CN discussions of sexual violence, including rape, sexual harassment & assault
I really, really love dancing. I am incredibly self-conscious and need a good few drinks before I’ll do it, but when I do, I love it. Especially to music from my childhood or adolescence, in a sticky club with my best friends, dancing until my knees are killing me. I have so many good memories of last minute Friday nights out while I was at university, with good music and dancing for hours. It was one of the only ways I was able to relax or reward myself during my final year, where the stress of finals and degree classifications and my ongoing health problems felt like they could kill me.
I don’t go out dancing very much any more. I realised today that the last time I’d properly gone out has been months ago, at least. I don’t remember when it was. There’s a number of reasons for this — London is extortionately expensive, getting home is a pain, I’m skint and tired and can’t travel very much. But the main reason I don’t really go out dancing any more is because of men.
If you ask any woman or person who is read as a woman in their 20s, they will tell you about the times they were told as a teenager that sexual harassment was a normal part of an evening out, especially a night in a club. Expect to be groped, felt up, kissed, touched without your consent. It just happens. It happens to all of us. Why are you making a big deal? You were really drunk, anyway. Get used to it.
Everyone is told this, because every person has had the experience of a man touching them in some way without their consent on a night out with their friends. Not all men harass women, but every woman has been harassed by a man.
A few nights ago I was out in a city I don’t live in with a relatively big group of people, all of whom would be read as women. As we’d arrived early in the night, we’d managed to secure an area for ourselves where we could sit down and had our own space to dance, alone, without the usual club crowds. It was going wonderfully.
And then a middle aged man came over to us and said, “alright, ladies?” or something to that effect. I asked him to please leave us alone, that we didn’t want to talk to him. At this, he became affronted. He insisted on staying with us, because it was a free country and he had the right to stand where he wanted, apparently. It didn’t matter that I had pleaded with him to please, please just let us be. It didn’t matter because he didn’t care. He didn’t care because he was so angry that a woman he did not know did not accept his perceived entitlement to a conversation with us, to sharing a physical space with us. We told him no, and he did not accept our unacceptance of his advance. He stood leaning at the bar, looking my friends up and down as they danced, who were unaware of his glances; his eyes lingering on the curve of their calves, the dress tied at their waist, the plunge of their neckline. It made me feel sick and I wanted to cry.
At this point, I ended up asking a staff member who had been going to and fro from the area we were in to the bar with empty glasses, to ask him to leave. The staff member got security, which is not something I would’ve chosen to do given my own bad experiences with security staff members in clubs. They’re the ones who didn’t believe me when I was in tears telling them I’d just been groped or assaulted by a man, and they’re the ones who then threw me out of their club because I was drunk and crying and I was the one to blame. Oddly, the security staff were good. I could count on one hand the number of times this has happened. But I know they were only good because I wasn’t drunk, I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t slurring my words, I was sober and alert and articulate and purposefully did not let the less sober members of our group talk to them, because I knew they wouldn’t take us seriously. Which is bullshit. I played their game, because without doing so, we would’ve been thrown out.
It was exhausting. I hadn’t been in a club for months. And this was why. Of all the things to happen on a night out, spending too much money, talking to groups of women you don’t know in the bathroom and being harassed or assaulted by a man are almost all of the guaranteed ingredients, no matter where you are.
In my first year of university, like many others, I went out a lot. And so I was sexually harassed or assaulted at least once a week, often more. I became so angry, all of the time. I had so much rage inside of me, because men thought they could touch me when I didn’t want them to, and no one thought anything of it. I started hitting back, literally and figuratively. I remember an incident in a club in Belfast, where a man I didn’t know pinned me against a wall and kissed me furiously, one hand on my cheek and one grabbing my waist. I struggled to get free, and when I did, I punched him. And then I was promptly thrown out. At one point, I was boycotting a well known club and bar because they threw me out after I reported that I’d been felt up — they told me I was on drugs and I was causing problems. I remember months later my best friend texting me drunkenly, telling me she was sorry that she was going to the bar because the work party she was out with wanted to, and she felt so guilty about it. She was the only friend to even acknowledge and legitimise the pain and anger i felt towards the club and its staff. Everyone else ignored it as another thing that crazy Aisling was doing because she’s a crazy feminist.
I harboured so much rage and anger in my body that year, and together with a cocktail of then-undiagnosed mental health problems, it ruined my time in university. When I am back in Belfast, my main memories stem around where and when I was assaulted, at which time, and what I was wearing. I know I am not alone in this, because this happens to most women at some point during their life. Learning this, learning about the politics of structural oppression and patriarchy and feminism helped — I had a framework in which to place my experiences and the thoughts I had. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t any of our faults, even though we all felt like it was.
What I didn’t realise or expect was the long-lasting effect these years have had on me. Granted, I’m still young. I’m only 23. But a lot has happened, a lot has changed and I have grown hugely since the age of 19. My life is very different now, and I feel older than my years. What I didn’t expect were the flashbacks and dreams that periodically dominate my life these days. I didn’t expect that I would stop wearing certain things, especially heels. I didn’t expect that I’d drastically change my hairstyle, partially in an effort to look less conventionally attractive to men. I didn’t expect that a few words from a middle-aged man in a nightclub in Edinburgh would send me over the edge, anxious, awake and crying till 4.30am, reliving the past experiences I’d had and ending up taking a valium in an attempt to quiet the images and the taunts swirling around my head. I didn’t expect to ever identify with the term ‘survivor’. But here I am.