Content warning: this article contains references to sexual abuse and assault.
“I was able to tell the tale to close family members nonchalantly and it’s already becoming just another disgusting situation I was subjected to.”
For all their merits, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have blown the cork on the dialogue surrounding sexual assault, stimulating a colossal flow of deeply personal accounts from all around the globe; but in many ways, I believe it has overly normalised the issues as well. Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are words thrown around playfully by many. These things no longer seem to have a shock factor; every other article is about surviving these ordeals or demanding change, and we simply start to flick past them on our social media with only the brief repetitive reminder that this shit is everywhere and it is still happening. There are just simply too many stories being told to get upset and angry at each and every single one. We hear the statistics and people just see the numbers, forgetting the raw realities of all the victims who make up that percentage on a page. I am guilty of it myself, even though I am part of those statistics. I’m going to allow you an uncomfortable peek into my past, my story – because I am one girl, in a sea of millions, who is just trying to stumble through life as best I can; but a problem I’m facing today, in 2019, is something none of us can escape from: it is the normalisation of trauma.
At 20-years old I already have a pretty extensive timeline. I was sexually abused as a child. I grew up confused and depressed and I spent my first few teenage years in a severely dark, numb bubble. I’ve had more nights out where I’ve been inappropriately touched than not. I’ve left clubs in tears, having had gammy hands grab at my breasts or slip under my skirt at the bar. I’ve had men corner me outside toilets and pin me against walls, telling me that “I want it”. My boyfriend has had to shove men away from me countless times when they just won’t take no for an answer, or manoeuvre me through spaces with his arms wrapped tightly around me, protecting me from the numerous lurking creeps. I walk down the street and have men in cars beep at me and shout things from their windows, despite whether I’m showing off some leg or bundled up in twenty-plus layers. I’ve ventured around the world and just had to “put up with” the animalistic stares of men as I walk through the blistering heat in shorts. Every single female reading this will be able to recall their own experiences, very similar to my own. But it was something that happened to me on a flight, all but a week ago, which made me put pen to paper (or rather fingertip to keyboard) and write this article.
After backpacking around South East Asia with my boyfriend for six weeks, I was on a flight bound for Istanbul, where my connection to London was due. We were packed in, like tinned sardines, hot and cramped and all visibly tired. I was crammed between an older lady and a Turkish male in his forties. The flight left at midnight, and most of us had presumably been awake all day and were looking forward to closing our eyes and waking up somewhere over the Middle East. But I just couldn’t relax.
The man’s arm was draped over the seat divider and onto my side of the chair, and his legs were spread so that his foot was pushed up against mine. And as the plane lights dimmed and people closed their eyes, he kept slipping his hand onto my leg. I was exhausted and emotionally drained after a heartfelt goodbye to my boyfriend (who would not be flying home with me due to studying abroad this year in Malaysia). So, in my irritable mood, I kept shoving his hand back onto his own leg (albeit overly politely as I cannot escape my awkward Britishness of not kicking up a fuss). Eventually, sleep overcame me, and I could no longer stop my head from nodding forward every few seconds.
It must have barely been half an hour when I startled suddenly to see his disgusting, meaty hand groping my crotch area. I jumped up and practically pushed the older woman out of her seat as I clambered out onto the aisle, leaving my shoes and belongings behind. I stumbled to the back of the plane and collapsed in a fit of shaky tears in front of the flight attendants. Through uncontrollable sobs I relayed my story and within minutes I was being wrapped in blankets, given water and escorted to business class to keep me safe. The next few hours were a blur as surrounding passengers were questioned; the man closed his eyes, turned his head and refused to talk, the captain informed the police on the ground in Istanbul and I was made to write a statement. The flight attendants were absolutely wonderful, checking on me constantly, making up my bed in business class and trying to bring me a constant supply of hot food and tea. But I couldn’t enjoy it. I was in a daze, frightened and weary. They gave me access to WiFi to contact my mum and dad and my boyfriend and I ultimately had to make the decision as to whether I wanted the man detained as soon as we hit the tarmac. But I was alone, sleep deprived, afraid and traumatised. The thought of sitting in an interrogation room in an unfamiliar country, with people speaking an unfamiliar language, all the while delaying my journey further (from 50-odd hours to potentially days) repulsed me. I felt dirty and lonely, and I just wanted to go home. When we landed, the plane disembarked and I was taken off last, along with the crew and captains, and transported to the terminals on their private bus, hustled through underground corridors and put straight to the front of immigration. One of the flight attendants, who never let go of my hand, squeezed me tightly, gave me a sympathetic smile and then that was it. I was back on my own. Despite immigration being informed, I ended up trudging through the airport all by myself, wet from the silent tears which streamed constantly down my face as my eyes frantically scanned the area, looking for the face that would send chills down my spine. One more flight and four trains later and I was finally home; shaken up, but home.
Now my problem is, it has barely been a week since this occurred and I have already frozen over the memory, locked the trauma in a box and buried it deep inside my brain somewhere. I was able to tell the tale to close family members nonchalantly and it’s already becoming just another disgusting situation I was subjected to. I shuddered as I wrote this story down but that was the extent of my reaction. And this is the case whenever I speak about any of the incidents I previously mentioned. I’m incredibly thankful for the movements which have created a society where I can openly discuss these things and feel safe and accepted. I’m grateful that we have built a tolerance where victims can come forward and will not be immediately silenced. For the most part, and especially in the West, we are extremely lucky because there will always be people to support and listen. But we are also becoming numb to the extent of what is happening. This normalisation of trauma is rooted into our reactions – be it to other people’s stories or our own.
I’m learning there is no time I can ever relax. Even though my parents prescribe to me being a “strong, independent woman”, my dad has ingrained in me from a young age to be constantly on alert, scanning for dangers and preparing to keep myself safe: “Can I reach my keys and should I hold them in my hand right now?” “Have I put my hair down so nobody can grab my ponytail?” “Is my headphone volume quiet enough that I can hear for people around me?” “Should I stop drinking now so I can rely on getting myself home safely?” A million precautions tick through my head daily and unconsciously. But on a jam-packed, long-haul flight, I thought I was safe enough to try and get an hour or so’s sleep and let my guard down. But even then, I wasn’t safe. When I’m out in a big group, surrounded by male friends and a boyfriend right next to me, I think I’m safe and not vulnerable; but I still am. When I was seven years old and tucked up in pyjamas, I thought I was safe; but I wasn’t. There is no time to recover from one account of sexual assault to the next. And it’s taken a toll on my reactions to it. I’m becoming less frightened and less traumatised with each one. I’m waiting for the next time to happen and shrugging off inappropriate behaviour towards me as something that is just part of my day-to-day life. I walked through Gatwick airport with a stony look on my face and my fingers gripping my backpack, passing by hundreds of people who had absolutely no idea I had just been molested on my flight. I was just another stranger passing by. How many times does this happen? How many times do we walk past people on the streets who may have just been raped or sexually assaulted, but appear to be perfectly normal?
These incidents are of course not isolated to women and I absolutely do not want to make that assertion; but I bet you can’t find one woman who is unable to tell you of a time she experienced a very uncomfortable or inappropriate situation. Yes, it’s amazing we’re opening up an arena to commit to the dialogue surrounding these incidents; but where is this path taking us? Okay, so somebody musters up the courage, is able to shout, “Me Too” and tell their story… but what happens next? Each account is just another story thrown onto a growing pile and taken no further. You add yourself to the statistics, people are shocked and say we need to make a change, but what is really happening in our day-to-day lives which proves this to be true? Yes, we have more support groups, and yes, we have this “safe space” where we can all jump on the bandwagon and discuss our trauma; but at the end of the day, I don’t see this kind of behaviour stopping any time soon.
We need to make this conversation worth having. We need to actually see a marked change in (and I’m sorry to say it, as men and women are both victims and offenders, but it is often men who are the culprits), the behaviour of men towards others. Not all men can be blamed for the actions of a few, of course, but as they are predominantly the offenders, the message towards behaviour change does need to be largely directed towards them. We need to all start living in a world where it’s not common to tag #MeToo on your Twitter profile, or see armies of girls gripping various sharp objects as they sprint down the street after dark. These kinds of crime are still just too easy to get away with. It is still often a “he said – she said” scenario, victims are frequently publicly humiliated, judged and disbelieved when reporting these crimes; some incidents (like having your boob grabbed in a bar) just don’t seem worth reporting because they happen so often, and the punishments of the perpetrators are frankly laughable for the most part.
So maybe the behaviours aren’t changing because the reactions to victims are still weak and degrading and the punishments of perpetrators are just not a strong enough deterrent – there’s not enough definity that they will be held accountable. Sometimes I am thankful for the normalisation of my own traumas. It allows me to continue living each day without breaking down into tears every other minute or isolating myself inside, too afraid of the world. I can talk to friends about it, hear their similar stories and then go back to a normal conversation five minutes later with no qualms. I can write an article where I put my name next to the raw, personal details of my own traumas, displaying to the world the exact details of my life I have strived to keep very private for so long and know that I have nothing to be ashamed of. But I still wake up shaking and screaming at night. I still walk with my keys pressed tightly between my fingers. I still break down and cry sometimes as I relive some of my past. But I’m not alone in this, and I suppose that is one very important concept I have learnt following these vital movements… behaviour might not be propelling towards change, but the ability to get people talking about these issues certainly is.