I’ve never been a “girly” girl.
I suppose I’ve always prided myself on not conforming to gender roles – on “being a woman” on my own terms.
Still, I walk the tightrope, just like any modern girl.
Be strong but not masculine. Confident but not bossy. Honest but not whiny.
Speak up. Suck in. Smile.
If you know, you know. But you might not even be consciously aware of how exhausted this dance we all do is making us.
Sexual assault has become the norm
The realisation hit me hard on March 8.
I can’t help but remember the date because it was International Women’s Day. It was also the week after Sarah Everard went missing. They were still searching for her. The world felt tense and dark.
I got up early and walked to buy a coffee before work that morning. It was sunny and peaceful, until it wasn’t.
A man I didn’t know came up behind me, trapping me against the wall of a tenement building, and started groping me. He wouldn’t stop until I pushed past him and crossed the road.
Our fight or flight response is a funny thing. All I wanted was to get away – to continue my day as normal, as though that would mean nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened.
My hands shook and I kept checking back over my shoulder as I went, but I still walked to get my coffee. Dazed as I was, I still chatted to the barista like I always had before. I actually tweeted about the incident before I even thought to report it to the police – such a millennial.
Now I wonder if I reacted that way because I’ve grown up in a world where women are regularly groped on the street. Now I wonder if the fact that I was groped at 7am on a Monday was my saving grace. Now I wonder, if it had been night-time and I had been drunk and wearing a short skirt, would anyone have put the blame on me?
Goodbye houndstooth trousers
The police officer who came round to take my statement later that morning was, probably very much on purpose, a woman. Officially speaking, it was a sexual assault, she said, which shocked me.
She asked for the trousers I’d been wearing at the time. I’d stripped them off as soon as I’d arrived home, resentful of the cliche that I suddenly felt dirty wearing them.
I fetched them, telling the officer over my shoulder that I’d had to stop myself from blurting out a crude: “He grabbed my a**se” on the phone to the 101 operator. We both laughed.
I’m doing what I hadn’t fully grasped until now that women all over the world have been doing forever – living defensively and in fear
She put my trousers in an evidence bag. They had a distinctive black and white houndstooth pattern. I was quite fond of them.
“You’ll never get them back,” my sister told me later. She’d been grabbed by a man in the street once, too. The police took her cardigan for evidence.
My friendly officer called in a more detailed description of what I had been wearing so her colleague could check for CCTV footage.
“He’s such a man,” she murmured to me with a conspiratorial smile, “If I say ‘houndstooth’, he won’t have a clue what I’m on about.”
Pushed off the tightrope
The next day, Metropolitan police officer, Wayne Couzens, was arrested on suspicion of the kidnapping of Sarah Everard. The day after that, Sarah’s remains were found.
Months later, Couzens admitted to kidnapping and raping Sarah. Just this week, he pled guilty to her murder in court. There’s no relief. There’s no sense of closure. The world still feels so very dark.
“I feel like a fraud saying I get what women go through,” a male friend told me the day I was assaulted, “Because I know I can’t possibly understand.”
I said I had been in the same boat until, suddenly, I fell off the tightrope. No, not fell. Was pushed.
I don’t want to be, but I’m afraid of men in the street now. I don’t walk next to walls where I can be trapped anymore. I automatically cringe away when strangers cross my path. I check over my shoulder far more than I ever used to.
I’m doing what I hadn’t fully grasped until now that women all over the world have been doing forever – living defensively and in fear. I’ve finally conformed to my gender role.
Except, I’d already done that, hadn’t I?
Men call the shots
The patriarchy has wormed its way into every aspect of society. Men call the shots and we tiptoe around them, hoping they won’t hurt us and that we don’t have lipstick on our teeth.
To change any of it, we have to change all of it.
I still think about my houndstooth trousers every once in a while. I imagine them in some huge evidence room, stuffed in a cubbyhole, surrounded by hundreds and thousands of other pieces of clothing, all belonging to some woman somewhere. All representing the small but significant piece of her that was taken when a man assaulted her.
We’ll never get them back.
Alex Watson is the Head of Comment for The Press & Journal and doesn’t care if you call her bossy or whiny