I was just 11 years old when I was catcalled for the first time.
I was walking along the main road near my house to meet my friend before we’d walk up to the corner dairy together and spend whatever money we’d managed to scrounge off our parents on lollies – half of which we’d hide from said parents when we returned home.
I didn’t really understand it at the time. Mostly I just remember feeling frightened at the sudden beeping of the horn and indistinguishable yelling from the male occupants within the car.
That was just the first of many incidents. It happened many more times on that road, and on others. Whether I was by myself or with friends. It didn’t matter whether I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, a skirt, or jeans and a jumper.
At some point, I learnt that I should take the yelling and the beeping as a compliment because it meant the car occupants found me attractive. “It’s just what happens to attractive girls,” I was told.
As I grew older, men on the streets would whistle and leer at me. Again, I was told to take it as a compliment. They didn’t mean any harm. I should be flattered. After all, it’s just what happens.
When I turned 18 and began going out clubbing, the verbal admiration turned physical. I was groped on the dance floor, spun around and held against men while they ground against me with no regard for my uneasiness or desperate attempts to break away to rejoin my friends. But hey, I should really just take it as a compliment because that’s just what happens, right?
When I was in my second year of university, something inside me clicked and I realised I’d had enough. I passed a construction site on my walk up to uni and heard wolf whistles from the workers quite openly checking me out. “Hey sexy!” I heard one of them shout. I stuck up my middle finger as a response.
“Fuck you then, bitch” he shouted. I was shaken, but kept walking.
I was 21 when one of my best friends was raped. It happened at a party I was also at. The rapist, a friend of hers, had spent the night making me uncomfortable before I finally shook him off. The police prosecutor told me that from what she’d heard from my statement and from others who were at the party, I was the initial target. Fortunately – for me at least – I wasn’t particularly in the mood to party and had only had a couple of low-strength wines so that I could drive home. The case went to court and I testified at the trial. Unfortunately, the defence had a very aggressive and very ‘good’ lawyer. I, along with the victim and the other female witnesses were made to sound like attention seeking ‘sluts’. The rapist got off scot free.
It so easily could have been me. To this day, I partially blame myself for what happened to her. If I had stayed the night like she’d begged me to, maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Maybe there would have been safety in numbers.
When I was 22, I attended a concert for one of my favourite bands – an all ages concert, at that. I was sober, bar a couple of wines I’d had with my friend before we’d left and we were just milling around the general admission floor section waiting for the band to appear when I felt someone grab my butt. This wasn’t your accidental tap when trying to move through a packed crowd, this was a very deliberate hand-on-butt-squeeze. I whipped around, my eyes furiously darting around the group of boys surrounding us – who barely looked 18 – to see who had thought groping me would be fun.
We were surrounded by drunk teenagers falling into each other – as tends to happen at all ages concerts – and the group of boys behind us only looked about 17 at the most. I couldn’t pick out the culprit and so continued on with my night, albeit feeling pissed off and slightly shaken. They were drunk, I told myself. Boys do dumb things at that age, I thought.
I was 24 when I had my scariest experience yet. I had a male friend who I’d known since primary school. He’d always had a thing for me and hadn’t really made a secret about it. Likewise, I’d never made a secret of how I thought of him as a brother figure and that I wasn’t interested in him sexually or romantically. I reminded him of this whenever he made comments about how attractive I was and how well he would treat me if only I gave him a chance. When he moved back from overseas to finish his law degree at Victoria University, he begged for me to fly down and visit so when cheap flights to Wellington appeared on Grabaseat, I didn’t think twice about booking them. I had other friends from uni working down there who I was looking forward to catching up with and besides, I genuinely liked Wellington as a city. He insisted I stay on the couch at his flat. I reminded him I was coming down simply as a friend. He said he knew that – hence why he offered me the couch, which I accepted.
The day I flew down, we had a good catch up after seeing each other in person for the first time in almost 10 years. As we sat together on his couch, I began to feel uncomfortable as he inched closer. His arm draped over the back of me to pull me in. I reminded him of personal space boundaries and offered to find another place to stay as I planned to go out and catch up with my friends from uni over a BYO that night and warned him I might be home late. He said he would be staying up late to watch the rugby anyway so it was fine.
When I got back to the flat I was staying at, I’d had a few drinks. I was drunk – but not the messy kind. I could walk (fairly) straight and I could hold a conversation. I was fully aware of what was happening around me. As I walked into his room to grab my belongings to shift to my bed on the couch, he pulled me on to his chair.
“You can have the bed, I’ll take the couch,” he said.
“Honestly I don’t mind the couch, I’d actually prefer it,” I argued.
At some point in our argument over sleeping arrangements, he’d pinned me down onto the bed and began kissing me. I folded my lips inward so that he couldn’t kiss me properly, I turned my head away and I repeatedly and verbally told him no but he didn’t stop. As I physically struggled against him, I began to genuinely worry about what might happen. There was no way that I, a slim 53kg female with minimal muscle power, could overpower him – a solid build rugby player who probably weighed twice what I did.
Eventually, he stopped and left the room to sleep on the couch and eventually, I drifted off to sleep. The next morning he barely spoke to me. I spent the day exploring the city alone before my flight home that evening. When I returned to the flat to pick up my bags on the way to the airport, he still refused to talk to me. I ended up getting to the airport two hours early because being alone in an airport terminal was more fun than being made to feel guilty for refusing unwanted sexual advances.
Girls are taught from a young age that we must dress to avoid being raped. We must keep our wits about us in public. Never walk alone through a dark alleyway at night. Don’t lead boys on. Keep our car keys sticking in between our fingers as we walk to and from our car at night. Be ready to run, scream, call 111, where to hit if we happen to be grabbed from behind.
I’m done with hearing that women are “asking for it”. I’m done with the excuse that men can’t control themselves. I am SO done with people insisting catcalling is a compliment. I’m sick of the only way to fend off men in clubs being to tell them you have a boyfriend. Why does ‘I’m not interested, sorry” not cut it? Why it it only when they think they’re encroaching on another man’s territory that they decide to leave? Even then, some guys only back off reluctantly if another man isn’t in sight.
Why should I have to pretend I’m in a relationship with male friends while out just so that I don’t get preyed on? Why should I feel guilty for saying no? No to sex, no to a kiss, no to anything I’m not comfortable with. Why should I be made to feel as if my worth is in how many men find me attractive?
It’s fucking hard to speak out. Sometimes it’s hard to even let the thoughts come into your head. I have secrets that I just don’t have the courage to think about, let alone say out loud but I stand tall and proud with every single person who has put their hand up to say #metoo.