When I was seventeen I was sexually assaulted at work by my male colleagues. I wasn’t shocked or surprised – it was something I’d been led to expect.
When your own father calls you a “bitch on heat” it’s unremarkable when other men act as though it were the case. From the moment my periods started, his behavior towards me changed. I was threatened, slapped and hit; called a whore, a slut, and the colorfully veterinarian “bitch on heat” – all of this a good four years before I even had my first consensual sexual encounter. I was made to feel ashamed of my sexuality well before I knew what it was. The culture of women as representatives of male honour isn’t confined by faith or nationality.
Lessons in a cornfield
I had a sheltered upbringing on an isolated Irish farm. I didn’t even know any swear words until we moved to England; my education began when the older Pitt sisters took me, an eight-year-old, into a cornfield and read porn to me. Although much of it went over my head, it filled me with an inexplicable unease. I didn’t like it and couldn’t understand why they did.
I was a tomboy, happy walking the dog, playing outdoors and climbing trees. My interest in boys took the form of a competitive streak when it came to bike racing and marbles and an appreciation of their helpfulness in teaching me to fish. I considered them my equals. I hadn’t yet learnt how wrong I was.
Make-up maketh the woman
A play-date with the younger daughter of my mum’s best friend saw us experimenting with a bag of old make-up her mother had given her. I’d never seen such wonders before – my mother didn’t wear make-up. Time flew as we primped and decorated, giggling and holding the hand-mirror for each other to admire our handiwork. We were between eight and ten – starting to notice that women wore high heels and slashes of colour on their cheeks.
In the car on the way home, my happiness evaporated as my father bellowed about the evils of make-up while my mother sat silently in the passenger seat.
“You look like a prostitute. Is that what you want?” he demanded.
How could I answer? I didn’t even know what a prostitute was.
Shouldering the burden
Life became complicated as everything I did had unforeseen sexual connotations. When I walked the dog alone after a squabble with my sister I was “asking for it.” If I wore the wrong clothes I was “asking for it.” Quite what “It” was I still wasn’t sure, but I knew it had something to do with rape. When I found out from Crimewatch reconstructions what rape was, I swore I’d rather be killed than have that done to me.
At twelve, I was groped in a crowded stationary shop. I froze – simultaneously terrified and ashamed. I waited until we were outside before telling my mother;
“Why didn’t you say anything?” she asked in a too-loud voice.
I had difficulty meeting her eyes, “I was embarrassed.”
I didn’t tell her about the guilt inside that told me it was probably my fault. I’d already absorbed my expected sexual role.
That same year, my mother told me my father had tried to rape her. I’d heard the entire incident from my bedroom – the raised voices, the thuds and thumps of a fight in a confined space, the hysterical barking of our West highland terrier.
As I grew, so did the shadow sex cast over my life, menacing and omnipotent.
Nowhere to hide
I was fifteen when we moved to Oxford, into a guesthouse my parents bought. One of the renovations they undertook was the installation of satellite TV – there was a high demand among some of our clientele for porn channels and this was a bonus for my father who stayed up late, alone in the sitting room. One evening I surprised him on the guest stairs, watching through the window as a woman undressed next door in the prosaically named “Home for unmarried mothers”.
I felt a need for privacy and security, valuable commodities to someone navigating puberty in a house shared by strangers, but my father refused my pleas to fit a lock on my bathroom on the grounds that he wouldn’t be locked out of anywhere in his own home – the existence of the seven lockable guest bedrooms upstairs notwithstanding. There was nothing I could do. As a female I was powerless and vulnerable. I began to wish I’d been born a boy.
I began to see myself as a victim of my sexuality and was less able to view it as something over which I had control.
It’s never far away
But what can you do? It’s impossible to go through life thinking the worst of every man you meet. You’d be a nervous wreck. Many men are deeply ashamed of the way some of their gender regard the “fairer sex”. But time and again, incidents play out that remind you exactly where you stand. The boss who helped you move when you got a work transfer, and thought that meant he could put his hand up your skirt. The boyfriend who said there was nothing he could do if his older brother wanted to “get intimate” with you…
For many young girls, their broader future is already mapped out, dictated to them by society, culture and the media because of what’s between their legs rather than what’s between their ears. And it all starts much earlier than you might think. While our individual circumstances may differ, society views all women through the same restrictive lens.