A funny thing, shame. This week I was touched up in a city-centre café. I still feel guilt, for all the wrong reasons. Or maybe for all the right reasons.
Before male readers stoutly leap to my defence – as my furious husband did – I should elaborate. Why? Because the female experience is complex. So are our responses.
If I sound apologetic, it’s because it was nothing. But it was also something. So why did I not kick up an almighty fuss, dammit? I’m hardly a wallflower when it comes to speaking out. And yet, I didn’t.
Actually that’s not quite true either. The first time the man’s hand brushed low against my hip as I stood at the counter I assumed I was standing in the wrong place and moved.
The second time I felt his hand, he was hurrying past. I gave an exclamation and whipped around to glare at him. He extended his arms in a gesture of submission and apologised extravagantly.
Did I mention he worked at the café? Alongside a warm, pleasant woman who I assume was his wife.
As I chatted to her he squeezed past me once more, his hand trailing lightly over my bottom – again I made an irritated noise. Again he apologised; the space was too small, too busy, he smiled and shrugged.
It sounds so stupid, but by then I was genuinely doubting myself. Had I imagined it? Was I overreacting?
I paid up. As I left, I felt his hand a fourth time. But I didn’t want to make a fuss. Didn’t want to embarrass the woman. Didn’t want to linger even a moment longer.
Days later I feel cross. Not at him. At myself. Which is entirely crazy but there you go. Had it been another woman – my own daughter – being touched I would have erupted into righteous fury.
I feel upset that I didn’t. Maybe if he’d been a great big hulking bloke with meaty fists instead of skinny and harassed-looking with a hangdog air of inadequacy I would have been less feeble.
How can it be that I’m left feeling embarrassed, ashamed and guilty? I doubt there’s a woman out there who hasn’t found herself in a similar position somewhere in the grey area between a “proper” assault and just another demeaning encounter on public transport, in the street, easily disputed, not worth the embarrassment, the denials and the faux-outrage of a cornered sleazeball brought bang to rights.
I am mortified to admit (as if I were the criminal) I was once seriously assaulted by a GP – as a “chaperone” stood in the room. My entire body jerked – visibly, I’m sure – yet because it was so blatant, so unlikely, I dismissed it.
Years on, I like to think I would slap him, but I have drilled it into my daughters what is and what is not appropriate during any examination and to scream like a banshee if they are in any doubt.
How is it we can have so many earnest debates about women’s rights and yet little seems to change? Whither #MeToo? Calling out powerful men who abuse their authority is calling them out too late.
The rot is setting in much, much earlier; as the mother of daughters, it is terrifying to discover that sending nudes is “the new flirting”.
Sixty per cent of girls under the age of 18 told researchers from campaign group Revealing Reality they had been asked to provide a nude picture of themselves by a boy.
Some 46 per cent said they had been pressured into doing so, even though they felt “disgusted” and upset by sharing images. I was once told by a particularly unpleasant father of boys that if girls weren’t allowed to dress so sluttily, they would have more self-respect than to flaunt themselves on social media.
But let’s look at it another way; 60 per cent of boys have asked for nudes. Unless it’s just the same odious little scumbag, which somehow I doubt. Presumably if fathers bring their sons up to be pervy scrotes that’s who they become.
I say this to demonstrate that a war of words will get us precisely nowhere. That’s before we even tackle the way in which nude pictures of girls are traded, mocked and used in revenge porn.
How is any of this healthy? What hopes for relationships built on a bedrock of equality. Such a boring word. Such a crucial element of human interaction.
Every time a dreadful act is committed – the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, the killings of Sabina Nessa and Julia James – a collective cry of anguish goes up from women.
Again and again we demand men behave better and urge them to assert peer group pressure and intervene to reduce harassment, to prevent harm, to stymie the wickedness of a policeman known as “the rapist”.
At least 125 women were killed in the UK in the year following the death of Sarah, despite the lip service and the mumbled agreement from those who govern us.
And nothing happens; a Tory MP is mired in rape allegations. A further 56 politicians, including three Cabinet ministers are under investigation for sexual misconduct.
The bitter truth is that the onus is still on women to speak up, to confront misogyny, to defend each other from unwanted advances, intimidation, emotional blackmail.
That is why what happened in the café rankles. I had a duty to publicly challenge the man’s behaviour for other women’s sakes and I failed. I ought to have been outraged. Instead I felt belittled. So do millions of girls who are coerced into sending nudes by boys.
There’s something badly awry in our society if safeguarding our young women is solely down to the mothers of daughters. Where are the fathers of sons teaching them equality, decency and a non-negotiable code of conduct?
This won’t make me popular but for young women to have rights, young men must address their wrongs.