A recent YouGov survey found that 86% of women aged 18-24 in the UK have been sexually harassed. This statistic shocked me: did the other 14% not understand the question? To live in fear of harassment or assault is such a universal female experience that many of us don’t even think about it, having learned to accept it from an absurdly early age. It doesn’t break you but it shapes you, like a rock face getting battered by strong waves. This is my own story, in 10 parts.
Aged seven: my friends and I are in the park when a bush next to us trembles. A man climbs out holding his penis towards us, as if he’s offering a special on the menu. This is the first time I’ve seen a penis, and it is disgusting and terrifying, an impression it takes decades to shake.
Aged 15: I’m in hospital and all the girls on the ward are being questioned about whether a male nurse was ever inappropriate, as one patient has alleged. We are all so desperate for validation that we’re not the best judges. Is it wrong that he calls us on his days off? What about cuddles? He is quietly sacked. Years later, my male psychiatrist is struck off the medical register for his “blurred and secretive” relationship with a female patient. To this day, I always ask for female doctors and nurses.
Aged 19: I am losing my burdensome virginity. I don’t particularly like who I’m losing it to, but needs must. I give him a condom that I’ve been keeping in my bedside table for more than a year. “Right,” he says. The next day, I find the condom, still in its wrapper, beneath my mattress. It isn’t until I watch I May Destroy You, 21 years later, that I realise this was a crime.
Aged 24: I am fighting with a boy. He hits me across the face, then cries, and I feel sorry for him. Later, it happens again. I eventually stop seeing him, but for the cheating, not the hitting.
Aged 25: I’m at home, drinking alone. At 2am, I want a cigarette and so – drunk but sensible – I call a cab to take me to the shop, wait, and then bring me back. I chat away with the driver and he’s amused by me, because I’m so amusing. I briefly fall asleep and wake to find him stroking my leg. We’re in front of my flat and he asks if he can come up. I laugh, assuming he’s joking. He’s not. I say no and run inside. He rings the doorbell for half an hour while I sit on my floor, crying in shame and fear. Eventually, he goes away.
Aged 30: I’m living in New York and bump into an old school friend. We have lunch and then he walks me back to mine, where I say goodbye. For the next month, he pushes drawings he’s made of me under the door and rings the doorbell at odd times of the day, mainly in the middle of the night. Eventually, he goes away.
Aged 33: I am having a one-night stand and suddenly he puts his hands around my neck and squeezes. This is how it ends, I think. In some guy’s flat in Harlesden. “I can tell you like it,” he whispers in my ear. When I sneak out the next morning, a man comes up to me on the street: “I can smell your cunt,” he snarls.
British Jews have always been self-effacing, but we’re starting to show our chutzpah
Aged 37: A few weeks from giving birth to my twins, I take a cab to a friend’s house – a final outing. Suddenly, we’re on the motorway. I tell the driver we’re going the wrong way. He insists we’re not, and drives faster. So this is how it ends, I think. I’m so sorry, babies. Turns out the driver put in the wrong postcode. We both laugh about the misunderstanding: ha ha ha. When I arrive at my friend’s house, I burst into tears.
Aged 42: I take my children to Clapham Common for Sarah Everard’s vigil. Bath-time schedules mean we miss the later arrests, so we only see the flowers, the sunset, the women, all of us knowing we are no different from Everard, only luckier.
How to explain any of this to a pair of five-year-old boys? “A woman called Sarah got hurt,” I told them beforehand. “Why?” they asked. “Because men are bigger and stronger than women, and some are bullies,” I said. The boys make signs: “I don’t like bullies” and “Be gentle” they read, and we tape them on to sticks and go to the common. One of them asks if a bully ever hurt me. Not really, I say. I was lucky. They went away, eventually.