I’ve felt so empowered after reading the experiences of sexual harassment from women all over the globe, and the exceptional tweet seen here from @annevclark since the Harvey Weinstein story broke, that I’ve finally decided to recount one of my own. It’s something I’ve never fully been able to explain or tell people about and my decision to put this here is because of the thought that it might help any woman, anywhere, as all the tales I’ve seen bravely shared online have helped me do this today. I hadn’t told a soul this until this morning. Not a soul. Today I’m ready to change that.
At forty-six years of age I’m learning to drive. Not an odd event in itself; my instructor tells me he recently taught a woman who went on to pass her test at the grand age of seventy. Yet while I don’t know this particular lady’s reason for learning so late in her life, I know that a particular incident sparked the fear and anxiety that has prevented me from fully committing myself to do this until now. Since I was first gifted a series of driving lessons from my mum and abruptly stopped them, over thirty years ago now, I’ve been terrified of the driving test itself. Nobody ever knew why, not even me. Not really. I remember my mother asking why on earth I had stopped taking the lessons and that I made some lame excuse that I can’t even recall today. For years since those early lessons my friends and family have expressed their disbelief at my never learning to drive, even though it has held me back over the years, both personally and professionally.
Only now am I ready to reveal the real reason I stopped those lessons: My driving instructor, a man I was left alone in a car with for an hour a day, once a week for around twenty or more weeks, was sexually harassing me. It began with small innuendos and probing questions. What did my boyfriend and I get up to? What made me decide to wear that V-necked top today, was it because I knew I would be seeing him? Had I missed him since last week?
I was seventeen.
There were moments when he behaved in ways I couldn’t quite understand my uncomfortableness about, like the time he asked, in what seemed to me to be with angry, almost possessive undertones, if I knew a man I’d waved to as I let him cross the road at a local pedestrian crossing. Then there were the days his lewd behaviour was more obvious, as he held his hand over mine on the gear stick, instructing me to ‘caress it as though it was a man.’ All of this was done with a smile and a wink, like it was a joke – a bit of banter between us. And I confess that I laughed along, never really being certain about my natural, internal reactions to the behaviour: the fact that I felt physically sick when he made some exaggerated, unrequired lean over me to point to something on my side of the car and that I frequently tried to stifle my recoils at his smiling pats on my knee. It was just a bit of fun, why were all of my instincts telling me he was a sick, perverted crank?
When the time to do a mock test arrived I had become so anxious by his continued inappropriateness, something I safely labelled ‘bizarre behaviour’ in my seventeen-year-old head, that I fluffed it all and I remember quite clearly the way he shouted at me during and after it. He knew I was capable of doing all of the driving manoeuvres we’d gone over in the past twenty or so weeks, why was I ‘ballsing it all up’? I never took another lesson with him afterwards and from that day to this, I’ve never sat a full, practical driving test. I’ve had lessons over the years since but always quit them quite early in, a deep terror of the driving test being the given excuse to everyone I know. It was the one I told myself too.
Quite honestly I don’t know if this man’s behaviour has been lurking deep inside my unconscious mind when it comes to the anxiety I’ve had over taking a simple driving test ever since it all happened – nearly thirty years ago now. But it has always seemed to me (secretly) to be entirely possible. I’ve recounted the story of this man to family and friends, often with a wry smile and a comment on what a dirty bugger he was, but I’ve always felt unable to admit that it caused me so much angst. It seemed silly. In a way, I suppose I have colluded with the idea of the humour of the situation, the way society as a whole has treated the ‘pestering’ of women. Now for the first time in my life I’m ready to openly accept that this was easier than admitting that it frightened and has even continued to hurt me.
Like most women, I have many other far worse stories of times when I’ve felt or been physically threatened and abused by men in my lifetime. There are differences in the ways that I’ve shared some of these events though, and I realise now that it’s because there are those I’ve been able to speak of feeling justified in my horror and revulsion and others I’ve supressed through guilt, confusion and embarrassment. The most common questions I’ve had for myself when going over these things in my mind: Was it my fault? Am I/was I overreacting? Did I bring this behaviour upon myself? Today, after reading the countless stories from other women online I know the answer to all of the above is no, no, NO.
Just the other day I recounted a cautionary tale to my teenage daughter, who is about to take her first train journey alone. It was of a time when I was fifteen and travelling home from school on the top deck of a public service bus and a man got on and sat right beside me, even though there were countless other double empty seats. This stranger didn’t make any inappropriate comments or touch me, he just started chatting right away as though he knew me (he didn’t) and I instinctively felt uncomfortable. I couldn’t explain this to anyone, all I knew was he had invaded my personal space without the need to. After enduring a few minutes of this and even returning polite conversation, I pretended it was my stop and went downstairs to get away from him, only to be chastised by the driver for standing on the crowded lower deck while there were so many seats upstairs. He told me to go back up or get off the bus. Embarrassed at being called out in front of so many people, frightened to go back to where the man was waiting and ashamed to admit the reason I’d come downstairs when he hadn’t actually done anything that I could say was untoward, I got off and walked home. It was winter, and a thirty minute journey in the dark alone. I felt at the time that there was a good chance I’d put myself in more danger choosing to take that walk than going back upstairs on the bus, so when I got home I didn’t even tell anyone what had happened because I felt stupid. But had I been?
I used this example to show my teenage daughter that it is never okay for someone to make you feel uncomfortable and that it is ALWAYS okay to ignore, walk away and tell a nearby person you feel safer with that, even for reasons you cannot explain, you need to get away from that first person or persons. My ideal world would be a place where all women could feel safe to do this without further questioning from anybody, because the first, most important weapon we have in our self-preservation arsenal is our instincts. I often wonder how many terrible crimes against women and girls would not have happened had she felt empowered to react on those instincts, move away and tell somebody as the dangerous situation began to unfold.
This was two years prior to the driving instructor incident. Both were moments when I felt uncomfortable, yet the second – the one I removed myself from – was one where nobody was touching or inappropriately commenting to me while making light of it. It is interesting to me that I reacted to the first far quicker than the second. I took over twenty weeks of driving lessons. All I can surmise is that there was nothing confusing thrown in to cast doubt in my mind that something bad was unfolding the first time. The driving instructor, whilst being more direct in his advances, cleverly acted in a ‘this is acceptable’ way with his jokes, double-entendres and feigned-affectionate touches which made me question my own first instincts. In other words, I was successfully manipulated the second time. I won’t let that happen to my daughters today.
I once walked through a lonely alley, both arms laden with shopping, feeling certain I was being pursued by the man walking behind me. I stopped, put down my bags and turned around to look him in the eye as he approached me. He seemed to visually pause and shrink away, looking uncertain. Then he asked me the time. I told him I didn’t know, holding him in a steely stare. He looked at the ground and scurried away. This is the way we ALL need to deal with the predatory harassment of women – accept that it is happening and finally begin to face this monstrous thing head on. Stop pretending we don’t know it’s there.
Over the years I’ve recounted my tale on the bus to those I hoped might learn something from it, remarking almost apologetically that my reaction may be perceived as an overreaction but stressing that, for reasons I could not explain, I had felt unsafe and that was key. I remember that feeling well, have felt it many times since and am aware that ‘gut feeling’ was all that was needed to take myself out of a potentially dangerous situation. Only now as an adult, mother and grandmother can I say with confidence that it was the RIGHT thing for me to do. That day I was wearing a school uniform. There could be no mistaking the fact that I was a child travelling alone, and a grown, strange man made an uninvited approach and invaded my space for dubious reasons. This is often the first, subtle step on the road to grooming a child. Let’s tell all of our children that it’s okay to move away. It may save their lives.
I want to say thank you to all the women who have shared similar experiences online, which is where many of us get most of our information in this modern age. You have reached us. You have been heard. It directly led me to share mine here and I sincerely hope my story helps someone. We have to keep talking and sharing.
A few months ago I passed my driver theory test and my second driving lesson, with a wonderful, patient and kind instructor, is next Monday. Wish me luck!
A final thought for you – if you have Twitter, this really should be shared. #time4change
— Heather Hill (@Hell4Heather) October 12, 2017