“Ellen, if you say ‘no’, I will have you removed from this lesson.”
Mrs. Stewart’s words to me when I was five years old. We were in the middle of a Scottish Country Dancing lesson, and the boys had been commanded to ask the girl they wanted to dance with for her arm.
My friend didn’t get to me in time, but another boy did. I said no. I was told to take it back. I didn’t. So I was removed from the room and made to sit alone outside.
At six I saw my first penis. His friend kept watch while he whipped it out. It was unimpressive and a little vulgar to me at that age. He tried to make me touch it, I refused. He tried to kiss me. I bit him.
I was punished.
At nine, we all sat in a circle and a piece of chocolate was passed around. Once everyone in the circle had touched it, the teacher asked us if it was safe to eat. Most of us said ‘no’. She nodded and said that the chocolate represented a girl’s purity.
No one wants a piece of chocolate that everyone else has touched, do they?
At ten, we studied space. I made a thirty page booklet on the solar system and became utterly obsessed with the idea of space travel. I made my own rocket ship out of a milk carton. I got an A and, as a reward, was taken from class with some other children to watch an old tape of the moon landing.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Because girls just weren’t invited. I threw the rocket away.
As a teenager, my first serious boyfriend told me never to be “smarter, funnier or taller than him in public”. I laughed at him once. He hit me with cricket bat.
I was never taught about consent. About how to use a tampon. Or what Toxic Shock Syndrome is. What protection exists to prevent pregnancy and how to get it. My second boyfriend was the one to teach me what a female orgasm was, and cunnilingus too. He knew more about the female body than I did.
At thirteen, a man in his forties found my bebo account and messaged me repeatedly for naked pictures. My father, upon being told, smashed up the computer.
A man on the bus who was reading The Sun tried to show me Page 3 and then slid his hand up my thigh while I was in my school uniform. A woman in her twenties was the only person brave enough to tell him to stop. I certainly wasn’t.
At fifteen, while waiting for a bus, four men who were high as kites cornered me. They did and said things no one had prepared me for. The whole time, one of them looked as though he wasn’t as into it as the others. I’ll never forgive him for being a bystander and letting it happen.
When I moved to New York, I went from living in a village with zero catcalling to living in a city with someone saying something on every street corner.
I was a prude, a tease and a whore many times a day and I managed to be all of those things by simply walking down the pavement with earphones in.
At nineteen, I visited my mother who lived in a Muslim country. My father would verbally assault the many people who stared openly at me, but when he was gone, they would try to touch me. When I extracted myself, they called me a whore and told me to “cover my shame”.
But if there is a God, he’s the one who gave me these breasts and legs so…
I sat through my friend’s rape trial. Watched her testify in front of her attacker. Watched them show the entire room her underwear in a plastic bag.
Two weeks ago, a man tried to get my number online and when I refused, he casually threatened me with rape. My friends who are writers all informed me that this is a daily occurrence for them when they write about feminism.
“Why be a feminist, Elle, women already have equality?”
What world are you living in?
When people ask me that question, I respond with facts. 69, 000 women were raped in the UK last year alone. Women only receive 17% of media representation, and that’s mostly white women. Politicians who can never be pregnant still decide what I can do with my body. My health lies in their hands.
My story is like many other women’s. In fact, as a white, straight, upper class girl in the west, mine is probably one of the luckiest. For women of colour, trans-women, gay women and women in the developing world, they have far less privilege than me.
If you think the world is perfect the way it is, fine. But don’t tell me racism is actually against white people. Don’t tell me there should be a straight pride parade. And don’t tell me that sexism is a thing of the past.
I won’t shut up about these things because I want to be the voice in your head begging you to do better. Don’t laugh at that rape joke. Don’t let someone who hates women define who or what they are. Don’t let someone with no facts talk about domestic violence and harassment as if they know what it’s like. To live everyday, taking the long way to work to avoid that creepy lurker.
Let’s do better. Let’s be better.