“Asking for it” – rape culture and misogyny

CN: Graphic description of rape, rape culture, alcohol, drugs, victim blaming, consent issues, rape.

I heard a story today. I was sitting on a train, a train that would take me in to London, to the place where I would begin work, to visit my boyfriend. Usually I would read; today I forgot my book. A couple of seats behind me, on the other side of the aisle, a couple of men were having a loud conversation. I had nothing to do; it’s over an hour into London from where I live. I sat and I listened to them, first in amusement, then horror.

They started talking about a night out – whether it had been themselves or someone they knew, something they had read about in the paper, perhaps even a legal case they were working on – I couldn’t say. I don’t know.

I know that the story was about a group of men. Men, that was the word they used. And this group of men had met up with a group of girls. Girls, that was the word they used. They had gone drinking. By the sounds of it, they had all had rather a lot to drink. They had taken some cocaine. Most of the females – females, that was the word they used – left, while the men and one of the women went back to the office to get some champers (their words.) There, the woman – girl, they said – had continued drinking, until she fell asleep on an office table. When she woke up, several hours later, still drunk, she found one of the men one top of her. Raping her. While she had been passed out.

They laughed. They laughed as they said this. They didn’t use the word rape, of course. They said “what could she have expected?” They said “it was her own fault.” They said “no court would convict him.”

Several seats away, I shook in silent anger. I cried. I cried, thinking of that woman, waking up, realising what had happened to her. What has happened to so many women.

This is what victim blaming is. It is telling women not to walk home alone in the dark, not to drink too much, not to take drugs, don’t go home with men you don’t know, don’t wear anything too revealing, don’t flirt if you don’t want to follow through. Our bodies, our actions, policed constantly by ourselves and society to keep us safe. Safe from the men, the rapists, who are the real problem. And if we don’t follow these rules, right to the letter, being raped is our fault. Even if we do, rape is our fault. It is our fault.

One night, in my first year at Cambridge, I got drunk. Really, really drunk: possibly more drunk than I have ever been before or since in my life. I had recently had my heart broken, and I wanted to forget. Naively, foolishly, I thought that alcohol was the way to do that. I went out clubbing, losing my friends quickly. I stood on the dance floor in Life, spotted a man, grabbed him and kissed him. I don’t remember what he looked like. I never knew his name. I took him back to my college, and we kissed for a bit… and then I promptly ran to the bathroom and threw up. Then, I passed out.

I woke up the next morning, naked and lying in my bed. I panicked. I assumed the worse. There was no sight of the man, I couldn’t remember anything past throwing up, and I was naked. I found out later that nothing happened. My roommate, thankfully, had been home. He had heard the man carry me from the bathroom, put me into bed and then leave immediately.

I could have been raped that night. I wasn’t. I was lucky. The man I took home acted with decency and did the right thing. But how many men don’t? When we live in a society where grown men can talk about rape so flippantly, so openly, in public, we teach boys that women can’t say no. We teach boys that women are there for their sexual pleasure. We teach them toxic lies, about sexual worth and virginity and consent. We tell them that if no one says “no”, it’s consent. We tell them that if the woman is drunk, or passed out, she was asking for it. We give rapists like Brock Turner six months in prison, and then let him out three months into his sentence for “good behaviour.”

The whole cultural conversation surrounding rape is fucked up. We tell men they can’t control themselves, and make it easy for them to get away with sexual assault when they don’t. We tell women that rape is their fault. We have one of the lowest conviction rates in Europe. We talk about how much the woman was drinking, what they were wearing. We give rapists light sentences, and then let them off early.

I waited until we were nearly in London. Then, I stood up and walked over to the men. My heart was hammering in my chest. I could feel the eyes of the surrounding passengers on me. I felt, already, the familiar shame of speaking up, of saying something that no one wants to hear. The men were older than I imagined, maybe late fifties. Made no difference to me.

I had imagined what to say. I had run through the curse words, the anger, the pain. Instead, I stood before them, calmly.

“I heard what you were saying about that woman. Earlier in the train ride. And I just thought you should know that what you said was disgusting, and you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Most men argue back. These ones were stunned into silence. I left the train, heart still hammering. What difference does it make? Maybe not a lot. But leaving that train, saying nothing, would have been worse. I hope they think about me tonight. I hope I threw a spanner into their nice little commute into London. I hope I forced them to think about their words. If nothing else, I hope in that moment I made them feel like the victim blaming, misogynistic wankers that they are.

“Provocative” dressing and the female body

CN: Burkini ban, racism, rape, transphobia, street harassment 

A few months ago, I bought a new top. It’s a denim crop top, lace on the sides, Hollister, second hand for £4. I fell in love with it; how comfy it was, how well it fitted me, how it looked hugging my ribs. In spite of that, it took me months to wear it. Why? Because it is easily one of the most revealing tops I own (which, for me, is saying something.) I was worried to wear it in public.

Why be worried? Because, as the burkini ban (more on that in a bit) has illustrated perfectly only this week, clothes are never simply clothes, and women’s bodies are battlegrounds. Women are judged much more harshly than men on the way we look; the clothes we choose to put on our bodies speak for us before our mouths can open. Our bodies become public property; what we wear, how we dress, becomes something that the world feels able to comment on (see: any article on the Daily Mail ‘sidebar of shame.’)

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 19.43.49.png

The Daily Mail, reporting on important current affairs

There are so many rules to follow: personal, professional. How short can a dress be? How much cleavage is too much? Can you show your legs and your chest at the same time? Is it ok to wear a backless dress without a bra? Is it acceptable if your nipples show through your shirt? Should your bra straps show? What if you’re plus sized? Are the rules different? (To the last: no, they shouldn’t be.) Work wear becomes even more of a nightmare – heels, not too high, dress, not too tight, skirt, not too short. Always thinking about what to wear, how to present yourself, while silently screaming “I’m a goddamn educated woman, look at my ideas, not my tits.”

As a woman, navigating these rules is, at best, an inconvenience and at worst, the difference between life and death. Rape cases have been dismissed based on what the victim was wearing (as though that should make any difference.) Trans women face pressure to “pass” by wearing female clothing, and are often murdered for failing to do so, or doing to “too well.” I know the fear of walking home, feeling male eyes rake over a bare shoulder, an exposed midriff, a shadow of cleavage. Or the shame of having a friend point out that they can see your nipples through your shirt. Hearing men shout in the street, commenting on any part of your body they see fit. Dress codes in certain parts of America have spiralled out of control, placing male sexual desire above female education. We degrade our men by assuming they cannot control themselves, and we shame women for dressing as they feel comfortable.

Covering up is not the answer; we are not the problem. When I wore that denim crop top, it was because I liked it, and it was a warm day. I should have the right to show my legs, and my cleavage, and my arms, and any part of myself that I feel like. Incidentally, a reason why I am a supporter of the Free the Nipple campaign; I am incensed when I see a man, shirtless in the summer sun, while I sweat into a tee-shirt. I digress.

Covering up is, for some women, not the answer; but for others it is. Our bodies are ours, to cover or reveal as we see fit. The rules that call women “sluts” and “whores” for wearing a short dress, the rules that say that the rape victim in a short skirt was “asking for it”, are the same rules that objectify and exoticise ethnic minority women for covering up. Of course, for women of colour, the sexism and misogyny of dress codes and clothes rules come layered with xenophobia, racism and, in the case of the French burkini ban, Islamaphobia.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 19.41.06.png

Obviously a key part of winning the war on terror

It is humiliating and wrong to force women to undress in public to fit in with Western, colonial ideals of how a woman should dress. No one should make me cover up; no one should make a Muslim woman undress. Do we honestly believe that all Muslim women are oppressed? They’re not – but even if, even if they were, on what basis do we think that we as white people ought to intervene? Women of colour don’t need saving by the rules of white men.

The truth of the matter is, we can’t win. If we wear too little, we are sluts. If we wear too much (if we are white) we are prudes. If we dare to be both a woman of colour and wear too much, we are oppressed. Clothes don’t oppress us in of themselves. What oppresses us is the mindless and numbing rules, the what to wear and how it impacts on our lives. We are not the problem. We have the right to wear what we like, be that string bikini or burkini.

Cultural Appropriation and Interracial Relationships

CN: (potential) cultural appropriation, discussion of race

A few days ago, my boyfriend bought me a dress for our anniversary. We don’t usually exchange presents, preferring instead to spend any money on a shared love of food, or a day out together. This purchase was an exception. We were wandering through the Amsterdam flower market, debating whether or not we would be allowed to bring tulip bulbs back into the UK, when my partner spotted a Chinese shop. Intrigued, we ventured inside. It was full of tiny, intricate rice bowls; gaudy stuffed pandas; painted fans; small glass ornaments. At the very back of the store, a row of beautiful embroidered dresses. At my partner’s suggestion, I tried several on; and, upon falling in love with a white and black embroidered dress, he insisted on buying it for me.

It is one of the most beautiful garments I have ever owned. Although not strictly traditional (it has a zip down the back, and I suspect is cut more generously for my European hips than would be the norm) it is modelled in the style of a qípáo. It has the same high collar, embroidery, leg slits and figure hugging cut that seems, even to the untrained eye, uniquely Chinese. And here lies the problem; unlike my boyfriend, I am white. I have never been to China. Outside of a few random words picked up in our two years of dating, I don’t speak any Chinese. My sole experience of his culture has been through him and his family. And, as I stood in the changing room, staring at myself in a beautiful dress modelled on Chinese fashion dating back to the 1920s, I wondered if wearing the dress was disrespectful.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 21.44.56.png

My beautiful white dress

Race politics are complicated, and I am not going to pretend for a second that I know very much at all. As mentioned, I’m white; I grew up in a white family, in a predominantly white town. I have never experienced discrimination or prejudice because of my race. I cannot fully understand or appreciate what it means to be an ethnic minority in 21st century Britain. I can only listen and observe. I can see my boyfriend surprised when a film or TV we watch has Asian characters in a substantial role. I can listen to one of my close friends telling me of the racial abuse she has suffered since the Brexit vote. I can ask questions, and listen to the answers, but I can never fully understand what it feels like to not be white.

I fundamentally believe that a key part of intersectional feminism has to be listening to oppressed groups, and not speaking over their experiences. Just as a man has no right to tell me what it is to be a woman, I have no right to make assumptions for what it is to be a POC. Ultimately, I allowed my partner to buy me the dress because he said he didn’t find it offensive. On the contrary, he said that it made him happy to see me embracing his culture.

That is something I have tried to do from the beginning of our relationship. Interracial relationships are becoming increasingly common in the UK, and the fact that my partner and I come from different races is no longer something unusual or frowned upon. My partner was born in the same city as me, only a few months later. He was raised in the UK, went to a school (strangely enough) just down the road from my own. We attended the same university. We share a love of food (Asian and Western, and anything at all really) and exercise, and a sense of humour. Our similarities are more than our differences. And yet, there remain some small cultural differences.

Only a month ago, I was shocked when his degree was awarded in his Chinese name; his official name. For me, it is strange that the English name that I have always known him by is not his legal name. I found it even stranger when, upon asking him which name he preferred, he told me that he liked them both equally. Arrogantly, I had assumed he would prefer his English name. A few weeks later, the onset of the Olympic games led me to learn that he cheers for both the Chinese and the British teams. Likewise, I hadn’t realised that my slating of the Chinese gymnastics team would draw such a frosty reaction from him; his national loyalty going deeper than I expected.

My mother has the unfortunate habit, whenever his Chinese identity comes up, of exclaiming “but he’s British! He was born here!” But it is not that simple, of course. As he has often explained to me, he is both Chinese and British; and as a result, feels something of an outsider in both cultures. It’s something I have always had to try hard to understand, being only British myself.

When he showed the dress to his mother proudly, I cringed a little. I was worried that she – born in China, but living here since she was my age – would find it offensive, or think that I was being disrespectful to her culture. After all, I couldn’t even read the washing instructions (they were in Chinese.) I didn’t realise that the lines at the bottom of the dress symbolise a river, or that the leafy greens are actually intricately embroidered bamboo canes. I was so worried that my partner asked her later, in private, what she thought. It turns out my worrying was for nothing; she said she didn’t see a problem with it.

I cannot undo my privilege as a white person. What I can do is try as hard as I can to understand and learn more about his family and his history, and the culture that is clearly important to him. When his aunt skyped from China, I swallowed my shyness and said hello, mindful that she didn’t speak a word of English and I not a word of Chinese. When his parents talk about their childhoods in the Chinese countryside, I listen and ask questions. I am fascinated when they explain the history behind my partner’s name (my parents’ reasons for choosing my own name being rather less complicated and interesting.) I try my hardest to pronounce his Chinese name correctly, and am not abashed when his parents laugh at my attempts. I learn the odd words he teaches me, and the other day I even laughed at a joke his Dad told in Chinese (picking up from his body language and my partner’s English reply what he had said.)

It is a minor part of our relationship, but still a part; and to deny it exists would be to deny part of my partner’s identity. My grandparents’ wedding anniversary is coming up, and I’m planning to wear the dress. In the meantime, I will keep trying to question and relearn my own internal biases. More than anything, I’m honoured that my partner and his parents see no problem with me wearing the dress.

A Patriot on Brexit

A few days ago, I flew home from a family holiday in Croatia. I love travelling; I love the adventure, the new food to be tasted, clear seas to swim in, unexplored dusty roads to walk. And yet, at the end of every holiday, I find myself sitting in the window seat of the aeroplane, watching with eagle eyes for the lush green fields and scattered houses that will tell me I’m home.

To be a patriot is, perhaps, unfashionable among my generation. We are, more than ever, children of the global age. We are connected through the Internet to thousands of other people, with the same shared interests and ideas. Travel has never been cheaper or easier, and we can hop on planes to far away destinations at the drop of a hat. We grew up in a more multicultural society than our parents and grandparents did, taking new languages and skin colours and ethnicities as a given. I remember a girl at school saying to me once that she didn’t feel British; she had lived all over the world, moving around with her parents, and she felt more than anything to be a bit of everything, a citizen of the world.

I’ve never felt that way. I feel British to my bones. I couldn’t tell you what it is, exactly, without resorting to trite stereotypes. A love (addiction, my boyfriend says) of freshly brewed tea, so hot it burns the tongue. A desire for order, queues, structure. A straight-laced sense of humour, a sarcastic quirk. A knowledge of Britain’s history (both good and bad), and a sense of belonging when I hear that distinctive Oxford accent. Of course, this feeling has changed and developed. In many ways, I feel less British now than I did when I was younger. Meeting and falling in love with my boyfriend showed me – intimately, in a way my small town girlhood never had – what it means to be between two cultures, to be both British and Other. Travelling, reading, exploring; these are the things, I think, that expand our horizons and make it harder to call oneself simply “British.”

All of which leads to the EU referendum, just a few short weeks ago. I voted of course; I voted to remain in, as did nearly everyone I know (certainly nearly everyone of my own age.) That night, my boyfriend and his friends were set to graduate; I sat up until late in the night, drunk on life and cheap wine, watching the results roll in. It looked positive, it looked in our favour, and I fell asleep confident that we would survive this.

When you have a nightmare, waking is the only relief. But the next morning, the nightmare was my new reality, and I couldn’t wake from it. My boyfriend and I sat in bed for hours, reading as many news articles as we could, both in shock.

As the news sunk in, the shock got worse. I didn’t expect Brexit to pass; I certainly didn’t expect to feel as I do. I feel heartbroken. I feel scared for my future, and the future of people I care about. I feel angry. I cling (desperately, foolishly, bleakly) to the hope that I might wake tomorrow and the result will have been reversed.

I am angry at the politicians who manipulated the public perception for their own personal gain. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage; I believe, with everything that I have, that these men lied and wormed their way into the leave campaign for political gain and then, when they won, quit rather than face up to the disastrous consequences of what they’ve done. I am angry with the people I know who voted for leave in the referendum. I’m not the only one; such is the depth of feeling among my contemporaries, many have removed pro-Brexit friends from their Facebook feeds. My own grandparents voted to leave. Of course, I still love them; I have always, and will always love them and do everything I can to make them proud. But knowing that they were complicit in what I see as the ruin of my country and the narrowing of my future chances in life is hard.

Sitting in the sun in Croatia, in amongst the wine and food and swimming, there were moments of heartache. Every time I saw an EU flag, I flinched. My passport – EU and British – was a stark reminder all the way through Gatwick of what my country had done. One night, I sat in the harbour of the town we stayed in. There was live music, English songs crooned with a slight foreign accent. Stopping to listen, you could hear Croatian, German, Italian being spoken. I wanted – I want – to be a part of that. I believe, more than anything, that we are stronger united than we are divided. I believe in the greatness of Britain; but a Britain working within Europe, with the people who – after all – are not that different from us.

We cannot know what the future holds, and I pray that it will not be as bad as I fear. But the day Britain voted to leave the EU, I became less proud of my county. I became, for the first time in my life, ashamed to be British.

Food

“Doesn’t it look good?”

“Yes. You’re a great cook, Sarah. In fact, I’d call you a chef.”

They are simple words, and yet they meant the world to me. They came from my dad, upon seeing me take tonight’s dinner – of stuffed peppers and courgettes with homemade garlic bread – out of the oven. They meant a lot for two reasons. My dad and I have always had a strained relationship. Compliments or praise have always been rare and hard earned. I distinctly remember telling him my GCSE results, beaming with pride, and seeing him nod once and walk away. A-levels were better; and in fact, calling him to say that I’d secured my place at Cambridge was the first time I can remember him saying he was proud of me. As I get older, I’m working on mending my relationship with him. It’s a slow process, and a difficult one. Knowing that he enjoys the food I make means a lot to me.

But there is another reason why his words pleased me, and that’s because I love cooking. I love food. I love it the way that other people love their families, or their partners, or their sport. I wake up thinking about what I will cook later, and I fall asleep planning meals (last night, I fell asleep planning salads for an upcoming barbeque I’m catering.) When I was bullied at school, there were two things that never failed to comfort me when I got home: writing and cooking. Writing took over my nights. I would huddle in my room, pouring my soul on to the paper. It was something that the bullies couldn’t touch. I created my secret worlds, and I filled them with friends, with magic, with love. The rest of the time, I spent in the kitchen. I cooked my first full meal when I was eleven. It was pasta with tomato sauce, but I made the sauce from scratch. I spent hours peeling the skin from tomatoes, sautéing them with onion and garlic, adding a little wine, a pinch of oregano. It was average at best, but it sparked a passion in me that has yet to be rivalled.

My days are built around the food I eat. I plan my lunch as I eat breakfast (while reading a cooking book at the same time, of course.) I shape my social life around cooking for friends, cooking for my housemates, cooking for my boyfriend. At school, several days a week, I would bring in tins of cakes or cookies, and watch them disappear among my friends. Coming home from school, I would put music on in the kitchen and start baking again, the rhythm and process always managing to soothe me. At university, my final year, I finally got an oven. I had the pleasure of five housemates more than willing to consume what I was making, and I fell into the habit of baking around my work. I would spend a morning making a loaf of bread, working on my laptop around kneading, proving, shaping, baking. The week of Lent bumps, I baked every day, under strict instructions from our coach that my boys had recovery food. Oat cookies, fruit loaf, chocolate cupcakes (at the end of the week), the leftovers devoured by my housemates.

I love to cook. I love selecting the ingredients as I walk around the supermarket. I love weighing the courgettes in my hand, selecting the brightest tomatoes, the firmest carrots. I love hunting through the meat aisles, looking for anything discounted, anything I can freeze. My store cupboard is always full, of beans and pulses, herbs and spices, pasta and rice, cous cous and noodles. I love trying new recipes, new ideas. When I cook, it is chaotic, I take over the whole kitchen. I taste as I go along, a pinch of turmeric here, a cinnamon stick thrown into a beef casserole at the last minute, a grind of pepper into a risotto. I grow herbs in the garden (not in a pot – I can’t keep them alive for longer than a week in a pot) and I love to run my hands over them, inhaling their scent, deciding what to do with them.

Nothing excites me more than cooking new food. One of my friends is vegetarian, and I love looking for new recipes when I cook for her. It has led me to vegetable curries, stuffed peppers, vegetarian lasagnes and inventive stir fries. Another friend is a vegan, and it recently led to vegan brownies, soft and rich and crumbly. Last summer, I taught myself how to make a selection of Indian curries. I spent hours researching them online, reading as many recipes as possible, looking for the similarities, how I could make them the best possible. I tested and perfected them, one at a time, changing the levels of spice and chilli and fire. By the end of the summer, I could make nearly half a dozen different ones, all distinct, all (in my humble opinion) delicious.

When my dad ate the stuffed peppers, he didn’t say anything. But he smiled, and that’s enough for me.

Graduating Cambridge: girl to woman

Today, I began a massive undertaking. I started to take down my wall (pictured above.) I created the wall when I was 13, a collection of photos, posters, tickets and cards that formed the basis of my teenage identity. I stopped adding to it several years ago. Yet every year at Cambridge, I have replicated it with my new life: with hall menus, race numbers, ADC tickets and birthday cards from new friends. Every year, I have taken those items down and stored them carefully. I now have three bags of them in my room, one for each year. Finally, the time has come for me to do the same to my childhood room, which is still decorated as it was when I was a girl.

Why am I doing this? Partly it’s because I will be moving out in the autumn, and feel like I should leave my room in a passable state for my parents. More importantly than that, however, is the shifting of my identity, and the need I have felt since graduating several weeks ago to consolidate it. The items that 13, 14, 15 year old Sarah decorated the walls with are telling. There are anti-bullying posters and declarations of self-esteem; ill-fated attempts to reclaim ownership of my body and mind which would fail for years to come. There are gay rights slogans and the flag I waved at my first pride parade; evidence of the stirrings of my activism and sense of social justice that have shaped so much of my life since.

There are pictures of young men, actors mainly, that teenage Sarah found attractive. There are movie tickets, neat and lined up in a vertical column. They are a testament to hours spent traipsing round the nearest town with a girl I no longer talk to, whiling away our adolescence by absorbing ourselves into someone else’s life. There are tickets to plays and concerts: a particular favourite being The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I first saw when I was 15 (with my Dad, not knowing the contents of the play. My conservative father was, it goes without saying, less than impressed.)

There are pictures drawn by friends, of jokes long since forgotten. Satirical cartoons, cut from copies of Private Eye, evidence of a burgeoning interest in politics that would eventually lead me to Cambridge. There is the personal statement I wrote when I was seventeen: in which I, ironically, express an interest in both Middle Eastern and gender politics (both of which I specialised in during my final year.)

Since graduating, I’ve been trying as hard as possible to keep myself busy. I have gone to the pub with my friends, met up with my boyfriend’s friends, cooked dinner for my family and spent more hours in the kitchen (already) than I would care to admit to. I even cleaned house (without being asked) the other day. I have also started sorting through my bedroom, a task of considerable effort. Part of this has been taking old clothes to charity shops, sorting through my family’s extensive video collection (including no less than three copies of Pocahontas.) In amongst this, I have been thinking about who I am now I’ve graduated.

Cambridge has been such a huge part of my life for three years, and it’s daunting to consider who I am without it. I will have to find a new identity, one that can move forward while still holding on to who I am. Some things will not change. I will still love cooking. I will still be a feminist. I will still love Disney movies, and dancing to Taylor Swift, and I plan to find a new rowing club. Some things will change, however. I won’t be a politics student; I will be a professional woman. Outside of Cambridge and my hometown, my name will be meaningless. There is some comfort in that.

Caitlin Moran once wrote that other people are mirrors; you see who you are reflected in them. If the mirror is distorted or broken, however, then you will see a false picture. For so many years, I have seen myself reflected in the hometown that I grew up in. As hard as I have tried to shake it, the words fat, ugly, bitch, go kill yourself, no one would care have still reverberated around my mind. When I walk down the high street here, I forget sometimes that I am a graduate of Cambridge University, that I am smart and funny and sexy. I remember being followed home from school, the time a group of boys threw rocks at me, and I feel once again eleven and scared and alone.

Leaving my hometown is a huge step for that very reason. I hate running into people I knew from school; and in a town this small, it is a weekly occurrence. Here, I hate the sound of my surname; the bullies at school would always call me by my full name, denying me the humanity of simply being “Sarah.” Here, I avert my eyes in Sainsbury’s, wary of being roped into a conversation with someone who called me a freak at school.

I have written before about exercising to reclaim my body. The coming months are about finding a new identity to reclaim my mind. I will find new mirrors, ones that reflect truly. Clearing out my childhood room is just part of that. As I look through my memories, I see moments of friendship and happiness, something new to build myself on. Thirteen year old Sarah needed self-esteem slogans painted across the walls. Eight years later, I will finally carry them in my head.

Learning something about yourself

“It’s how you respond to those situations, how you come back from them… that’s why we do this. To learn something about ourselves.”

My coach was speaking in the context of the May bumps. For those not in the know, bumps is a four day competition held at the end of Lent and Easter term in Cambridge. It can get pretty complicated, but the basic aim is to “bump” the boat in front of you (literally) as many times in the four days as possible. Once bumped, the boats swap positions and then race in their new positions the next day. Crews that bump every day win blades; crews that are bumped every day are awarded spoons. This May term will be my sixth set of bumps races.

I’ve never had much luck in the bumps: most of the bumps I’ve rowed or coxed in have been with W2, which has struggled to attract rowers, coaches and coxes over the years. Being bumped or rowing over again and again is demoralising, and it’s sometimes hard to keep motivating yourself. This is part of the reason, I think, for why the women’s side has struggled to field a strong W2 each year: no one gets to taste success, so they leave.

And yet, through all of this, I have stayed positive and kept rowing. I think this has taught me the most: that I care about my sport, and I’m willing to give it everything. As I go forward into the next stage of my life, that’s something that I hope will stay with me. The ability to face disappointment and continue on is something that I’m proud of.

Of all these experiences, the one that hit me hardest was actually that last day of Lent bumps this year. My crew had bumped up every day before, and everyone in the crew was tentatively hoping that we would make it four times and win our blades. Sitting on the start line, my heart was pounding. I knew that my steering on the previous days hadn’t been perfect; not bad by any means, but the margin for error is so small, every single detail matters. We went off hard, knowing that they would be a tough crew to beat. They actually pulled away relatively early on, but I didn’t realise: I’m not a great judge of distance, and I thought that we were holding them. As we came round Grassy, I could see them closing in on the crew in front, and a wave of terror went through me. Luckily, Downing pulled away, and we moved up on them again, but we couldn’t get closer than half a length. It was hard row. We did our “bumps move.” Twice. We took the rate up. There was a point, around the P+E, when I knew that it would take a miracle for us to bump. And yet I was still willing it to happen, still calling the crew on, right until Pembroke’s stern crossed the finish line and they were safe.

Realising that we weren’t going to make it was one of the most heart wrenching moments of my life. The coxes seat is a unique position for this very reason: you know what’s going on in front, while the rest of the crew doesn’t. I couldn’t let them know that we weren’t going to make it. After we crossed the finish line, I was close to tears. Not just because we’d missed out on blades, but because I knew how much it meant to the eight other people in the boat. We had trained so hard, and it hadn’t been enough on the day. Over the next few weeks, I thought a lot about that race. I wondered if my corners could have tighter, what could I have called differently, what would have made the difference? In the end, bumps is a competition of luck, and I’ve had to accept that. But that moment outside of the P+E is burned into my brain. I wish it has gone differently, but you can’t change the past. All you can do is learn from what came before, and hope that you do things differently next time. Fingers crossed that continues into this week of bumps.