*Trigger warning: this post discusses sexual assault.
Proving once again the power of words to unite, I have watched in awe at the global rise of the #MeToo movement, and subsequent linked campaigns such as #Time’sUp, etc. The tidal wave of stories proves that this particular zeitgeist had been a long time coming and importantly, it has made all women and men pause, reflect, and acknowledge their own experiences; myself included.
I used to think that I was someone who was fortunate to have never experienced sexual assault. Sexual assault was something that happened to other people who were perhaps in the wrong place at the wrong time or had been deliberately targeted by a predator but #MeToo made me realise that there is a spectrum of sexualised behaviour and none of it should be acceptable when it is not consensual. #MeToo made me realise that I was also a part of this movement and I too had stories to share.
When I was six years old I was a pretty little girl with long blond hair, dimples, enjoying a carefree childhood. However, when I was also six years old, I had two lucky escapes, one more serious than the other. My dad was in the British Army and for a time we lived in an army barracks when dad was stationed in Ballykinler near Downpatrick, Northern Ireland. One day when I was walking home alone from school, a car pulled up and a man I didn’t recognise but knew my name told me to get into the car as my dad had asked him to give me a lift home. I remember that he seemed young, friendly and smiley but something didn’t feel right and I ran off, and ran all the way home. When dad got home, he didn’t mention anything about asking someone to pick me up and I didn’t say anything about what had happened. A few days later though, when walking down the same road with my mum, I blurted out the encounter and she was horrified. There had been no arrangement for me to be picked up. It was reported to the police, I didn’t hear anything more after that and I never saw the man again. Who knows what he had in mind but thanks to my gut instinct, I didn’t have to find out.
The more serious incident I buried for a long time, dismissing it as childhood exploration, and involved my neighbour’s son, Nicholas, who was nine years old. Mum had a difficult pregnancy with my little brother and she was in hospital, it seemed like forever, on bedrest until he was born two months prematurely. Dad still had to work full time so after school everyday I would have to go to my neighbour’s house to wait for my dad to pick me up. On the day concerned, I was playing upstairs with Nicholas and his little brother when Nicholas asked me to go into his mother’s bedroom with him. With trust and no fear whatsoever of anything sinister, being a naive six year old, I followed and did as I was asked. There was a small TV with a video player attached sitting on the chest of drawers in front of his mother’s bed and Nicholas opened the top drawer, took a video cassette out and popped it into the machine. After a couple of seconds of the cassette whirring and fuzzy images on a screen, a pornographic video began to play. I had never seen anything like this before. The closest I had come to seeing naked bodies before this was seeing the bare-breasted pictures of ‘The Sun’ newspaper Page 3 girls. I was fascinated. Nicholas then instructed me to lift up my school skirt, remove my underwear and lie on the bed. Being an obedient little girl, I did as I was told but had no idea what was going on or why I’d been asked to remove clothes. I assumed it was a new game. Nicholas was in the process of taking off his school trousers when his mother called up that my dad had arrived to collect me and it was time for me to go home. He told me to quickly get dressed and that I shouldn’t tell anyone what we had done. As far as I was concerned, nothing had happened so of course I wasn’t going to tell anyone. I didn’t understand what had happened or what could have potentially happened had we not been interrupted so I kept it to myself. Nicholas was my friend and he had asked me to keep a secret so that was that. Mum came home not long after so I didn’t have to be in the neighbour’s house anymore and we moved to Northern Ireland – where the ‘attempted abduction’ occurred. Only when I was much older did I comprehend the reality of the situation with Nicholas and how lucky I had been. I wonder if I had told someone about it, would it have been taken seriously or would it have been dismissed as two kids ‘messing about’?
When a flasher exposed himself to myself and my fellow ten-year-old giggling school friends as we played with abandon in the school playground, we found it hilarious rather than frightening. He was a middle-aged gentleman, clean-shaven (I’m talking about his face… ) who seemed perfectly respectable as he approached the railings, there to protect us from such paedophilic predators, until he opened his raincoat. On top he wore a neatly-ironed shirt and tie, down below, he was naked and when he knew he had our attention, he proceeded to shake his flaccid member around, windmill-fashion, with a leering look on his face. He looked pathetic. We laughed at him, ran away, and reported him to a teacher.
As an adult, newly graduated from university, I was living in beautiful York in the north of England and working as a waitress in a cocktail bar (spot the song lyric)… One night I couldn’t get a taxi home as it was a busy night and as I knew it would only take me twenty-five minutes to walk home, I decided to risk it. I set off at 2 am – we had had a few drinks after work to wind down. About fifteen minutes into my walk, in quite a dark, isolated area, I became aware of someone walking briskly behind me. Something about this put me on edge. I quickened my pace and after a brief glance behind me, saw it was a man wearing a hooded top, jeans and scruffy trainers. He could easily have been just a lad from one of the universities making his way home from the pub so I told myself not to panic. However, when I sped up, so did he. I crossed the road to see if he would follow me. He did. My heart was racing and my mouth had gone dry. Fear had set in. I crossed the road. He followed. When I crossed the road for a third time and he followed, I was freaking out and knew I probably wouldn’t be able to out-run him so I turned round and confronted him. I asked him what the f**k he thought he was doing. Stunned to have been challenged, he said “I’m so sorry” and ran off. I was shaking and cried the rest of the way home. I never walked home late at night again.
My final story was a close encounter of the non-consensual kind. I was in LA for the summer doing work experience (a four-week internship) in Hollywood, working with two university friends at the California Film Commission. The office was in a building on Hollywood Boulevard and as we made our way to work each day, it was not uncommon to see a celebrity getting their star unveiled on the Walk of Fame. One particular mid-morning, as we strolled to work we saw a crowd gathering and being nosy Brits, we stopped to see whose turn it was today. James Brolin was today’s recipient and I was excited about this as I am a massive Barbra Streisand fan. She had recently married Brolin so I knew there was a high chance that she would be escorting him for the celebrations. We decided to wait, found a good spot to watch the proceedings and we ended up striking up conversation with an elderly couple who were also hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary Barbra. Gloria and Bob were a retired couple from Ohio who were in town to visit their son, a film producer. They fitted the stereotype of devoted grandparents, as they proudly displayed photos of their beloved grandsons and granddaughters and shared anecdotes. It was a pleasant way to pass the time and I enjoyed their company. Eventually Brolin and his entourage arrived and I was delighted to see Barbra. I faced forward to take it all in and get as many photos of the occasion as I could. Unfortunately Bob saw this as his opportunity. He moved forward to stand directly behind me. I was uncomfortable about the close proximity but he had seemed harmless and I was caught up in the moment. Bob grew braver; he inched closer and rubbed himself up against my pert bum. I was restrained by the crowd of people but attempted to move forward to escape him. Not taking the hint, he just moved closer and perfectly positioned himself to enable his erection to sit between my buttock cheeks. I couldn’t move so I turned my head to glare at him and he grinned at me, clearly enjoying every moment. I felt paralysed. I didn’t want to cause a scene as I didn’t want to upset Gloria who seemed so sweet. So I just stood there and let him press himself against me until the unveiling was over, the crowd dispersed and I was able to escape. I felt nauseous and too stunned to cry. When I told my two friends what had happened, they were surprised and upset for me but we just laughed it off, went to work and I put it out of my mind. I didn’t think about reporting it. I just let him get away with it. How many times had Bob gotten away with this kind of behaviour before? How many times have things like this happened to people, things that are not OK and cross the line, and have just been dismissed as they don’t seem serious enough to report?
Despite these stories, I know I am one of the lucky ones. I have never encountered some of the horrific acts of abuse and sexual assault that many women and men have gone through and my experiences, when gauged on the spectrum and put into perspective, are not that serious. However, they all could have been more serious than they were and are examples of blurred lines and predators acting on opportunity. Regardless of your gender, it is not OK for anyone to take advantage of you without your consent and we must educate our children from a young age about how to respect and protect their bodies, what behaviours to watch out for, what is and isn’t acceptable, how to keep themselves safe, and about consent. I remember learning about basic ‘Stranger Danger’ when I was a kid but that wasn’t enough, and isn’t enough for the world we live in today.
#MeToo has caused a revolution and I am proud of those who have spoken out and been brave enough to share their stories, allowing people like myself to share theirs too. Thank you.
Take care, Lisa.
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