Author’s Note: This article speaks about sexual harassment and assault, including CSA. This content may be triggering, so please take care of yourself first, and skip this one if it’s too difficult.
One day, at the age of fourteen, I was standing in line with my mother at the bank. There were two older men behind us, and one turned to the other and said, “look at the ass on that,” speaking about me. His pal laughed, “think with the other head, man.”
In that instant I don’t remember feeling the impact of what had happened. But, as you can see, I remember it vividly. This was my introduction to the world of men. That, combined with stories of trauma inflicted on women and young girls I loved, solidified something in my mind:
Your body is dangerous.
This was reaffirmed when boys my own age started making remarks about my body. For example, in gym class, I overheard a classmate say, “Someone bring me a bucket of water so I can dump it on Mo.”
Another time, I realised a group of boys had gathered to watch me run laps, making Baywatch puns.
People called me boobs behind my back, and eventually my body became a thing people felt authorised to (from uninvited massages, being motor-boated in front of a group of laughing guys, being molested by someone I trusted, being groped by strangers in bars, having a family member set up a hidden camera in the bathroom to videotape my sister and me consecutively…).
What made matters worse is that close female friends began judging me for it.
To this day, I still receive comments like:
- If you don’t like the attention, why do you wear tops that show your cleavage?
- You dress sexy for a reason, we all know it.
- If you don’t like being harassed, just cover up.
This is the language of rape-culture and it both validates and perpetuates bad behaviour in boys and men, while simultaneously disempowering women. Yes, women also feed systemic sexism through victim-blaming and internalised misogyny. It is, by far, the greatest, most clever conditioning of all time…
The patriarchy has covertly recruited women to work against women. Everytime we judge each other, compete with one another, or recognize the other as a threat, we are breathing life into the patriarchy. Every attack we make on another woman is in fact an attack on ourselves.
I was sitting at a bar one evening with a close friend. Two guys plopped down next to us, uninvited of course. The first thing out of the one dude’s mouth was:
“(Pointing at my friend) Your legs are too skinny, (pointing at me) but yours are just right.”
For a split second I felt the solidarity between my friend and I diminish, but then I jumped on it:
“How dare you sit down and compare us like that. Leave, now!” (There may have been more swearing in the original conversation.)
He was shocked and even apologetic, but it worked. My friend thanked me, I apologised for his terrible behaviour and the threat he tried to pose. When men can weaponize us against each other, and make it work, it’s another brick taken from solidarity between women.
After decades of taking and internalising the abuse, I am aware of it now. I understand that regardless of what I wear, I will be objectified. The difference though:
I used to see my body like a candy shop, where people would just come and take. Even when it wasn’t happening, I feared their greedy hands. So, instead of risking it, I closed the shop down. I boarded it up. I built a gate – no, a wall – around it, so no one could get inside.
My version of that wall looked like this:
- Playing the part. Objectifying myself because if I did, I was in control of it.
- Jumped from one relationship to the next, always “protected” by a boyfriend.
- Had a ton of sex to prove that I had the power.
- Laughing off inappropriate comments made about myself or other women.
I have seen the following variations of this wall in other female survivors:
- Closing oneself off to any kind of relationship with men.
- Blaming men for all of their problems, and all of the world’s problems.
- Regressing to a child state in the presence of men.
- Seeing male voices as more authoritative than/superior to female voices.
- Becoming a recluse.
- Only having male friends, and casting judgement on women.
- Extreme forms of promiscuity.
- Extreme forms of celibacy.
- Slut-shaming, victim-blaming and/or refusing to identify as a victim of sexual assault or violence.
- Substance abuse.
- Lack of empathy, practising toxic positivity, or extreme “survivor” mindset (i.e., mind over matter mentality, believing everyone should/can just “get over” their trauma).
For me, none of my tactics worked. They actually backfired hard. I trusted men even less, and retreated.
Let me paint a picture of what that’s looked like:
Last year, my husband and I visited Vienna, Austria. Because it was partially a business trip, my husband was put up in a beautiful hotel. He would spend the days with his friend and colleague, and I had the opportunity to explore a beautiful new city solo – something I’ve always dreamt of.
After he left, I spent frantically messaging a friend, asking for courage to leave my hotel room. I was located in a beautiful, busy and safe area; the sun was shining, there was even a park next door…
But I was paralysed. I would open the door only to be taunted by the threshold of the hallway. I went into panic, felt insane, cried a lot, only to settle for delivery and Netflix. I was trapped in my own head and body. I felt alone.
It wasn’t until my husband invited me to meet him for dinner one evening that I stepped foot out of the hotel.
What’s important to understand here is that my rational brain knows not all men are bad or mean or evil. It also knows that these responses (like staying cooped up in a hotel room for days) are a result of compounded trauma. I get this. I know.
But very early on, my body – my home – was intruded upon. Not once. Not twice. Not three times. Over and over and over again. By different people each time. On top of this, I felt like no one was on my team. There were risks and contradicting, demeaning “solutions”:
- Cover up
- Don’t have sex outside of relationships
- Go out in groups or with a man, never alone
- Don’t go out after dark
- Always keep something sharp on you
- Don’t use a weapon, it’ll be used against you
- Anticipate, be alert
- Don’t show signs of weakness
- Be loud
- Stay quiet
Each so-called “fix” perpetuated my fear, my pain, and my shame, reminding me that being a woman is a curse, and it’s my responsibility not to attract unwanted attention.
For the majority of my life, I have felt completely unprepared for the outside world, especially when on my own.
I experimented with many of these so-called solutions:
I covered up. I only went out in groups or with boyfriends. I carried pens, keys, and knives to protect myself.
Nothing mitigated the fear. Nothing stopped the remarks; nothing came between me and the greedy hands. No matter what I did or what I wore, I couldn’t control who saw me as human or a piece of ass.
I have been in and out of therapy for years, and recently returned.
Just last week I had a breakthrough… I have detached slightly from my fear of men, and my obsessive body-consciousness. Just today I went for a walk alone without a bra on.
I realise that to some, that may seem trivial, even normal. For me, it felt immensely vulnerable. I did receive a blood curdling stare, but I breathed and reminded myself that bad behaviour is not my fault, that other people were around. That I was okay.
Something I wish we collectively spoke more about is this:
Early intrusions take root rapidly in our brain, and can oftentimes dictate our future.
I am 31 years old.
That is 17 years believing my body is a danger to me. I get emotional writing this because I think about the frustration and anger I’ve felt since I was 14; I think about my grandmothers, my own mother, and how they have gone so much longer, carrying their own version of this trauma around, forced to repress and move forward.
We live in a world that feels authorised to not only comment on our bodies, but make choices for our bodies (i.e., Roe v. Wade).
Trying to navigate a life inside flesh that never felt completely my own has been fucking hardddddd.
I felt vulnerable walking down a street without a bra, in a country that normalises female nudity more than the average. Why? Because I never know if someone is going to make me feel unsafe in my own home.
Bad behaviour – predatory behaviour – is not a result of female tissue, lumps or curves. That’s the stuff our homes are made of.
If someone broke into my house tomorrow – or even graffitied the wall, smashed a window – your damn straight the cops would be called. I’ve never done the same for my body. That isn’t a judgement on myself, that’s a judgement on the schools, the communities, the government in which I was raised and didn’t do their jobs to protect me.
What a world.
And I write this with all survivors in mind. Because that’s what this is about…
It isn’t about hating on a group, it’s about confronting a system, and taking care of the survivors who have fallen victim to that system over and over and over again.
So, when I’m asked about my relationship with my body this is the reality…
I have spent almost two decades in constant fear. And I’m done. I’m just done.
This is no way to live, but when will it change? At what point does the value of my safety and mental health outweigh the ego or greed of an aggressor?
The truth is, as survivors try to heal from the trauma, very little is happening to end the vicious cycle of sexual harassment and abuse.
On a microscale, how many of us are doing the work to eliminate our own preconceived notions about men, women and non-binary folk, our sexualities, our autonomy and power…?
How many of us:
- Still laugh off degrading jokes about women?
- Still subscribe to the myth that men have higher “sex drives” than women?
- Still think “boys will be boys”?
- Compete with our fellow ladies rather than confront the misogynistic messages causing those feelings?
- Continue to judge women on the way they dress, their relationship with their own body, their sexuality…?
- Make fun of, if not entirely reject, men for being emotional, sensitive, vulnerable? Heteroflexible or gay?
- Still wonder, “ya, but could she have prevented it,” when a victim shares their story of sexual assault and rape?
On a larger scale, what systems are being put in place to educate our youth on autonomy, empathy, consent? What concrete actions are being put in place so we have less perpetrators?
Survivors need resources, yes – we need to ensure our people are getting the care they deserve. But we also need to ensure there are less victims year after year.
A great frustration I have is with parents who continue to protest against sexual education, rather than fight for comprehensive sexual education that is medically accurate, evidence-based, and age appropriate.
Comprehensive sexual education not only informs its students on reproductive anatomy and development, but also consent and pleasure, body image, bullying, and safer sex practices; it shares the benefits of delaying sexual intercourse, giving our children autonomy over their bodies by allowing them to make informative decisions on when and with whom they will engage in sexual activity, and how to do it safely!
It is holistic and empowerment-based education, not fear-based.
Check this out:
“There is an increasing evidence on the positive effect of sexuality education on gender equitable attitudes, respect for sexual diversity and gender-equitable relationships. Finally, there is evidence for the effectiveness of sexuality education in reducing sexual gender-based violence.” – European Parliament (PDF)
I recently spoke to a man online who said violence is a natural component of masculinity. (This could open a whole other conversation, because, for one, what the fuck is masculinity even?) What shook me about this was that he truly, deeply believed that violence for men is biological, a natural right, that if not cultivated and expressed, then “he” does not exist.
I grew up around men who believe in this. They are why my fear is still alive and well today, even if I’m learning to mitigate it. But if we have men believing that violence is a necessity of life, then we continue to have a generation of boys being raised to believe the same.
And our girls continue to fear. Our LGBTQ+ community continues to fight and face hate and violence.
We. All. Lose.
So, what is the answer?
I honestly don’t know. But I do believe this is a place to start…
To everyone, regardless of sex or gender:
- Create a supportive group where you can all share your stories.
- Find someone who works in this field, and have them speak to your group and offer tools.
- Teach enthusiastic consent to everyone.
- Encourage our children to speak up; build a culture that supports victims rather than silencing them.
- Learn to identify your own internalised misogyny.
- Start to teach our boys empathy from a young age!
- Start to teach our girls autonomy, the word “no”, and self-defence. Remind them that they are capable every day.
- Curb your anger when you hear comments like, “masculinity requires violence.” Ask questions – create a safe space for those thinkers to break down walls. Have the hard conversations (when it’s safe to do so).
- Call out bad behaviour when it’s safe to do so, and report it when it’s not.
- Learn to identify internalised misogyny in others and bring it to their awareness (when it’s safe to do so).
Know that this is a process, and do your best at the stage you’re in. I know from experience that trauma can make certain actions and conversations impossible to undertake. Work on healing you first and foremost.
Your home is meant to be loved and respected, by you and passersby.
I see you. I hear you.
Never hesitate to reach out if you want to talk this through…
Until next time and with all my heart,
Quean Mo xx
P.S. Here are some incredible resources for you:
Articles about the struggles of girls and women:
Incredible informative pieces and resources:
Someone to help you get brave: