Men, shut up and listen

I can already hear the men clicking on this and getting outraged. “It’s not all men!” “That wasn’t even sexist, it was just banter!” “Why are you so upset?” “Telling men to shut up is sexist in itself!”

A week ago, I gave a speech to nearly a hundred people on my graduate scheme. The theme was public narrative, and we could choose to talk about anything we wished. I talked about street harassment. I talked about two weeks ago in Clapham, when a man gave me a red rose, the spines pricking against my hand, and then proceeded to follow me the not inconsiderable distance to the tube station. I told them about how, after boarding that train and travelling across London to my boyfriend’s nearest station, I was harassed by two men, their faces shadowed by hoodies as they crowded up against my body and asked where I was going that night. I got home, angry, afraid, shaking. Angry because I should be able to walk less than 30 minutes through my own city without being made to feel fundamentally unsafe. Afraid, because I didn’t know those men. They were all taller than me, more solid, probably stronger. Coming home should be a sanctuary. The room was full of my boyfriend and his (male) flatmates, men I have come to care for, who I see as friends. I told them, and then “women never hit on me in public!” in that tone of voice that says “what are you complaining about?”

My speech touched on that, the idea that men need to listen. I was afraid, that night in Clapham. I was afraid in Finsbury park. I have been afraid in Oxford, and Cambridge, and now in London. I have been angry at men who shout at me, furious that I can’t even go and buy milk in peace. I have been humiliated by wolf whistles and car horns honking, as people nearby turn their head and try and see what I’ve done to deserve it. I have been reduced to tears in public by a man who followed me in a car honking his horn until I turned around and told him to fuck off, at which point he released a torrent of horrific abuse before speeding off. As I cried, another man approached me, and I flinched away from him, before he kindly asked me if I was alright. I had expected more abuse. The most extreme example of this I wrote about here, when a man in a balaclava masturbated at me in a deserted public park. I have never been more afraid in my life than in that moment.

I wrote a while ago about #notallmen, but it clearly bears repeating. Not all men are rapists, are harassers, are abusers. But all men benefit from systemic sexism, and all women bear the damaging effects of it. There isn’t a tiny subset of men doling out this abuse, and if only we could root them out we could achieve equality. Sexism is pervasive, it invades every facet of our society, and we all need to examine our privileges and assumptions. Rapists and street harassers are not weird outliers, waiting to harass women at the slightest opportunity. They are someone’s son, brother, boyfriend, date.

Rewind to many years ago. I was 16 or 17, awkward, gangly, desperate for male attention and utterly unaware how to get it. I went to a friend’s party one night, where I was introduced to a friend of a friend. He was tall, dark haired, not especially handsome but not bad looking either. At the end of the night, he asked for my number. I was giddy. I went to a museum with this boy, and then lunch, and he kissed me at the bus stop and asked to see me again. The next time, I went to his house, and we played Mario kart and had pasta and then went to watch a movie. It was Hot Fuzz. I remember that to this day. After the movie, he rolled on top of me and started kissing me. I kissed back for a while, and then I started growing uneasy. His hands on me were painful. He was pressing against me in a way that I didn’t like. I couldn’t breathe, and I tried to push him away. To this day, I don’t know if he didn’t notice or just didn’t care. He kept going. And in that moment, for the first time in my life I think, I was terrified. No one else was home. He was taller than me, at least 6 foot if my memory serves correctly. I seem to remember he played sport, hockey or something of the sort. And I knew that if I screamed and said no, and he didn’t listen, I wouldn’t have been able to stop him. I kept struggling, trying to push him away, and eventually he stopped. I left, and I never heard from him again.

That boy grew up to study PPE at Oxford. We have friends in common on Facebook. He has a girlfriend. I don’t know if he meant to scare me like that. I don’t know if he realised that I was trying to push him away. I just know that that moment of fear is etched into my brain. I looked him up on Facebook before I wrote this, and even the sight of him again made me shiver. Just a little bit. He’s a normal bloke. He has a degree, and a girlfriend, and yet in that moment when I was 16, I was so so afraid of him. And I bet he doesn’t even know.

Men, you need to listen. These experiences are not outliers. They are not unusual. After I spoke to those people on my graduate scheme, I had a score of women come up to me afterwards, telling me about their experiences. As women, we need to share these stories. They help us to build a sense of collective identity. They help us consolidate our experiences, to stop men gaslighting us and telling us that our experiences aren’t valid. Most importantly, they tell us that we’re not alone.

Men, you need to listen. When I say something is sexist, when I talk about misogyny on the television or sexual harassment at work, or catcalling in the street, why do you dismiss my experiences? Is it your arrogance? Your privilege? Do you think we’re having a nice little debate about feminism? We’re not. You are actively and aggressively denying my lived experience as a woman. You are gaslighting me and telling me that my experiences aren’t real. You are part of the problem. You don’t believe you are sexist. In that moment, you are. I implore you. Shut up and listen. And I mean really listen. Don’t just sit there, waiting to come up with a “witty” comeback for me. Don’t laugh and make jokes. Just fucking listen. You might learn something.

And to end on a positive note, I said all of this last night to my boyfriend. We were huddled together under the covers, our faces in shadow, but I could feel his eyes on me as I talked. I was angry, and sad, I ranted and I raved and I spoke dejectedly, and he laid there in silence until I had finished. One of the things I love about my boyfriend is how quietly principled he is. He thinks about things, long and hard, until he’s reached a position. It’s a nice balance to my angry passion.

When we met three years ago, he didn’t know anything about feminism. I remember going with him to the fair, a few months after we started dating, and pointing out all of the pictures of half naked women on the side of the rides. He told me he’d never noticed before. I remember him asking me what kind of birth control he should go on, and me laughingly telling him that the pill only existed for me. I was touched that he cared. There have been so many nights like last night, when I have been angry and sad, and he has just listened. Sometimes he pitches in with his own experiences as an ethnic minority. He tells me about his experiences of having parents who were immigrants, what it feels like to be part of two cultures, but not fully part of one, and I try and stay silent and let him talk. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable for me, as a white person. That’s just tough though, it’s not his job to make me feel better about my privilege. Last night though, he just listened to me. And then, for the first time in the three years we’ve been dating, he told me that he would now call himself a feminist. I don’t think I’ve ever loved him more.

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Failure

CN: sex, pain, mention of medical conditions

I’m curled on my side, my body hunched and small in the foetal position. I can feel him behind me, hovering an inch away from my back, but he knows better than to touch me. Every inch of me feels wrong, my skin feels too tight, and there’s a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m such an idiot. I thought this time would be different.

It never is.

I wrote a month ago about the pain I’ve been getting in my abdomen. That’s hard enough to talk about – how do you drop “oh yes, I missed work on Monday because I was in A&E with agonising stomach cramps that so far remain unexplained” into polite conversation? I’ve had some scans now; they’ve found nothing, which means that I’m clear of something like ovarian cysts, and I’ve taken a strong course of antibiotics, so if it was anything like PID, that would have been cleared up. The stomach pains are becoming more infrequent, and my period passed this month without pain out of the ordinary. The pains in my stomach are going, but I know that I’m not better. Not by a long shot.

The first time it happened, we were in my room at Cambridge. It was second year; my door didn’t have a lock; and my roommate could have come in at any moment. Classic student sex, rushed in between studying and essays and being caught. I remember the pain building and building, not wanting to say anything, and then crying uncontrollably after he was done, while my partner held me close and apologised over and over again.

We thought it was a fluke, a one off, a dodgy position. We wrote it off, and for a while, everything went back to normal. And then it happened again. And again. And again. Infrequent enough that I barely paid it any attention, thinking that maybe we were just rushing and needed to slow down. It got slowly worse. There would be nights when having sex would leave me in agony for hours afterwards, sitting in a hot bath to relieve the pain and brushing away my partner’s apologies. It stopped being “something that happens every now and again.” It started to happen more often. Soon, it was nearly every time we had sex. Then, it was unusual when it didn’t hurt. Now, I can’t remember when it last didn’t hurt.

As a culture, we’re obsessed with sex. We listen to songs with racy lyrics, we watch music videos with scantily clad women, porn is more watched than ever, TV shows like Love Island put sex in our living room, every night of the week. We love to talk about it, who did what with whom. Games of truth or dare and never have I ever, giggling as you reveal that one night stand you had in college. When we’re having it, it’s great. Sex is exciting, fun, something to laugh over with your friends in the pub while you hold your partner’s hand under the table and give them that look that means later.

On a more personal level, I love sex. I’m usually the loudest in the pub, making my friends blush and shush me. I spent my first year at Cambridge bringing home as many men as I could. I’ve reviewed sex toys for online blogs, and written erotica, and defended watching pornography at the Cambridge Union, and written academic essays promoting female masturbation. I love talking about sex.

It’s just so much harder to talk about when it’s going wrong.

So I put off saying anything to anyone. I hid it from my closest friends. I hid it from my partner. I would tuck my face into his neck, grit my teeth, and then smile at him afterwards, huddling in to his chest and trying to ignore the ache between my legs. I avoided going to see a doctor for so long. When I went, a middle aged woman with a quiet smile examined me, ran tests, told me that there was nothing wrong with me. She was kind, but I felt like a failure.

In Kingston, I met with my new GP. I ran through my prescriptions, that I would need to be set up with my contraceptive and my anti-depressants (thankfully, I’m no longer taking the latter) and then, at the end, I mustered all of my courage, and said in a small voice “when I have sex, it hurts. Like, it really hurts. It’s been happening for over a year.” And that GP smiled at me, and told me that it didn’t matter. I left, humiliated.

Six months later, the stomach pains bought it all back in to focus. Sitting in A&E, the doctor asked me if I had any other symptoms of endometriosis. I hesitated, and then I told her. Now, I’m being investigated at Kingston hospital for any physical issues that might be causing this, and going to see a specialist at St Mary’s in Paddington to see if its an emotional issue.

It’s hell, that’s what it is. I know that I should brush it aside. It doesn’t make me less attractive or less of a woman. Sex involves more than penetrative sex. My partner loves me, and he would never leave me over this.

But I do feel less attractive. I feel less comfortable in my own skin. Sex is more than penetrative, but I would like that to at least be an option. And as much as he loves me, why wouldn’t he walk away? There are plenty of women out there without this problem. He’s a great guy; he’d find someone else.

Every time it happens, I die a little more inside. We talk about it, agree that we just won’t do that, we’ll do everything else. And we do, and its great, and then I go and fucking ruin it by suggesting that we try it. Just once more. I’m ready. It will be fine. And then searing pain rips through me, and I find myself curled up crying, again. I’m such an idiot.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever written, because I feel like a failure.

I sent the first draft of this to my partner to read. “You’re not a failure, and I’m not going to leave you, and I love you.” He’s right, of course. We’re a team. We’ll deal with this like we deal with everything. Together. Next tests are in September, so we’ll know more then.

It might not be. It might.

I stand in front of the mirror, my hands pressed lightly to my stomach. My hands are cold; the skin of my stomach is warm to the touch. I run my fingers lightly over the curve and swell, over the light hairs and the freckles and the indent of my belly button. My hands trail lower, to the sharp bone of my hip and there, just there. I inhale sharply as I press down. That shouldn’t be there. That shouldn’t hurt. And for the first time, I’m afraid.

Multiple trips to a&e. Doctors running their hands down my sides. Nurses with sympathetic eyes. Long waits in sterile rooms, my boyfriend clutching at my hand. They don’t know what it is. They said I need a scan. They say it could be nothing. Or it could be everything. I watch their eyes widen as I tell them it runs in the family. It might not be that. But it might be.

If it is, my insides will attack themselves. Tissue will grow where it should not. Every month, that tissue will shed with the lining of my womb. I will lie in agony as my body tears itself apart. It scars, every month. Those scars build up. Left to its own devices, my body will become a prison of pain and scars and infertility.

Do you know what I’m talking about? It affects around 1.5 million women and girls in the UK. 10% of women worldwide are estimated to have it, but the figures are likely to be much higher.

My mum has it. My sister has it. It runs in families.

I look down at my stomach again, stroke the skin. I close my eyes, and I hope. My body is my rock. It’s mine, my solace, my fortitude. It is not the most beautiful, not flawless or perfect. It is perfectly imperfect. It is scarred and ridged and mine. And it has been my fortress, my hide away from the world. Even in my darkest moments, the nights I have looked in to the mirror and seen nothing but fat and ugly, it has always been strong. And now it turns out that that strength might be an illusion.

I’ve never wanted children. It’s true that I don’t especially like children, but that’s not the reason why. When I imagine my life, when I fantasise about who I might be and where I might go, it is wild and varied. My career spans across reckless possibilities. My mind fills with the food I would like to taste, the baking I want to achieve. I picture the man I want to be holding my hand. Sometimes, there’s no man at all. I picture mundane things like the kitchen units in my dream home, friends growing older and getting married, my little sister having her first child. I imagine the places I want to visit, where the climates are hot and animals I have only seen in zoos roam freely. Never. Never in any of those dreams, have I ever seen children, my children, held in my arms. Not once. I don’t picture it. I don’t dream of it.

Infertility doesn’t scare me. What scares me is the thought of a body that is beyond my control, that hurts indiscriminately and cannot be cured, only slowed.

I’ve got a scan in two weeks. I hold the hospital letter in my fist, let my other hand drop again to my belly. It might be. It might not be. We’ll have to wait and see.

I can and I will

CN: Sexism, use of the c-word, workplace sexism

“You’re just not a leader.”

“I went to a better university than you.”

“Women just aren’t suited to that kind of thing.”

“Why is the Chief Executive meeting with you – isn’t that a massive waste of his time?”

“I think you’re a vicious cunt.”

Well, I think you mean nothing.

You want to tear me down? Fine. Try. You will fail. I don’t need your validation. I don’t want it. It means nothing to me.

You’re not special. The world is full of insecure men unable to keep up with the world as it changes around them. If you are a woman, you will spend your life fighting against their assumptions, their prejudices. You will spend a lifetime being called “darling” in the office. You will spend a lifetime being catcalled in the street, and groped in bars, and abused by men who are not worth the dirt under your shoes. Think about it. Think about all the men who have tried to tear you down, to tell you that you are worthless. Or, almost worse; that you’re not quite good enough, not quite what they were looking for. We all know what they mean.

We don’t talk about it, far too often. We carry these silent burdens. We shrug it off. What does it matter that someone senior to you at work slipped his arm around your waist at that Christmas function? It was just a joke when that man hit on you at the end of a meeting. You shouldn’t be offended when someone mistakes you for a waitress at a work event (bitch I’m running this thing.)

Fuck that. We have been silent for too long. Next time a man looks at you and finds you wanting, you laugh right in his face. It’s far too easy to let those assumptions slither in. They are poison, creeping through the veins of every woman. You are enough. You are smart. You are beautiful. Your hips are gorgeous. Your smile is contagious. You got that job because you earned it. You can lead. You can follow. You can do, and be, whatever the hell you want to be, because this is 2017 and we will not be held down.

There will always be people to tell you that you can’t do that, you can’t achieve everything you want them to. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that they’re wrong. I’ll say it again: you are enough. Have that confidence in yourself. Whenever I come up against comments like the ones at the top of this post, I take a deep breath, and I list myself.

I am smart. I am ambitious. I am driven. I work hard. I am loved. I can do whatever I want to do.

And then I remember this, and I feel again the solidarity of thousands of women who have held themselves back because they didn’t believe in themselves. We are enough.

“You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

CN: body image, weight loss, potentially triggering comments, mention of actual weights

I wrote a while ago about body image. I had just gotten to a point – finally, after so many years – of being happy with the way I looked. I wrote that I would ignore the weight on the scales, and I would focus on loving my body for what it is; flawed and human and beautiful. Nearly a year later, that ideal is under threat.

Moving to London, I joined a new rowing club. It’s easily the best decision I’ve made since coming here. My new girls are funny and smart and kind, and getting to know them, becoming their cox, has been a pleasure. It’s given me somewhere to go when the days at work seem too long, somewhere to focus and forget how much I miss Cambridge, how much I miss my friends, how much I long to see my boyfriend. A bad day at work can be worked out in the gym with them, lifting half of what they do. It can be alleviated squatting behind them on the ergs, watching their splits drop and willing them on with everything that I have. The best times are when we’re on the water, and it’s still and calm and I can feel myself slipping back into that place I loved at Cambridge, where the world is a puzzle and your voice, your words, provide the solution. When there is nothing else in the world but the rhythm of the rowers, and everything else melts away. It’s why I love racing so much; in that moment, we are one.

We have a new coach. He’s eccentric, and constantly grumpy, and also, I suspect, slightly brilliant. I enjoy coxing under him; it’s stressful, but he reminds me of my DoS at Cambridge, a woman I admired above all others. Compliments are rare; criticism is swift; and you can feel yourself becoming better the more time you spend with them. It’s not a picnic. More than once, I’ve sat in the boat on the edge of tears, as my coach tears into me and I feel, more than anything, that I’ve let my girls down. But then he says “good job today, Sarah”, and suddenly it’s all worth it. He’s clever like that.

The first time we met, he took one look at me, his eyes pausing on my long legs, my strong thighs, the curve of my hips.

“You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

It was not the last comment he would make on my weight in the months that followed.

“How much weight can you lose and how fast?”

“You’ll need to cut down”

“Do you even fit into the boat?”

“See her? She’s a real size for a cox”

“You probably weigh as much as me!”

“We’ll need to run that muscle and fat off of you”

“You need to take responsibility for your own weight.”

“We need to get you down to an acceptable weight.”

I’m big for a cox. I’m tall, always have been, and with my long legs comes extra weight. The minimum weight for a women’s cox is 50kg. The minimum weight for a men’s cox is 55kg. I am currently sitting at around 60kg. The whole point of the minimums is to stop coaches forcing their coxes to lose an unhealthy amount of weight, as going below that results in the cox having to carry weights into the boat and so any advantage is lost. 50kg for me is not possible; my coach accepts that, even if he’s not thrilled at the idea. But 55kg is certainly within reach, and that’s what he wants me to get down to.

I’ve never tried to lose weight as an adult woman. My body has changed so much over the years, gaining and losing weight, and it’s now settled into where it’s meant to be. Where it’s happy being. This is the me that runs and lifts weights and does yoga and climbs. This is the me that dances around the kitchen and spoons my boyfriend late at night and wiggles into skinny jeans and buys tiny crop tops from charity shops. If I wanted to, I could tell my coach to bugger off, tell him that I love myself and I won’t change for anyone.

But I know that I have it in me to lose that weight. I’m competitive; I want the best boat I can get, and there are smaller coxes in my way. More than anything, I know it would help my girls. The trouble is, how do you love yourself when you’re constantly weighing yourself? When every mouthful you eat has to be analysed? When you find yourself hating yourself a little bit more every day? When a glance into the mirror isn’t “damn girl, you look hot today” but “fuck, I knew I shouldn’t have had that sandwich for lunch”?

I don’t have the answer. I need to take this slow and steady. I need to lose weight doing the things I love; I need to run, faster, and lift (if not anything too heavy) and climb, and stretch. I need to cook, healthy meals from scratch. I need to dance around that kitchen, and then I need to snuggle on to the sofa and watch a movie with a glass of wine. And if, it the end of everything, I can’t get to 55kg, I need to be the best damn cox I can be. I reckon that’s more important than an extra 2kg any day.

Fear

CN: Sexual harassment, flashing, sexism, threat, mention of sexual assault, mention of potential rape

I love horror movies. Some of my favourite films and TV shows – Scream, Silence of the Lambs, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Martyrs – belong to the genre. Some of them, I love for their complexity and their intrigue, like Hannibal and Silence of the Lambs. Some, like Scream, I love for guessing who the killer is. Some I love just for the gore, something thought provoking and shocking (and trust me, I’ve never seen anything as shocking as Martyrs. Saw eat your heart out.) Most of the time, though, I’m just looking to be scared. Like many people, I find it fun, sitting in the dark, not sure who will live and who will die. It’s harmless, and you know (however much it might seem like a serial killer is lurking in your closet as you lie in bed that night) that you’re safe.

Today, I wasn’t safe, and it wasn’t a movie, and it wasn’t fun.

It was early morning, and I was walking to my new boat club, excited, nervous, still a little sleepy. I’ve been planning to join for a while, and today was meant to be my first outing with the top women’s squad. The walk from my home is relatively long – about half an hour – but I was entertaining myself by playing on my phone, looking around as the sun rose over the river. The last part of my walk took me through a park, only for maybe the final five minutes. The park was dark, not well lit, and it was pretty much empty. Still, I kept walking. I was worried I was going to be late for my first session. I was concentrating on my phone, when I sensed someone near to me.

I glanced up, and there was a man, standing just a few feet away from me on the same path. The first thing I noticed was that he was wearing a black balaclava that covered his entire face, leaving only crude holes for his lips and eyes. I was taken aback, and I kept walking. Then, I glanced over again, nervous now, and I saw that he had dropped his trousers. He had dropped his trousers, and he was masturbating himself. And he was looking right at me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I could do. All I knew was that I had to get away, as fast as I could, without antagonising him. I quickened my pace, but kept it at a walk. I lowered my eyes to my phone. I toyed with calling my mother or boyfriend but decided that I didn’t want the man to hear the sound of my voice. I didn’t want to look back. I couldn’t hear footsteps behind me, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.

My heart was hammering in my chest, and I felt sick and embarrassed and suddenly, painfully, aware of how vulnerable I was. My boyfriend wasn’t expecting me back for hours, and no one at the club had my number. If that man had decided to attack me, I would have been entirely vulnerable. As I neared the end of the park, I saw the lights of the boat club, heard the familiar whir of ergs. I dared a glance behind me; the man was nowhere to be seen. I entered the boat club; I met my new crew; I coxed an outing; and I helped the women put their boat away; and I smiled and laughed and said I would see them tomorrow. I walked home, and it was only as I crossed that path in the park again that I remembered what had happened. It was daylight, late morning, the park was busy and full of people, families and children and women. I was still scared.

I was scared as I walked home, and through the park near to my house, and when my boyfriend and I went in to town later in the day to go food shopping. This is a fear that every woman knows. The fact that I could brush aside what happened this morning so easily is evidence of that. I am used to that fear, when I walk home alone at night, or I see men in public and no one else is around. I feel it when a man’s eyes linger on me in public. I felt it, 16, when a boy I had gone on a date with held me down and rubbed himself against me, and I lay there, scared and not sure how to react. I knew then what I know now; that the power was in his hands, that I was vulnerable, and that if he chose to hurt me, there’s no guarantee that I could defend myself. We as women carry these scars, we carry this fear.

I called the police when I got home. I talked to a sympathetic woman, who took down the details of what had happened and tried to comfort me. I am walking that same route tomorrow morning. And I’m scared. But I know that I want to go cox another outing, I want to make new friends and commit myself to my sport all over again. I’ll just have my phone out and ready to call for help. Just in case.

“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.