Yes, we all know
That women talk / I won’t deny…
The thing you must understand is that we all know. Not about you, specifically, although if that sentence made you think I meant you — if the hair on your neck stood up or you felt a hot flush of shame at the prospect of being found out — then yes, we know. She remembers and probably her friends do, too. They told me.
I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I was first groped. I only know it was on a minibus and that it was an older boy who rubbed the side of my breast by sticking his arm between my seat and the window. A group of them had teased me the whole journey — it was a camping trip and a long drive — and I’d played along. I’m good at playing along: good at mimicking the register of the banter, always quick with a comeback, able to suss out someone’s personality fast and get their mates laughing. Maybe you are, too. As I got off the bus, our chaperone asked if I was okay and I said yes, carsick, a little, and avoided the boy all weekend.
It was the first of many times I was an imperfect victim. It’s true, I spent an evening hanging out with a guy, so can I really complain if he later celebrates Valentine’s Day by sending me a photograph of the Valentine’s Day Massacre? I’m the one who made him feel there was a connection there, probably a connection he doesn’t get to feel that often. When I get uncomfortable and turn cold, who can blame him for being angry?
And what about the academic who takes a long time to answer the door when I ring at his apartment block, and who, when he finally buzzes me up, has left the crumpled tissues visible and the porn on the desktop? (I thought there would be other people at the dinner. There were no other people at the dinner.) I went, after all. I was kind, before and after.
There are other stories I hear from friends who have been even worse victims than me. They’ve dated or married the man in question; they’ve sent him the texts that he later shows the people who ask about what happened. They’ve stayed late in offices and touched arms and had the drink, alone, to talk about their career prospects. So what if he was old enough to be her father? 19 isn’t a child, you know.
After these moments, these uncomfortable encounters in hotel bars and hotel lifts and European apartment blocks, what can you really do but keep quiet? It’s hard enough to report the stranger who gropes you on the street (Whitechapel High Street, last summer; I screamed at him as a crowd of other men looked on, unblinking, unresponsible, not taking sides). How do you report the man who you did, after all, stay up late chatting to on Facebook? There’s always someone ready to say he’s not like that. What can you do?
Well, what a lot of women do is this: they talk. Quietly, I mean, to each other: in WhatsApp groups and DM threads, and over coffee in the breaks during conferences. They talk after a couple of drinks or when a woman they don’t know does the same, immediately-covered-up wince at the mention of his name. They talk to their female colleagues, who go off to work at other workplaces, where they talk, too. The older women tell the younger ones. Then one day, as my friend Caroline Magennis wrote on Twitter, you find that quite a lot of women aren’t showing up to the keynote.
Richard Armour once wrote: “that money talks / I won’t deny / I heard it once / it said goodbye.” How ends the quatrain that begins “that women talk / I don’t deny”? I heard one once, she said… what?
Last spring, I was on a flight to Barcelona with my father when the man next to me began nudging his sweatpants pointedly — once, twice, three times. Stopped for a while. Started again. My face was growing hot as we went down into the descent. My father was out of earshot in the rows in front so didn’t hear when I said, loudly, “excuse me, but do you think you can stop touching your penis?” The man grovelled and I berated him, all the way down until the plane touched the tarmac. When we got off the plane, I was shaking, and told my father what had happened. “There must have been something really wrong with him,” he said. He told me later that he didn’t sleep much that night.
And what did I have to say? That there was nothing wrong with him (or, at least, not in the way my dad meant). That this happens all the time. But also that I had felt better for saying something; for not being the young girl trapped in the minibus seat, but the big, loud, adult woman on the plane who could say do you think you could stop touching your penis?
Quite a lot of us are becoming louder adult women, as it happens. And the women whose stories I’ve heard are getting more and more senior. Some of them have very good jobs, actually. Decision-making jobs. There’ll be even more in the generation after us. We may be imperfect victims, but it turns out a dozen imperfect victims equals a case. And here’s the thing you’ve got to keep in mind: we all know.