What feels like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I went travelling around South America with my then girlfriend, now wife. After nearly 4 months, our last stop before flying home was Rio De Janeiro and we spent our final few days of freedom making the most of one of the most crazy and beautiful cities on the planet. We stayed in a cool hostel near Copacabana, with Caipirinhas on tap and always someone passing through up for a party.
On our very last night before flying back, we went out for one final hurrah. Starting in the bar at the hostel with a rag tag collection of other travellers who we’d just met, all coming along to celebrate/commiserate with us as our journey came to an end. The proceedings were led by Zamma, an employee of the hostel, who plied us with cashasa and played raw Brazilian funk music at loud volume. Once we were well and truly soaked, we headed out into the night.
Now I’ve never been able to hold my drink much, so after we'd hit a few bars I was not in a good condition. With my head spinning and legs buckling, Zamma kindly took the situation in hand, taking me outside and getting in a cab with me to take me back to the hostel and make sure I was ok. Or at least this is what he wanted everyone to think.
From the departure lounge of the Santos Dumont airport you can see the whole of the city laid out before you and as we waited for our flight we looked out at Rio and tried to get our heads around what had happened the night before. Remembering the horrible feeling of Zamma bundling me out of the taxi and into a deserted hostel dorm. His hands all over me as I laid there completely immobile and defenceless. The feeling of utter horror as I woke up the next day. The look of distress on my girlfriend’s face as I explained to her what had happened. The feeling of anger and utter shame.
Now this happened a long time ago, and believe me this is the last episode of my life that I want to bring up and share with the world. I’ve dealt with it in my own way and what happened no longer has any power over me. So why am I writing about it then? Well the reason is this; every day I hear another story about sexual abuse and harassment and it makes me sick. Whether it’s a friend being subjected to a horrific attack walking home at night, a lifetime of predatory sexual behaviour by a movie mogul being brought to light, or THE PRESIDENT OF THE FUCKING UNITED STATES bragging about groping women and then excusing it as mere “locker room talk”. And while there’s already a lot of debate going on out there in the cultural mincer that is the internet, I think more guys need to be honest and speak up about the culture that we facilitate.
While I know only too well that sexual assault is not confined to men predating on women, I also know that what I experienced is a rare occurrence compared to the shit that my wife and female friends have to put up with on a daily basis. Almost every girl I know has experienced it, from persistent unwanted sexual attention, groping in a club, belittlement in the workplace, all the way up to horrific sexual attacks. From the wandering hands of a supposed friend to being followed and attacked walking home at night. When the simple act of walking down the street can’t be performed without some form of sexual harassment, then we have some big problems.
I always wonder what reasons anyone would have to act like this towards someone else. I suspect that a large part of the motivation comes from getting off on that feeling of power you have over another person. The a feeling of entitlement, and that by just existing a woman has somehow asked for or invited your behaviour. The feeling that your friends will think you’re the don because you squeezed some girl’s arse, or leered at her to “suck on this” in the street. I also think there’s a large part of this that stems from men’s inability to see women as anything other than objects, and the overwhelming cultural messages that reaffirm this one a daily basis. There is something rotten at the core of masculinity if it’s necessary to show your dominance by humiliating women just to feel validated as a real man.
So what’s my point with all of this? Well I guess it’s that I want people to see that this is an issue that can and does affect all of us. If it hasn’t happened to you, it’s happened to someone you know. If it’s not something you’re dealing with personally, then someone you know is dealing with it, and it’s probably eating them up inside. If you haven't had this inflicted on you, then maybe you’ve inflicted it on someone else. If you are not speaking up about this then you are definitely part of the problem.
Now it didn’t take having this experience for me to think sexual harassment or assault was something abhorrent. All my life that has just felt like an obvious and pretty fucking basic truth. But having gone through that has given me just a small insight into what a lot of women have to put up with day in day out. I dealt with this in the cack handed, male way of bottling it up and letting it rot inside for a long period of time. What eventually enabled me to “get over it” was writing about it a couple of years later in an article for a newspaper magazine. The externalisation of the incident, and turning it into a piece of prose that could be analysed, refined, edited and appreciated, helped me to process what happened and broke the spell it had over me. But that was just what worked for me and I spent a long time feeling ashamed and sickened by the whole thing before I managed to come to terms with it so I wouldn’t recommend this method to anyone else. If this has happened to you, guy or girl, then please don’t suffer in silence. Talk to your GP and get access to counselling. Talk to people close to you. Look online and find support groups and charities who specialise in this. If you know someone who this has happened to then please be there for them and talk to them about it.
We need to call out abuse when we see it and we need to challenge ugly opinions and actions in our friendship groups when we come across them. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and act in a way that makes no one feel uncomfortable or threatened. We need to believe people who report abuse and support them. We need to make our society safer for everyone so that no one needs to experience sexual abuse. Ever. And most of all, we need to look out for each other.
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