In the aftermath of the Brock Turner rape case sentencing in the US, and the powerful words of the woman he assaulted, Irish women took to social media to share their own experiences of “rape culture”. From being groped in nightclubs, to catcalling, to casual” sexism in the workplace, it painted a harrowing picture of a culture that is so engrained, we often don’t think to question it. The response to this outpouring from men was interesting and mixed, and I’ll be following up with a column on that.
In the meantime, here’s the column I had (coincidentally) written for last week’s Mayo News, on one of my own experiences.
I’ve recently started a new job. It’s great and I love it. But, as with any new job, there’s a lot to take in, and that new job enthusiasm sometimes takes over. So one night, in an effort to get some quiet time to clear some things off the to-do list, I found myself in the office late. So late, that when I locked up the building, the security gates were shut. And in the darkness I discovered that the keypad was broken, so I couldn’t get out.
It’s a pretty secure car park, with high railings. I weighed up my options.
Call a colleague? At that hour of night, when in all likelihood, they wouldn’t be able to fix it? You’re a grown woman, I told myself. Sort this out yourself. Sleep in my car? Well, it’s 14 years old, and no hi-lux. Call a taxi? Never occurred to me. Scale the wall and walk home? I live in the middle of town, a ten-minute walk from the office. After a 14 hour day, it seemed like the easiest option.
Clambering over the wall none-too-gracefully, I hoped no-one would ever have cause to re-watch the CCTV footage. There’s 350 metres to walk to get to the main road. I throw my eye over my shoulder; clutch my bag close. No-one in sight. It’s a beautiful calm, quiet night with a radiant moon. I set off at a brisk pace. All good.
I walk about 100 metres and check behind again. In the distance, a guy on a bicycle is approaching down the hill. I keep walking. I think about tomorrow’s to-do list and wait for him to pass. But he doesn’t.
Nervously I look over my shoulder. He’s there, on the opposite footpath, just behind me. Despite the downhill, he’s slowed the bike right down, so he’s travelling at my pace. I hold my breath.
I keep walking. Directly across from me, he coasts slowly down the hill, his fingers on the brakes. He’s staring across, unspeaking. It dawns on me that he is doing this deliberately, to intimidate me. It’s about 200 metres to the main road. Most of the houses are unoccupied.
Contemplating my options, I keep walking, but don’t increase my pace – I don’t want him to know I’m scared. I can hear the whirr of his bike chain, his breathing as he coasts slowly downhill. I turn to face him, meet his gaze head-on. He stares back, expressionless. He’s young and slight, in his early 20s maybe. I wonder why he’s doing this. Every warning I’ve ever heard about walking home alone returns. I berate myself. Yet, I feel oddly calm. Either this man will attack and there’ll be a struggle, or he won’t – I’ve no control over his decision, and it’s too late to change mine. I clutch my keys in my pocket and turn away.
100 metres to the main road. It feels like 100 years. A game of cat and mouse.
We reach the junction. It’s still quiet. I turn left, to head for home, or at least to run to the safety of the nearest house. And just like that, all the time looking back over his shoulder, he turns in the opposite direction and cycles away. I exhale. I take off up the road like an Olympian, checking every so often that he hasn’t turned back. Nothing.
I’m home in five minutes, door locked. It’s over; I’m safe.
But I’m a different person now. I now have proof that I don’t have the personal freedom I took for granted.
The first reaction of many of you reading this will be to think how stupid I was to put myself in that position. I’m right, aren’t I? I mean, everyone knows women shouldn’t walk alone at night.
But like thousands of us do every day and every night, I took a chance. Why should my freedom be restricted because someone else decides it is their right deliberately intimidate me?
It was a minor incident in the grand scheme of things. But it made me feel angry and helpless.
And if something had happened, the first reaction would most likely have been that it was my fault, not his.
And that is just not fair.