It’s taken me a while to be able to say that anything happened to me and actually believe it.
Even as I write this, I think to myself: was it actually sexual assault? But it was, and it’s a widespread problem.
The week started off much like any other. I had decided to stay at my boyfriend’s house for a few days longer than planned, and so ordered a few dresses from ASOS, including a stunning yellow maxi dress with white polka dots.
At work, I was on the receiving end of compliments, and so I had a little spring in my step as I left the office. But on the streets of Soho, things took a sour turn.
Confidence quickly turned to self-consciousness as the dress seemed to attract unwanted attention; the men in suits at the pub who stopped talking and followed me with their eyes and the workmen outside the café who leered and winked. There was a sleazy middle-aged man smoking a cigarette who made crude comments as I walked past.
At the station, severe delays meant I walked onto a massively overcrowded platform. Bodies were pressed shoulder to shoulder as people poured off a packed train. I was weaving down the platform when I felt a hand on my bum, followed by a firm, aggressive, possessive, squeeze. My stomach twisted in knots.
I looked around and realised I was surrounded mostly by men. Any one of them could have groped me. There were bodies and limbs everywhere and it was difficult to tell where one person ended and another began. But the squeeze was unmistakable in its sexual, covert grip and predatory nature.
Whoever it was kept on walking, not even batting an eyelid.
Whenever I thought about sexual assault, before this experience, I always imagined I’d be angry. Indignant, loud, protecting myself and scaring off my attacker by drawing attention to him.
But instead, I felt scared. I was silent, feeling far more flight than fight – and that surprised me. All the notions about how I would protect myself vanished, but what could I do except keep walking and be grateful it hadn’t been worse?
More than half of women in the UK have suffered sexual harassment on the capital’s tube network, a survey by YouGov revealed this year
I also felt exposed, like I was wearing a bright yellow beacon. The dress seemed like a flashing neon sign pointing at my curves saying ‘Look here! Touch here!’. All I wanted to do was run home and take it off, and forever banish it to the back of my wardrobe.
I have never once thought any victim of sexual assault was ‘asking for it’ because of what she wore, but I thought that about myself in that moment and regretted wearing it to work.
As soon as I got on the tube I fired off an embarrassed text in a WhatsApp group to my friends, who reminded me it wasn’t my fault and I’m allowed to wear whatever I like without being inappropriately touched. They encouraged me to report it, saying it would help the police build a picture of assaults – perhaps there was a serial offender on this particular platform.
Another friend sent me the link to TfL’s ‘report it to stop it’ initiative, and I messaged the 61016 number.
A little while later, an officer phoned me. Still telling myself it wasn’t a big deal, I apologised for taking up her time, and said that I knew they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
But the officer thanked me for getting in touch and told me I did the right thing. While they were unfortunately unable to identify the perpetrator due to the crowds and the camera angles, they kept a record of the incident.
Having an officer take my report seriously, even when I was trying to play down the incident, gave me the validation to accept how I felt and helped me begin to process what had happened.
More than half of women in the UK have suffered sexual harassment on the capital’s tube network, a survey by YouGov revealed this year. According to TfL, 90 per cent of unwanted sexual behaviour on London transport goes unreported.
The NHS says sexual assault is any sexual act that is forced or without consent. It includes groping and forced kissing, as well as more extreme incidents such as rape or sexual torture.
I still worry that my assault wasn’t ‘big enough’.
I know I’m lucky compared to the tens of thousands of women who endure far worse every year. But that’s part of the problem: any assault is unacceptable, and I shouldn’t minimise my experience. By drawing the line on sexual harassment and assault, I hope that we’ll create safer streets and public transport for women.
Women deserve autonomy of their own bodies and to feel safe in public spaces.
What happened to me made me feel so ashamed for what I had ‘naively’ worn that day. I was embarrassed of my own body, which a stranger had deemed as nothing more than a sexual object there for the taking.
I no longer feel safe on public transport, with crowded trains causing complete paranoia and a sense of panic that leaves me frozen in fear, breathless and, in the worst instances, crying on rush hour trains from Oxford Circus, where it happened.
Most of the time now, I delay my journey to avoid busy trains.
And I’m still unable to wear that yellow dress.
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