These Stories Must be Told

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

#metoo

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.

 

 

A list of shits no longer given

If you read this blog, or even worse, have had the misfortune to meet me in the last few weeks, you’ll know that I am not in the best mood.

I have a washing machine of vitriol churning in my head and a blaze of anger what I formerly assumed was a cold, dead heart.

So I have made some resolutions. Here are some things that I have resolved to no longer do/ignore/allocate any of my precious thought time to.

  • Tits and nipples. We (very nearly) all have them. If you can see mine, and choose to sexualise them, that’s your sweet issue. I realised at the grand old age of 40 that I don’t, and have never needed a bra. The reason I wear a bra (I suspect like a lot of women) is to a) make my breasts a more desirable shape as deemed by decades of media imagery or b) to COVER MY NIPPLES. Why, I find myself wondering? Which imaginary deity deemed that visible nipples were somehow an invitation for unwanted sexual contact or the sign of the sexually promiscuous? If I can see a man’s nipples/moobs through his t-shirt my last thoughts are of sex, believe me. So rule one: fuck your views on my perfectly natural human body.

IMG_6281

  • Smiling at strangers on trains. I am a sociable bean, and also from Yorkshire, so my automatic response upon meeting someone’s eye is to smile at them. This is nice and I don’t want to stop doing it. But I was one the tube yesterday and looked up to catch a man letching at my aforementioned rack. I was literally halfway through my automatic smile when rational thought intervened and I realised that I was smiling at this man because I somehow felt like I owed his unwanted sexual attention a friendly response. So rule number two: from now on, stinkeye for letches. Speaking of letches…

 

  • …those guys who slide into your DMs at quarter to twelve on a Friday night. The kids are in bed, the wife has followed and they are sitting alone, deep into their collection of craft ale. The messages begin innocuously enough, perhaps with a tenuous link to a mutual friend or a shared interest. I used to wonder ‘why are you messaging me? I don’t know you’. But being a nice person, or at least a shadow of one, I would reply. I would engage, because that’s what I was brought up to do; be friendly and polite. The only difference here is this is not a civil exchange such as one you might have with the elderly lady or gent at the bus stop. This is a highly gendered phenomenon, because it relies upon two of the great pillars of patriarchy: men’s entitlement to women’s attention, and women’s obligation to grant them this. It took me a good few months of messaging back and forth with randoms before I saw the pattern emerge: the lateness of night, the alcohol, the fact that it was never, ever women getting in touch at 1am ‘just for a chat’. The crunch came for me when one of these Facebook buddies decided in his drunken state to send me a meme that amounted to ‘show us your tits’. I realised then that these guys wanted neither friendship nor sex, what they wanted was a bit of a diversion, some idle flirtation to bolster their sagging self images. I also realised I was gaining nothing from these transactions, and they were taking up a whole load of emotional energy.  So from then on, rule three: I don’t accept ‘chatty’ DMs from men anymore, instead just telling the sender that I’m happy to be Facebook friends but I don’t chat with people who I haven’t met in real life.

manspreading tories

 

  • Taking up space. I refuse to apologise for occupying my 68kg 160cms volume of space. Take a look at the picture above. the four women in the front row clasp their legs together, cramped into a small amount of space, while the seven men have spread, relaxed legs, occupying as much of their own sweet space as they wish. OK, its a picture of a load of Tories who by their very nature are bound to be a bunch of cunts, but the pattern is repeated everywhere. Theatres, trains, airplane seats. Rule four: without needlessly encroaching upon other’s space, I will take up as much as I need. If that leads to a battle of wills with the fella sitting next to me, so be it. I am more than capable of giving passive aggressive kneeing when required.

 

  • Rule five: I will not apologise for myself. My education (hard fought for – I got a first class degree but it took eleven years of interrupted study including dropping out of Cambridge to get there), skills, vocabulary and what my mate calls ‘grit and determination’ can often be perceived as a threat by people in authority. I was brought up to have an enquiring mind, which goes down like a lead balloon when you’re sitting in a psychiatric ward at 2am asking for the NHS policy on voluntary admissions before you sign anything. Frequently this has brought me to blows with medics who view this as a personal attack and as a result, become upset and defensive. Whilst it is absolutely not my wish to hurt or disrespect another human being, I’m resolute in my belief that professionals need to be impartial and open to questioning and, at times, criticism. It’s really not personal.

 

  • Rule six: I’ll try my best to give love, appreciation, support and credit where it’s due. In a world filled increasingly with dangerous bell ends, I will hold close those dear to me, thank them for their care, seek to make connections with other good people and show empathy and support to those people going through their own hell. I’ll use what little I have in the tank (mainly lying like a lump on the sofa writing blogs or going on Facebook) to support new artists and creatives, to challenge cuntiness, and to bring good people together. I will try.

 

  • I will pace myself. So instead of lying on the sofa feeling overwhelmed by the chores, I will do one thing each time I get up. So I go for a wee, and put a wash on. I water the plants while I boil the kettle. I am aiming for three chores a day, anything else is a bonus. The prospect of unpacking my suitcase from the crisis house is a faraway fantasy. Leaving the house alone still a long way off. But rule seven seems do-able at the moment, which is the best I can hope for.

 

If you have any suggestions for rules for living in this difficult world, or thoughts on mine, I’d love to hear them. I moderate all comments and will happily post critical comments but only if they’re constructive and non-abusive.

Lament of the lone (female) drinker

I’m sitting, for the millionth time in a thousand years, in the afternoon, in a pub, on my own.

I’m almost certain I’m the only woman who drinks on her own in pubs at any time of day, let alone before the sun’s over the yardarm, but my personal disregard for both male privilege and convention has meant that I’ve never really cared about breaching this particular social norm.

The thing that gets me is the looks. Not from other groups, because they’re there with their mates and aren’t really that arsed about what other people are up to. No, it’s the looks from the hardened bar-sitters that gets me. Their features thickened with drink, and their age, outfit and demeanour always entirely inappropriate to the pubs’ aspirational “edgy” hipster vibe. They come in because they’ve always come in, and no amount of scotched eggs and slate plates is going to dislodge them.

They sit at the bar so they can drink alone and keep up the pretence of sociability by chatting to the barmaid or (less enthusiastically) barman.

Me tipping up and opting to get pissed alone in the corner whilst catching up with Facebook, is undoubtedly daunting to this dying breed. Except I don’t think they’re a breed that will ever die. While ever alcohol exists, you’ll find the hardened drinkers, escaping from reality on a fluffy pillow of lager.

And maybe one of these days, one of the hardened bar-sitters will be me.