The first time I realised I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was

I have always been seen as the strong one. The woman who doesn’t put up with the usual rubbish, who stands up for herself. I have always proudly called myself a feminist and condemned men who couldn’t respect that as idiots. I have always known my rights and been lucky enough to be raised in an environment where my rights were just as important as any man’s. I believed these things. I thought I knew how to react when push came to shove.

But for the first 25 years of my life, push never really came to shove. Sure, I encountered assholes, chauvinism and general horrible people. But I was lucky enough never to be forced to do something I didn’t want to do, or to be touched inappropriately or to be made to feel awful or uncomfortable in a situation. And even if I were, I believed I knew what to do. I had an unfailing confidence in myself. I never ever questioned that someone like me, someone strong, feminist and educated, might not be able to do this.

And then one day, it happened. And I failed myself. Typing those words still makes me feel sick.

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It all started when I flight I took was delayed. I sat in the departure lounge watching the end of the Egyptian revolution on TV when the man next to me started making small talk. He was well dressed and much older. He spoke to me in a fatherly way. I chatted back and he offered me one of his chocolates, which I accepted. We walked to the plane together and were seated apart. To be honest, I was a little relieved. I like travelling alone, and I don’t like making awkward small talk for 9 hours, so it suited me just fine. Besides, some of the stories he’d told me had been a little off colour. I had a row to myself on the plan and drifted happily off to sleep.

I woke up four hours later to find him sitting at the end of my row watching me. As soon as I woke up he moved into the seat next to me and started chatting again. I was uncomfortable. He was in my space and I was trapped between him and the window. But I didn’t do anything.

As he talked, his stories got creepier. He started telling me strange things about prostitutes and massages he’d gotten in China. I started to squirm inside. When would he leave me alone? But I still didn’t say anything. The polite girl I’d been raised to be overtook the strong woman I thought I was inside. I figured he didn’t realise how he was making me feel. I rubbed my neck trying to get some of the tension out of it.

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He noticed and offered to rub it for me. By this point I felt frozen inside. I didn’t want him to touch me. Every fibre of my being wanted to scream out loudly and have him removed. But somehow, I just couldn’t do it. I begged myself to kick into action but nothing happened. He started massaging my neck, before starting to move his hands downwards. I stared out of the window and tried to ignore him. I wanted to evaporate more than anything in the world. I couldn’t move, I felt like my voice had been stolen from me. I wanted to use it but I just couldn’t do it. I moved away. He kept pushing. Suddenly, he grabbed my face, turned it towards him and started kissing me, moving his disgusting tongue all over my mouth and caressing my back.

I finally kicked into action. I pushed him away and said no. But I didn’t shout or scream or attract attention as I should have. I was so mortally embarrassed and humiliated that I wanted to sink into the ground. The plane began to descend and he began apologizing. He thought I was interested, he thought we had a connection. I ignored him. He rested his hand on my knee and before I could shake it off, he grabbed me and kissed me again as the plane touched ground. Again, I pushed him away, this time more strongly and said no a little more loudly. He looked around to make sure no one had heard and then told me I shouldn’t have been so friendly. He apologized again, but somehow made it sound like it was my fault. I pushed myself as far away from his as possible, closed my eyes and prayed for it all to be over. I felt like I would never be clean again.

After what felt like forever, the cabin lights came on and passengers stood up to get their bags. He moved off quickly and I stood. Tears of anger, frustration and humiliation burned my eyes. It was over, but inside, I felt like the worst person alive. I was so upset about what had happened and so angry that he had taken advantage of the situation like that but more than that I was furious at myself. How could I have let myself down like that? Why didn’t I do something? Why did I freeze? As I felt my inside slowly unclenching, the reality of what had happened hit me and I started to feel the worst thing of all: guilt. I started to think it was my fault. If I was such a strong woman then what the hell had I just allowed to happen? Not only had I let myself down but I’d let the next woman he tried to do that to down. I’d let all the other women fighting against this crap down.

It’s been a few months since that flight now. I still feel my heart sink every time I think of that incident. I still feel the burn of shame and humiliation. I still feel the intense disappointment in myself for letting it happen. But I’ve also started to realise that no matter what happened, it wasn’t my fault. That lecherous old man was disgusting no matter what. And no matter what I did, he took advantage of the situation. His actions are the revolting ones, not mine. But even though I know this in my head though, it doesn’t change how I feel in my heart sometimes. I still sometimes feel like the biggest traitor to womankind in the world.

I wish I could end this story more positively but it’s an ongoing battle. I wish that man knew how much he’d changed my life and how much he’d shaken my core. He’s probably totally forgotten it ever happened. So, for now, there’s just one thing I hope and pray: that if something like this ever happens again, I’ll react. I’ll scream, I’ll shout, I’ll kick, I’ll punch. I may have let myself down once but I’m hoping this means I’ll never do it again. I just wish I could guarantee that I’ll actually be able to do it…

4 thoughts on “The first time I realised I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was

  1. Eish, the first thing I want to do is swear at the guy, and the next thing I want to say is that I can SO relate. Luckily the guy who got me didn’t even get to kissing, but his comments, interactions and the way he spoke to me made me feel SO degraded, basically because I was young and friendly and affectionate with the other people we worked with, he took it as permission to completely invade my space and make completely inappropriate comments. I found out later that I wasn’t the only one he did this to on that job, and I also blame myself for not speaking out. What I would also say to you is that our ‘good girls’ are implanted far deeper than the tough talking, feminist, educated, know your space women we are. The course of action to give in and take it is ingrained in us from so so so early and in so many different ways that are subtle and blatant when you see them that its no wonder. Someone once told me women have different responses than men in situations of danger, while the common understanding is ‘fight or flight’, so many women in the same situation have a ‘freeze’ response, and then afterwards blame themselves because we don’t talk about that as a common reaction. Another author on women and trauma talks about women having ingrained ‘tend and befriend’ responses to people who are threatening us in some way. So, what I’m trying to say is I know you’re not alone in this, in your reaction, in the continued emotion of it, and in the disconnect between understanding its his fault in your head but still having a physical and emotional reaction that don’t match up. The only thing I can say is that it WILL pass…

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  2. You did nothing wrong. Please don’t berate yourself for not responding. You were honestly taken by surprise . Believe me, it has happened to a lot of us and more than once. I felt like you did some years back, feeling guilty because I didn’t tell anybody that I was being molested by a boy at my creche (who was in turn being abused at home). What I’ve found is that it takes time to teach yourself to defend yourself against sexual assault/harassment as a woman because – yes – most of us have been taught to be nice. Like other women, I’ve been sexually harassed or survived attempts at rape. What I’ve found is that each time it has happened subsequently, I’ve responded better and better, either by outsmarting the attacker or by standing up for myself or by reporting the offender to the relevant authority.

    This may be a small comfort (or no comfort at all), but never underestimate your mind’s ability to process these experiences and equipping you for dealing with such situations in future. It is unfortunate that the predominant social attitude supports this idea that women are responsible for their own rape/harassment either by being friendly to the offender or by ‘failing’ to take precautions. We are fighting for a society that teaches men (and women) not to rape. So far we have not succeeded, In the meanwhile, it might be helpful to talk to somebody, preferably somebody with some professional experience in dealing with these issues (I spoke to a student counsellor, for example). Talking to relatives/friends may help, but in my experience they can become overwhelmed with the issue and they don’t know how to respond.

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  3. You did what you could, when you could, and that’s the most anyone can ever do. In a dangerous situation — which is what sexual assault is, and the intimidation leading up to it — your reaction is your reaction. The blame rests solely on the back of the assaulter.

    I know: easier said than felt. I’ve also been assaulted, in my case by an acquaintance, and it’s normal to beat yourself up for not behaving “correctly.” As though it is somehow our responsibility to know how to react in every possible situation that could ever happen! It took a long time to process through the guilt. I blamed myself. I blamed the friend that introduced us. But now, finally, I do know that I did my best to protect myself and he was the perv who crossed the line. I know it in my head, in my heart, with every ounce of being.

    Please be gentle with yourself.

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  4. This is an incredibly powerful and moving piece. It’s incredible thinking how many women experience these sorts of experiences at different levels throughout their lives, but how women are made to feel alone and isolated in and because of those moments. It’s crazy that no matter how much we know about power and patriarchy intellectually and in our bones, that one guy can still have so much power. It’s crazy how many women experience ‘that guy’ all over the world, and how ‘that guy’ is simultaneously everywhere while being no where in our society. After experiencing trauma from ‘that guy’ I’ve made the conscious decision to make it clear to him I care about his feelings as much as he does about mine when I meet him. While I used to be concerned about his feelings and being rude, now I work on reciprocating the feelings he’s making me feel and letting him know, if you’re making me feel like shit, don’t think I’m not going to do the same to you. Of course being a woman, there are still lots of concerns around this, like safety (how will he react when I don’t respond the way he expects) but I’m working on being as selfish in those situations as that guy is. It’s difficult, and I hear you, it’s a total work in progress with each time being different, but I think your article proves you are as strong as you’ve always known you are.

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