These Stories Must be Told

The only thing worse than being sexually assaulted is society’s reaction when you speak out.


Friends, I am sick. I am shaking and nauseous. I am terrified and angry and conflicted.

It’s time to speak out.

I have been deeply affected by the Weinstein revelations and the subsequent #metoo uprising. As a political activist and Labour party member I’ve been keenly watching the saga of allegations, denials, apologies and dismissals unfolding in Westminster. I’ve followed the editorials, the opinion posts and even ventured into the murky slurry that lurks malignantly in the comments section.

It’s horrible and yet I’m glad its happening. It’s the moment I’ve been waiting for – when I can speak out about my lived reality and be heard. Until yesterday.

Yesterday I spoke to an old friend and former colleague. Way back at the turn of the millennium, we were recruited as rookies to work for one of the country’s largest trade unions. Together we endured the thrilling insanity of working for a union; the long hours, the victories, the drinking and the sex. There was a lot of sex.

I have no problem with sex, in fact I’ve even been known to enjoy it. The issue I have is when sex is used in a power relationship, by men, to subjugate women. Commenting on Weinstein, Emma Thompson described his behaviour as “a system of harassment and belittling and bullying and interference”. It wasn’t just the sex, it was a system of behaviour.

“One of the big problems in the system we have is that there are so many blind      eyes and we can’t keep making the women to whom this happens responsible. They are the ones we have got to speak. Why?” Thompson asked.

Back in the union, the whole world was fucking blind.

Being 25 and idealistic, this realisation took some time to dawn, but dawn it did. The senior colleague who refused to help me because I’d politely asked him to stop calling me ‘love’. The disbelief when I asked the boss to stop referring to me as ‘one of his girls’. The expectation that we would ‘be nice’ to our predominantly male membership base, which included dancing with old men with wandering hands.

Then I was assaulted.

I’m not going to go into it here, because this blog isn’t about the actions of one man on one occasion (or more accurately, several men, on many occasions). It’s about the devastating reality when you reach out to a friend for help thinking they’re an ally, only to find that they’re an enabler.

I didn’t stay long with the union. I couldn’t turn my blind eye to the internal politics and corruption, and I was soon forced out. My friend remained.

I contacted her this week, thinking the moment would be ripe to speak out about my assault and all the blind eyes that were turned 16 years ago. On many occasions she’s told me that the culture is just as toxic as it used to be; I thought she would be pleased that we could finally confront this issue. I no longer work there so have nothing tangible to lose; I could take the bullet and open the door for others could speak out too! Things would finally change.

But she didn’t want that. Whilst her words said she supported me, her tone said anything but. This isn’t the right way to do it, she said. We need to resolve this internally, she said. I don’t want to damage the movement.

I care deeply about the labour movement, but I care even more deeply for women. In these circumstances, one is the victim and one is the aggressor, and given the choice between the two, I know which side I’ll be on.

You probably think I’m being hard on my friend. How can I be a good feminist ally if I blame other women for their lack of power? Of course I have sympathy with this point. But as trade unionists and socialists we profess to believe in collectivism – that ‘together we are stronger’ – and this isn’t always going to be easy. Doing the right thing is fucking hard.

we must take sides

By maintaining the conspiracy of silence my friend is complicit in the abuse she witnesses yet ignores. She even went as far as to urge me to be quiet. “Rants on social media don’t help anyone” she said. My experience of gendered violence is not a rant, I replied, but thanks for letting me know your position.

I realised then that I was alone and that going forward would not be easy. My mental health is fragile and who needs this? If my friend doesn’t care to do anything, why should I put myself through the mill in the hope it benefits future strangers?

I wish, I really wish I could leave the whole issue and consign it to foggy memory, but it’s too late: can open, worms everywhere. It wakes me in the night and eats my soul.

I know my friend is a victim of patriarchal power and I also know she fears for her job, should allegations become public. I’ve spent a horrific day and night wondering what to do. If I speak out, my friend will hate me, the people I name will hate me, and as I know from reading below the line, society will hate me.

But it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve arrived at the painful realisation that people who speak out aren’t lauded as heroes. They’re threatened with rape, vilified and hated by a world that desperately clings to the status quo. But the status quo isn’t working for me or my sisters and something has to change.

With thanks to @Hannahgadsby for the title inspiration, and for helping me arrive at my decision.



Mental Health Activist Angst

As a mental health service user I’m really passionate about having a say in how my services are run. This isn’t entirely altruistic; I’ve been on the receiving end of enough piss-poor services when I’ve been ill that I have a vested interest in improving them, not just in the hope that others won’t have to bear the burden of dreadful care provision, but in the hope that things will be better next time I embark on the inevitable descent down the rabbit hole of insanity.

I’ve been part of an amazing project that has really made a difference to how staff on psychiatric wards treat (and think about) patients. It was a shining star of good practice where senior medics, NHS execs and service users all worked together with a shared aim of changing a poor organisational culture.

Unfortunately that jewel shone bright in what has otherwise been something of a dunghill of well-meaning but inept professionals with a professed “clarity of vision” but little clue about how to put it into practice for Joe and Joanne Bloggs.

Read on for insights into this glorious world…