My life has been marked by sexual harassment – just like all women
Ididn’t grow up in Hollywood. Far from it. But I did grow up a girl, and I remember. Because who can forget? We are in the park. Someone has “told” us about a funny man at the bus stop. We don’t know what this means really. We are 10. He comes over and starts chatting. He unzips his trousers and gets his penis out. We stare for what feels like a long time. Screaming, we run away. Next day he is outside our school and we are not sure who to tell because we think we shouldn’t have spoken to him.
I get a Saturday job in a supermarket. It’s great. I start off on fruit and vegetables, with the ambition of moving to cold meats. This means I have to go to the backroom to get sacks of potatoes. The owner of the supermarket is always in there in the gloom. He puts his hand up my skirt.
“Don’t go in there on your own,” say the other girls. I don’t want to lose my job so I just try to avoid him, but he catches me telling customers that there are no more potatoes.
A teacher at school praises me because I like poetry. He is wild and alternative. Sometimes we just roll dice to get marks, he says. He talks to me about painting. He asks if I will go camping with him for the weekend. Just me and him. He doesn’t believe in official school trips. I am 14 and a half and I excitedly tell my mother. She gets herself dolled up and goes into school, finds this teacher and shoves him up against the wall. “If you want to interfere with her,” she says, “you have to interfere with me first.” I am mortified. Interference is my mother’s word for sex.
At 17, I leave home and hitchhike everywhere. This is iffy and I know it. Conversations swerve uncomfortably. Sometimes they lock you in the car. In France, I make one lorry driver drop me and a friend off after he starts talking about porn. We jump out in the middle of nowhere. He starts wanking. “What shall we do?” says my friend, panicking. I have a brainwave. “Let’s just eat our sandwiches.” The man’s erection wilts despite his frantic efforts.
Such “luck” runs out soon after. I get raped. That happens. Anyway, I was taking a risk, wasn’t I? All that “on the road” stuff I was into? Well, it’s different for girls.
In another crappy shop where I am selling cheap diamond and sapphire rings to excitable girls and their disinterested boyfriends, the manager is a “groper”. We all hate him and sometimes he brings his wife in. We decide to tell her. Somehow, though, none of us dare.
The Yorkshire Ripper is in the news. It’s scary. A bloke exposes himself on the way back from the pub. “Come here and I will bite it off,” screams my mate. I envy her boldness.
In the basement flat I am living in, someone is pushing porn through the letterbox and watching us. The police say there is nothing they can do unless he is caught doing it. He breaks in and takes all our letters and photographs. Everyone says that we are lucky we weren’t there. We move to a towerblock. We come home one day to find “Prostitutes” spraypainted on the door.
As I become more politically active, I become aware that anarchists and communists are as likely to harass you as any other man. This is only really a small disappointment.
In the US, though, I meet another woman who fights back. She is a waitress in the club in New Orleans where I work. When some creep says something to her, she picks up the candle in a jar on the table and pours the hot wax over his head. She is immediately fired.
By now I am becoming an old hand at dealing with sexual harassment and I apply to college, a polytechnic, at the age of 24. All is going well when a member of staff decides to exploit his power over me. “The thing is,” he says, “I have a wife and a mistress but what I am really looking for is a girlfriend.” I never have another meeting with him.
At eight months pregnant, I find men are still whispering sexual threats in the street. By the time I have my eldest daughter in a pushchair I live in an area where there is a lot of prostitution. A man stops me with a tenner. “I don’t mind the child, love,” he says, gesturing at my toddler.
Actually, though, life is good. I work on a magazine where men think feminism is talking to you for hours about problems with their sperm count. I have a flat and a baby, and then I get a job on a newspaper. Now surely I am in the safety of a middle-class world where women are taken seriously. However, there is inevitably one guy who touches up women as they bend over the photocopier.
I start writing about some of the big sexual harassment cases, such as Anita Hill. It’s a concern. The editor calls us all together. “Dreadful business, this sexual harassment,” he says. “I am glad it doesn’t happen here.”
Anita Hill testifies after accusing Judge Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, 1991. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock