It’s 1993, South London. It’s our last summer of primary school before we all head off to different secondaries. There’s parties, classmates turning eleven so we go to each other’s houses and hold each other and sway to Boys ll Men. The mum would keep the table top stocked with fizzy and sausage rolls.
The very last party I went to was at the bottom of my hill. I was so excited because I had on a new bodysuit and white jeans and felt like the business. I can remember walking down, absolutely chuffed with myself, looking forward to some more awkward slow dancing.
An hour into the party a girl in my class came up to me and said “Dan wants to talk upstairs” I was curious as she’d done the same to two other girls so far.
I climbed the stairs, her behind me, encouraging me, keep going, next floor.
At the top, she nodded to a door and I turned the handle. As soon as I was through the door I was rushed by a group of boys, pinned to the bed. There were five of them I think, maybe a couple more or one less. One spread his hands over my mouth while the others pushed their hands into my crotch and punched their sweaty, grabbing hands over my just forming breasts.
I don’t know how long it lasted. I couldn’t say now. 10 seconds or a minute? It felt like forever, and then the girl opened the door, called a warning and it was over.
I ran down the stairs, right out the door. I cried all the back up that hill. I felt so betrayed. Some of those boys were my friends. Others of them had grabbed me before, in the playground, when Kiss Chase regularly dissolved into “try and push your hands into a girl’s knickers” but this day was so much worse, being so violently overpowered. And some of them my friends.
I composed myself so by the time my Mum saw me and said “you’re home early” I could just shrug and go to my room.
I haven’t seen anyone from my primary school since that day. And I haven’t told anyone this story until I shared it with my husband earlier this year in an attempt to uncover any bits of shame I’ve had buried away. Cos that’s the main feeling I was left with, shame. I knew that in some way I had bought it onto myself. Asked for it. So I minimised it until it was so small it was nothing, the tiniest pebble in my shoe. Not too much of a burden to carry around.
When I heard Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony last week something shifted. Until that moment I’d never considered that party when I was eleven as a #metoo – it felt too small in comparison to the violence that has happened to other women. But the terror she described at having her mouth covered that bought my memory to the surface. It’s terrifying, not being able to move, or scream, or breathe.
I can still feel their fingers grabbing at me. Bruising me. And now when I look back at that party I feel sure that it didn’t just happen to me there, that there was a bunch of us taken up to that room.
I couldn’t even point their faces out now, but their names are still in my mind.
We were so little. Kids. But we were raised in a rape culture and in a rape culture little boys pretend to gang rape little girls.
Was it anything less?
When Christine Blasey Ford chose to stop minimising what happened to her, I could too. Although her testimony didn’t stop Kavanaugh’s ascent to the Supreme Court, I know that it will go down in history as a moment when even more millions of women said actually, yeah, Me Too.
The women who weren’t actually raped, who weren’t regularly abused, who didn’t think their experience was important enough to count. Christine Ford has given us permission to say that attempted rape was traumatic. That grope was a violation of my body and my rights. That was not okay.
Something huge has happened to me in these last few days. Being able to say “that should never, ever have happened to me” “that was in no way my fault” – being able to extend empathy to myself. Just even writing my experience up has unblocked something. I feel even more me, just that but more alive, blood flowing to a whole area that I’d shut off.
Her bravery is like a magnet that pulled my braveheart forward. That’s how it works. We’re all magnets pulling each other out, each brave story gently draws another woman forward until we are all able to move out beyond our shame.
We’ll finally shake out these pebbles and realise they are jagged shards that have been causing us to bleed all along.
And we’ll leave them back there, with the shame. And, not bleeding now, we’ll be able to tear down another pillar of rape culture.
The last couple of weeks have made me painfully certain that there has to be more to dismantling rape culture than testimony. Because testimony, trying to hold these men to account, does not always work.
It has me thinking anew about how we, communities, parents, families, can create the change the world needs.
We can create a culture of consent in our homes
One of the most important ways we can dismantle rape culture is by growing consent culture, becoming adept at it ourselves and normalising it in other situations. (We can be thankful here that our brains have a plasticity that means we can re-wire decades and decades of coercive and manipulative behaviour within a relatively short time period.)
This begins with our smallest babies. Letting them know when you are going to pick them up, giving them a heads up when you are going to pull a jersey over their head or change a nappy.
It means not using your power to coerce a child to do something against their will.
It means making sure your children know that “STOP” always means stop- you honour their STOP, even if they are giggling while you tickle them, and you intervene when you here another child say STOP and your own child continues.
It means asking, when they return from a sleepover or a party, not “did you have fun?” but “did you feel safe?”
But again, the fundamental step to a culture of consent is not forcing our children to do things or have things done to their body against their will.
Read: five ways to honour our child’s body autonomy.
Five phrases that can protect your child from sexual abuse
Raising your medically complex child with a culture of consent
Read Sacraparental’s discussion about not passing on rape culture here.
We can create a culture of consent in ALL of the places we occupy
A year ago I was struck by a poster a local charity had asked me to make. It asks each person to consider how they are making sure children are protected from sexual abuse in all the different situations they are involved in – camps, churches, parties, sleepovers, workplaces.
It hit me that I hadn’t applied all I knew about a culture of consent to a very important area- our unschooling camps! Each year I help organise three camps for hundreds of people. It was time I raised consent with this wide gathering. I was nervous, because it’s a horrible topic to raise in a place that is so joyful and peaceful. But I knew it had to happen.
We organised a workshop at the next camp and six of us sat down to draw together all of what we knew about sexual abuse prevention and consent culture. It has been an incredible experience. Partly because now we have a robust document which I can share with YOU in case you run camps/ youth groups/ family gatherings. But also because a couple of things have happened to assure us that we were absolutely right in putting our effort into this. Firstly, an adult disclosed that she had been abused by someone at a homeschool camp when a child. This is so, so tragic. But it was also confirmation that even the places we think are the SAFEST because we are with OUR KIND OF PEOPLE can never ever be absolutely safe. Secondly, at the next camp we held we introduced this document and asked, at registration, every single person to read it. During that camp someone disclosed an incident of abuse that happened elsewhere and our safeguarding team was able to help them take this to the next stage.
Click here to see our own document. Feel free to download and edit – basically make this your own document, embody it, share it, find people who will be part of your safeguarding team. ALWAYS have two of you interacting with someone who is making a disclosure or raising some concerns.
Of course, when it comes to dismantling rape culture, men should just stop raping people. It should be that simple and straightforward.
Why should women have to take on the burden of dismantling a weapon used against them?
It pisses me off, frankly.
So here’s a quick message to the dads and grandads and the men who don’t think women should get raped or kids sexually abused- TAKE THIS ON. Take it on, dudes. Don’t just like the meme you saw on Facebook about Christine Ford’s bravery. Become an active part of creating a culture of consent. Step up. I believe in you. You can do this. Begin honouring the word STOP in your home. Defend your child’s body autonomy from unwanted kisses and cuddles. Bring the document above to your kid’s youth group leaders. Ask the parents who are hosting the sleepover what other people are going to be present that night. Ask your church, your workplace, your sports club to have sexual abuse prevention policies and a safeguarding team. Even if you are unsure of yourself, or feel a bit wobbly because you are no expert just start having the conversations. Say “I’m no expert, but it’s important to me that we all build a culture of consent. How can we do this?” Break the silence on sexual abuse. Refuse to be a part of an insipid, secretive world that has kept women living in shame for thousands of years. Take this on.
Thank you for reading. Please share widely. Tag your menfolk in this. Raise this document in your community. Let’s raise a culture of consent.