International Women's DayToday is the United Nations’ International Women’s Day. This year the theme is Ending Impunity for Violence against Women and Girls.

To mark the day, I want to share some personal stories. Because I have lived a life which has always been, not exactly luxurious, but without doubt enormously privileged. A lot of bad stuff that happens in the world just doesn’t happen to me. Or, at least, hasn’t. Yet.

And yet, even in this life, sexual assault has figured. Nothing serious, nothing seriously traumatic, nothing that you would expect anyone other than yourself to take seriously. Just enough to remind a person where her place is. To remind her which class she’s in – the sex class.


I was about eight or nine, I think. One day at school a gang of kids grabbed me, and held onto me and wouldn’t let me go until I kissed Stephen Ecclestone – not his real name, although unlike the names of most kids I went to school with, his is engraved on my mind. He was an older boy, two years older than me. They held me up.

I didn’t see any point in struggling, didn’t see any special harm in kissing this boy – even though I would not have done so in a million years given the choice. So I kissed him, a short wet kiss on the lips, like kissing a fish. And that was that, all over. Nothing much? But it sticks, clear in my mind. Just a small humiliation.


I was nineteen, a student. One day I was walking back from college to my shared house, crossing a footbridge over the Thames and generally minding my own business. Two lads came past, I would guess around 13 years old. One of them as he came past reached out and grabbed my breast – actually the general area of my breasts, since I was quite well covered at the time.

It was so brief that I didn’t even quite realise what was happening until they both ran off hooting and the was offender shouting “I touched her tits! I touched her tits!” (This is one of the reasons I so dislike the word “tits”, although I think I’m getting over that now.) That triumphal, loud, vocal gloating was the absolute worst part. I just froze. Literally, it was a few minutes before I could move again. I just didn’t know what to think or do – shocked isn’t the word. Yet, what could I do? Nothing. The boys had gone, I didn’t know who they were, and it was all over. Again, nothing much. Just a small humiliation.


I was twenty-two. I was working my first job after finishing my studies, I’d been there a couple of months and I hated it: it was all about a traditional – try Dark Ages – male-dominated environment where I was nothing but a status symbol for my Great Leader. Every day I would travel to work by tube and it would always be really crowded with everyone pressed up against everyone else, clinging onto whatever they can reach so as not to fall over – or, rather, fall onto someone. One morning, I became suddenly aware that someone behind me was touching me. Not in the way that everyone on the tube touches all the people around them, in a different way. It was creepy. I could feel a hand on the small of my back, almost stroking it. The train was just pulling up at a station so, feeling slightly freaked out, I pushed myself off onto the platform.

It wasn’t until after the doors closed that I realised what the man had been doing – he was unzipping my skirt. The zip was half way undone. I think I felt a bit numb with shock because I calmly got onto the next train and continued to work. But when I got to the office I couldn’t go in. I felt sick. I walked around the block and tried again. Couldn’t do it. Eventually I made myself go in, but I couldn’t concentrate. All day, just making excuses to get to the library or anywhere the hell away from the awful sick hot-cold feeling and the horrible maleness of the place I was in. Was that nothing much? Was that just a small humiliation? Maybe so.

I tell these stories partly to make a point.

The point is that none of us, not even people who are as unbelievably privileged and protected as I have been, are free from sexual assault.

The seriousness varies hugely, and the effect is consequently varying in degree. But, in nature, the effect is identical. Even a seemingly trivial incident like the ones that have happened to me make a deep and lasting impression, and leave the victim with a sense of humiliation and shame: reminded of her inferiority, of her sex class status, and of the plain fact that there are people who do not see her as a human being. And they leave the victim silenced. I have never told these stories before.

The point is, too, that all these assaults on me were carried out with total impunity. There was never any danger of consequences for the perpetrators. Not a hope of any comeback.

So, yes, I tell these stories to make a point. But I’m also telling them because they are mine, and because I have never told them before. Small as they may be, they are mine.