It was a beautiful day, the first hot day of a long summer. I was 19-years-old, with baby-blonde hair and had somehow still maintained the slender slim frame of my teenage years. I was in the second year of a literature degree in Oxford. That day I had no lectures and few deadlines, and realised I had time to visit the weekly farmers market in one of the city squares. Given the warmth of the day, I wore my favourite summer dress. I distinctly remember how happy and content I was feeling – I had been suffering from severe depression for the last few months and that morning I had woken up, sprung out of bed, not thought about killing myself. I was on a roll.
The market was packed. It always is. You can hardly move and everyone is crammed together like the vegetables they are buying. The sounds typical to a British market radiated through the air: “fresh peppas! two fa’a pand, swee-hart!” It’s a very idyllic place, the last place one would expect to get sexually assaulted. This is exactly why I assumed the middle-aged man in the leather jacket who had been very closely behind me for the last 10 minutes was coincidentally just going the same directions as I was.
I finished wandering and went to buy fruits, mindlessly texting my live-in boyfriend to see if there was anything we needed. The man was still behind me. As I stood waiting for the crowd to part so I could reach the produce on the stall, I felt his breath on my neck. It made me shiver and my stomach lurch, but again, I put it down to the small scale of the market and the close proximity of shoppers.
Finally, I saw a gap in the crowd and reached in to grab some apples to put in my basket. They were just out of reach so I went on to my tiptoes, arms stretched. This is when I felt something running up my inner thigh towards my underwear. I froze. Everything was still. All the noise and clutter from the market disappeared into a white noise as a man whose face I hadn’t even registered groped at the most private part of me.
The prodding stopped. I took a deep breath and glanced down. To further my horror, the stranger’s hand between my legs was clutching a camera phone; the lens pointed directly up. The sight of it reminded me that I too still had my phone in my hand. I clicked my phone into its camera setting; I wanted to get his face.
My assailant must have seen me do this, as he quickly retracted his hand and walked briskly away. I stood frozen, shaking and on the verge of tears. My underwear was still pulled to the side. I looked over my shoulder, watching the back of his head in disbelief at what had just happened. Then I saw his head tilt down to check his phone.
I have no idea where this energy came from, but as he looked at his phone – I assumed to save the video – I felt a hot rage sweep over me. My hands, shaking from fear, formed into fists. I dropped the basket and apples rolled over the ground around me. I walked fast towards him, dodging the crowd. My eyes never left the back of his head. I remember in detail his fat neck, his wispy hairline, his greasy scalp. The closer I got, the more rage I felt. My jaw tightened. The only thought going through my head was “How dare he? How dare he?!”.
He reached a tight spot in the crowd where he couldn’t get through. I was standing directly behind him when, holding my phone in my right hand, I took my left hand to his right shoulder. I pulled hard so that he swung around to face me. I was still shaking. In the millisecond from reaching him to turning him around I felt the original fear. What the hell was I doing?!
And then I was facing him. I will never forget his face; dark eyes, a scar beneath the left. Bad skin. He looked exactly how a stereotypical “bad guy” would look. But it is his facial expression that is singed into my mind’s eye. It was a look of pure terror. He was terrified. Shaking.
I watched this grown man curl up in fear in front of me; a 19-year-old girl, barely out of school. He looked at me and with a shaking voice I ordered, as calmly as I could, “You delete that off of your phone right now.” He held it up in silence, showing me as he deleted it.
“Did you take just one?” He looked at his feet and a voice I didn’t recognize boomed out of my chest: “I ASKED YOU A QUESTION!”
He was shaking more than I was. His face was white as a sheet. “Please,” he muttered, “please keep your voice down.”
It was at that point I realised that a crowd had gathered, watching. He had noticed too, and he was mortified. This was his weakness, the attention of others. He knew what he had done was wrong and he feared collective judgement.
I turned to the crowd and announced, “This man has just sexually assaulted me!” He looked up, startled. Some people gasped, many more stopped to look.
“Please,” he begged. This just angered me more. “PLEASE? PLEASE WHAT? DON’T TELL EVERYONE WHAT YOU’VE JUST DONE!?” I repeated it again, calmly, as if I was a tour guide on a coach showing tourists a monument. His head hung in shame, and rightly so. I felt a touch at my elbow and a middle-aged woman from a nearby florist stall was standing there. She told me that she had seen it happen and had called the police. A stallholder had appeared on the other side of me, saying he would also stand as a witness.
It appeared that my assault was noticed and noted. I must have looked nervous or taken aback as yet another man spoke to me, “When the police get here, you have to press charges, darling. He’ll only do this again.” The assaulter looked devastated. “Please, I have a little girl, please, they’ll stop me seeing her, please, please, I don’t deserve this.” Incredulously, I demanded “And I deserved you sexually assaulting me?!”
He begged me again, citing his daughter. I did not care. I asked him if he had done this before and he answered only with, “This will be the last time.”
I felt as if I was going to explode. The thought of other women, less confident than myself, going through the same ordeal I was put through, feeling the same fear and helplessness. I felt rage that I could not protect my sisters that way I was protected myself.
“It’s a problem I have, it’s a problem,” he stammered.
“And you’ve just made it my problem also. You have made it the problem of every woman you’ve assaulted” I answered, surprisingly calm. “You haven’t even apologised to me. You sexually assaulted me. You stuck a camera up my skirt. You stuck your fingers inside me. You assaulted me!” I was shouting again. I kept repeating what he had done. I couldn’t stop myself. The same words tumbled out on top of themselves as if repetition could clarify what my comprehension could not. The flourist spoke again, “Security are here.”
The assaulter turned and ran. I have never seen someone run so fast. Why he hadn’t run before I do not know, but I like to think his fear rooted him to the ground. He knocked people over as he went, clambering through the crowds.
I took a deep breath and picked up the apples I had dropped. A security guard arrived and escorted me to an office where the he made me a cup of tea. How British. The police arrived and the security guard left to collect them. The office was comprised of two rooms. As I sat in one, I overheard a conversation between two other security guards, clearly oblivious to my arrival, in the next room.
“Crazy she was; absolutely hysterical. Having a right go at the sod.” Of course, where would a sexual assault case be without some form of victim-directed misogyny? I went and stood in the doorway of the room. They registered me. The man making the comments about my “hysteria” stammered “oh.. was that.. you?” I glared at him and left. I had just reduced a sexual assaulter to tears, everyday sexism was small fry to me now.
Sitting back down, the first security guard arrived back with two female police officers. They told me that the attack was caught on CCTV. They then asked me to drive around the immediate area in the back of their police car and watch out for him. I didn’t spot him. We went to the police station and I gave a statement in detail. I am unsure as to how many witnesses gave official statements, but as I was leaving in the police car, I saw those who supported me speaking to other officers. I believe a total of nine witnesses offered statements, however this is something I heard from a stall vendor at the market the next week.
I was called back to the police station three days later where they showed me mug shots of the local sex offenders that fit his description. They warned me that he may not be on the system. I was already apprehensive that I wouldn’t recognise him. However, after several photographs, he came up. I immediately said, “That’s him. I’m 100% certain” – and I really was. Like I said, I will never forget his paltry face. “Mug shot” really was the apt noun in this circumstance. The officer told me they would take further action in the next few days and would let me know.
Two weeks went past and I heard nothing. I called and they said they would get back to me. Another week, another phone call. They said they were still collecting the statements from the witnesses who volunteered to contribute their accounts. By my third phone call, I demanded to speak to the officer in charge of the case, whom I had met on the day of the assault. Only then was I informed that the case had been closed.
I questioned the CCTV – mysteriously missing. The witnesses – only statements, and the man himself – a registered sex offender –had been contacted and had given a “plausible alibi.”
I was devastated, especially after all the initial support I had received from both the public and the police women at the scene. To this day, I believe that the case had no right or reason to be dropped. Unfortunately, there is very little I or anyone else can do about it.
Despite no criminal charges being brought against him, no one can argue the man was not taught a lesson that day. He now knows that his actions lay breadth for repercussions and culpability. I am proud of how I acted. That said, I do not expect every person who is assaulted to react how I did.
Sexual assault can be terrifying, immobilising and traumatic. I understand the fear and paralysis that runs through victims in these circumstances. Not only are that but there cases where sexual assault has turned to physical violence when questioned. I was lucky in my surroundings.
What I would like to convey is that even though women are conditioned to be quiet, modest, to “not make a fuss,” I proved two points that day: that we are stronger then we seem and braver than we think. But more importantly, sexual predators are not as frightening and insidious as they believe themselves to be. They are weak and pathetic, and what’s more, what they fear most is exposure, confrontation and their victim rising back against them. They are human. And they are subject to defeat.
It also taught me that – despite victim-blaming in the media, despite the police never fully investigating the case, despite snide comments about me overacting – really, amongst everyday folk, sexual assault is not and will not be tolerated.
I have taken great solace in the people who came to my aid, and great comfort knowing that by heightening our disgust towards and intolerance of sexual assault, we can further eliminate its potential. However, the greater succour lies within myself and my absolute refusal not to be victimised. My story is not a narrative of victimhood, it is an account of courage. I hope this will inspire others who, god forbid, are ever in the same situation, with the same safety, to find that same strength.