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.
If this is a safe place for victims of sexual abuse and rape then why is that first comment not removed? We have a right to control our safe spaces.
I have a couple of favorite stories. I had a guy and his drunk friend who harassed me and my friend in a club for a full hour. The final time I denied him and pushed him way when he rubbed his dick on me. He called me a bitch and grabbed my ass and gave it a squeeze. I turned around like a lion, saw his glasses and snatched them off the mother’s face and kicked him in the balls, twice, before two men dragged me away. It took two full grown men to drag me away! I’m five foot four and ahundred fifteen pounds. Haha
Another favorite story. I’m out at a club chatting with some people I know and random man, 6 foot something in heigh, comes walking through the door, walks right up to me and puts me in a loose headlock. Then he says to me “you coming home with me now?” I put that mother fucker on the ground! By the time he got up everybody in the bar was laughing at him and I was on the other side of the crowd and he couldn’t get to me. I flipped him off and laughed.
I have at least 20 similar stories of men attacking me and touching me, grabbing me, pinning me against walls and trying to rape me. When I fight back let me tell you they always cower. I go hard and they are shocked.
Did you incapacitate the guy you kicked in the balls? I always wondered how effective that move really is. Did he stay down after you kicked him or was he able to get back up?
Also, let’s hear some of those other stories!
It’s funny, reading this reminded me of when I lived in Los Angeles and the (sadly) numerous times I surprised myself with my strength in the presence of men who tried to intimidate me (or others). I remember that sense of disbelief that I had actually said or did something, and moreover the sense of pride that I didn’t back down. I look back now and am thankful those situations never escalated to assault, even when the potential was there. I live in hope that this world will not always be such a dangerous place for women, that society will understand when we say that sexual assault, whether it be a touch, catcalling, or just following a woman around will be understood as the violations they are. I am so sorry the police did not do their job and failed you and other women in the process. It is difficult to make strides when the cards are so stacked against us, but if we keep fighting, one day we may win.
Could we hear some of your stories where you fought back and won?
Your bravery and strength was everything i needed tonight. Thanks a lot my dear, you must be a fantastic woman
This is a fantastic post. Best one I’ve read in ages. Sadly this is a reality for so many women in the world and I’m so happy to see them speak out about this when they can
I remember as a 20 year old young women confronting a mail shop lifter while working as a teller in a tiny supermarket. He was tall and not ugly unlike in your case and strangely only dressed in his boxers and barefoot. He stole a razor of the shelf and hid it underneath the edge of his boxers. I hit the alarm buzzer several times but the only other staff member (my manager) couldn’t hear it above the noise of the vacuum cleaner that he was using down the back of the shop. I felt nervous but having no-one to come to my rescue, I finally decided to ask the shop lifter if he was going to pay for the razor too. He denied having the razor so I pointed to his hand and said “yes, you do, right there” but he just walked out. I was annoyed that he got away with it but surprised at my bravery in confronted him (I’m anxious at the best of times). I was a bit afraid that I would get in trouble from the manager for letting him go so I guess that could have been part of my decision. Of course, it could have ended badly if he was violent but I understand the feeling of ‘wow I just did that!’.
” what they fear most is exposure” 100% true! I admire your strength and courage for writing this story and handling the situation the way you did. I hope more women will take your approach. Silence is part of the issue. We are stronger than we think! Thanks for sharing.
Reblogged this on A Modern Ukrainian and commented:
After a morning of expectign to be weeping all day at my desk. Thank you!
Reminds me of the time I broke a guys nose from grabbign ym butt in a bar I worked at.. he tried to get me fired to the bouncers and managers, and (here I will state my privilage) I was lucky enough to have employers who protected us. I’ll never forget the bouncers response after the guy got up.. blood all over his face.. and asked what he was going to do with the “bitch”.
He just laughed and said, one more word out of your mouth I might let her have another round at you.. otherwise I suggest you appoligize and leave and dont return…
Wow! Did you knock him out? How badly was he beaten?
I think that what you did was great! And I feel for anyone to whom this has happened.
I also don’t understand why you called the security guards misogynists because, if, I as a man, (and it does happen to us quite a bit more than we are willing to admit) was sexually assaulted and gave the person who did it to me a piece of my mind (it’d probably honestly be a piece of my foot too) I think anyone would say what those security guards said about anyone, regardless of their gender.
That being said, I have to say that your account seems based on the fact that women are inferior from the start “we are stronger then we seem and braver than we think” is not reflective of feeling empowered or equal and I think that that is sad because most women would probably have written about it with those exact same words, or in a similar tone.
I only hope that doing what you did helped you to establish yourself as equal to men and not inferior. It is deplorable that your account is glorified, not because it is something bad, but because it reflects a meta-narrative that still runs through anglo-saxon societies (and certainly most western societies in fact, to this day) which is that women standing up for themselves, thinking of themselves as powerful and possessing self-confidence is still very far from a given. I only hope your story will help change that and bring more people to realise that it is purely down to their behaviour to change other people’s image of them/their gender/their lifestyle/their sexuality.
What the guards said is misogynistic because of how they described her, “Crayzy, hysterical”; it’s the implication and the meaning behind the words and the tone that makes it misogynistic. If a man had confronted the assaulter then they most likely would have been described as, “tough, brave, a man you don’t want to mess with”. Women are not expected to stand up for themselves, quite the opposite in fact, and when we do people assume we must be crazy or hysterical because we stepped out of our place – as the author said, we’re conditioned to not make a fuss.
Also, her account is not based on the fact that women are inferior from the start. As she said, women are “conditioned to be quiet, modest, to ‘not make a fuss,'”, but are in fact brave and strong despite that conditioning – we are powerful from the start, we have only to recognize and accept it. It’s not just women who are conditioned to believe that women are inferior, men are conditioned to believe such nonsense as well, which is why her attacker thought he could get away with the assault. He was weak – weak in his reliance on the misogynistic conditioning of women, weak in his belief that he was more powerful by default, and weak in his inability to control his urges to assault women.
I see your point on the second bit… but I do think the writer could have insisted more on the fact that SOCIETY, parents, media, teachers (… you know the drill i imagine) inculcate such ideas of ourselves into us and therefore such automated behaviours and rather that say “we are stronger then we seem and braver than we think” perhaps say something like “we are stronger than society makes us seem and braver than we are tought to think”…. thereby insisting on the fact that these conventions are IMPOSED upon her and not spawned from some sort of innate weakness of her own… which of course would be a complete load of bullshit. Though it is questionable whether this perception of gender would even arise in other societies and I think that these issues of keeping quiet and being a good woman are extremely anglo-saxon (be that usa, uk, south africa, australia) or perhaps, in a wider way, a western issue. But there seems to me to be less of an issue with such a delicate reserved and shy image of women in france or germany (where I have lived) for example where it is quite acceptable for people male female or of any gender under the rainbow to tell someone else to fuck the fuck off^^.
However I don’t agree with your first point… if a man had been sexually assaulted he probably would have been described as a wimp or – to use a word I’m sure I’ll get stick for here – a pussy (though pussy could very well come from pussycat and not from the genital organ to which it refers to in slang). A man who had been sexually assaulted would not even have been given the consideration of being a man and he would instead have been mocked for saying what the author of these words said … had this been a similarly public situation because of our social conditioning. No?
I do hope it is clear here that I wish as best I can to stand for equality between genders and am not an ‘enemy’ of some sort but a questioning friend… sad to see what he sees in terms of gender relations in our WESTERN world today.
Brava, you handled it bravely. It’s sad but not surprising that the police didn’t think it a big deal. Also not surprising that it wasn’t his first time.
Reblogged this on Human Interest.