must also stress that I like men. I really do! And I am definitely not suggesting that sexual abuse or sexual undermining is only carried out by men, on women. Of course this isn't the case. I am purely writing from a personal perspective, so obviously being a woman, having suffered at the hands of men, that is what I will write about. On top of that, I am writing about a system that has been in place for many centuries, that has been upheld by a patriarchal mind-set, where men have dominated. I believe this is changing and I believe it is changing at an extremely fast rate now, hence the plethora of incidents that have been surfacing in all media over the last few years and accelerated at an alarming speed over the last weeks and months.
Unless you have been living on another planet recently, it is unlikely that you have managed to escape the fact that sexual abuse in one form or another is pretty big news right now. I have been observing this story as it has unfolded - from the Harvey Weinstein scandal which generated the #metoo movement, to Corey Feldman beginning to publicly name Hollywood paedophiles, to Michael Fallon resigning after admitting that he touched a female radio presenter's leg under a table at a dinner engagement, several years ago.
Over the last few days, I have observed several comments on social media threads, challenging the fact that the entire issue has been lumped into one ball of sexual assault. It was a conversation last night however, with a really lovely, sensitive and empathic female friend, that inspired me to write this article. She echoed the comments that I have been reading and aired her concerns that, should the 'knee touching incident' be placed in the same category as rape, for example, it will surely make a mockery of serious sexual assaults and somehow dilute the severity of the issue, thus rendering victims of rape and other serious assaults somehow disregarded or abandoned.
Whilst I am in no way suggesting that a lecherous man in a position of power putting his hand on a woman's knee during a dinner engagement is in any way comparable to rape, I have to say that I believe there is a very good reason for putting both issues together for the purpose of creating a bigger picture. I believe that this is absolutely necessary, so that we can begin to see how both occurrences have perpetuated and sustained a system that has been in place for centuries. If rape is the torso of this monster, knee touching is maybe the elbow of the beast (or knee- you decide!).
Before I started to write this post, I deliberated for a long time, how I was going to present it. Would I write it from the perspective of a therapist, or write it from a personal, female point of view? If I were to write as a therapist, one option would be to talk about 'a client of mine' being exposed to this particular form of abuse or 'a friend suffering at the hands of that man'. Whilst this would create a sense of anonymity and therefore personal distance from the subject, it would feel altogether inauthentic and somehow lose its sense of integrity. As I feel that it is my mission and purpose to help women to feel empowered and to speak their truth, I decided to lay myself wide open and vulnerable and write it from a personal perspective. Walk my talk, so to speak. So here goes!
My first experience of inappropriate sexual attention began when I was a young girl (I'm not talking full-on abuse here, I'm talking behaviour towards me that felt 'wrong' and scary, without being actually harmed in any way). There was a man who used to deliver fruit and veg in his van on the estate where I grew up. He was a really friendly man and he used to give out free lollipops (cliché but true!) whilst looking at the young girls in a certain way and being a bit too 'touchy/feely' when he gave you your change. This would never have stood up in a court of law as illegal behaviour but it nevertheless made me reluctant to go and collect the shopping when my mum asked me to, despite me looking forward to the sweet treat!
Fast forward a few years to a time when I was becoming a woman, but was essentially still a child, looking to those around me to form my view of reality and ascertain what was and wasn't okay or good. I'm sure I am not alone when I talk of the generic older male relative/family friend, that had a little too much to drink at social gatherings and then got a bit amorous, putting his hands on you and/or talking to you in a way that made you feel extremely uncomfortable and anxious. Sadly, the women around me would make light of the situation and jokingly tell him to "leave her alone Tom" and "put her down Dick" (Harry was away travelling the world in the merchant navy at the time so we'll leave him out of it for now!). I, in turn would treat it as a joke as I had never been equipped to deal with unwanted advances and quickly learned that humour was the least painful way to deflect unwanted attention. Don't get me wrong, I am in no way blaming the women involved in this situation. They, as far as I am concerned, were at least as much a victim as I was in this, as they had been suffering within this subtly abusive system for many more decades than I myself had. As had generation upon generation of women who went before them.
Around a similar time in my life, maybe around my late teens or early twenties, I remember being at another social event, where another older significant male in my life made an inappropriate comment regarding what I was wearing. It was the '80s and I was wearing a mini skirt with stockings and suspenders underneath (it was the fashion, so shoot me!). This man had also been guilty in the past of letting me know I was desirable, both verbally and non-verbally. His wife overheard the comment he made and instead of letting him know his behaviour was unacceptable, she told me in a very angry manner that it was "women like you who get innocent women raped". This from a woman who claims to have been raped herself.
My point here, and my reason for sharing such deeply personal details about my own experiences is that the subtle messages I was constantly receiving were:
"You 'put up and shut up'- don't make a fuss"
"You are being overly sensitive and you are the one with the problem"
"Your feelings are invalid and unimportant"
"Don't trust your intuition- so what if it feels 'wrong' for you, ignore that and toughen up"
"It's just the way it is and there is nothing you can do about it"
"What you want doesn't matter"
"YOU don't matter"
There is a major problem with this system and it is this. As a young child, I absolutely KNEW what was and wasn't acceptable and okay for ME. Our intuition is a finely tuned machine that is designed to navigate us through life in the safest, most healthy way possible. If we listen to and honour our intuition, we won't go far wrong in life. Sadly though, over centuries of patriarchal rule, the female intuition has been ignored, demeaned, ridiculed and even cost women their lives - take Joan of Arc for example! I know I am definitely not alone in my experience of being told that what I absolutely KNEW to be right or wrong for me, was incorrect and just a case of me making an unnecessary fuss.
So, let's go back to the case of Michael Fallon and the knee touching incident. Apparently, the woman in question was reported as saying she wasn't too bothered about it. Really? Wasn't she? She wasn't upset that a man abused his position and put his hand somewhere on her body without her consent? Why not? Let's be clear here for a moment, I am not talking about consenting adults, sharing sexual chemistry and responding to desire. I'm not casting moral aspersions on this situation. I'm assuming that had this been a case of a consenting adult enjoying mutual attraction and responding to chemistry, Mr Fallon wouldn't have been forced to resign several years later (I say forced as I am guessing he wouldn't have given up his position of privilege and then publicly vilified himself on a whim!)
Now let's return to the subject of why I believe it to be important that we do put these kind of incidents in the same category as serious sexual assault. As a result of my early experiences, I learned very quickly that what I wanted or didn't want was of little importance or consequence. My already fragile self esteem and sense of worth took a severe bashing and resulted in me becoming very promiscuous. As far as I was concerned, I was in the world purely for a man to use as he desired and should they decide I was worth more than a night or two of sexual gratification, well then, lucky me! What I learned to do, as a matter of survival, was to give myself freely, rather than wait for it to be unceremoniously ripped away from me. This gave the illusion of choice and some power in the situation. So, other than the absence of violence, I was being subjected to the same fate.
I had subtly and systemically been conditioned and programmed to believe that I had no say in whether a man used my body for his own pleasure. My choices had still being removed, it was just less obvious. I guess it's a little bit like the difference between physical domestic abuse and psychological domestic abuse. One is as obvious as the nose on your face, the other is subtle and questionable by the victim and those around them and totally deniable by the perpetrator (try and prove that somebody has chipped away at your sense of self over a period of time and you might just end up questioning your own sanity even further, when the perpetrator has already convinced you that you're insane, wrong or overly sensitive).
I hasten to add at this point that I have, as a mature woman, completely taken my power back and as a result, taken full responsibility for my choices. It could be argued that I have simply avoided taking responsibility for choices I made as a teenager and young adult. I would offer this counter argument. Had I been raised in an environment that valued and treasured the feminine- that taught girls and women from an early age that it is not only okay to stand up for oneself- but essential for emotional, physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing, I would have honoured my gut feeling and got the hell out of there on many, many occasions. But I didn't stand a chance, because neither did my predecessors, my role models, my protectors.
I for one am rejoicing the fact that the truth is being shouted from the rooftops. At last there is a conversation to be had. We owe it to the next generation of women to speak out in full and pure truth. If it doesn't FEEL okay for you, it isn't okay for you, regardless of what anybody else may think, feel or tell you. You are the expert in you. Trust yourself to know what is right or wrong for you and then speak that truth in a clear, confident and assertive voice.