The first time I was twelve.
I was on my way home from school and there was an older boy, maybe a young man walking in front of me. As I took my usual route home, he turned round and confronted with me with his erect penis. He was stroking it. I screamed ‘No’ and ran home to my Mother, who immediately called the police, who sent round a woman to take a statement from me.
The incident shook me up as a twelve-year-old. That’s not surprising. My Mother treating it as a Serious Event was not surprising. That the policewoman was kind and sympathetic wasn’t surprising either. That the girls at school mocked me for my fear was.
We were all young, so I don’t mean to tarnish them as bad people, but I don’t think they understood the fear. It wasn’t just that a man had shown me his penis and I was unprepared; it was that a man could have power over me.
As a young one I grew up in a household of strong women. My Mother’s Mother who ran a household and worked and left such an impression on me that I only realise now. My Mother herself, the breadwinner of the home. I was nurtured in an environment where I could do anything a man could do, I could do anything I wanted, that I was a whole person.
Sheltered from the Patriarchy I was unawares of the glass ceiling for women. At thirteen I was taking fashion inspiration from John Bender in The Breakfast Club. I was wearing mens boots and ex-army camo trousers, my Father’s old flannel shirts.
In The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry he discusses how clothes become a visual vocabulary of how we wished to be treated. My clothing became an armour, from that incident of being flashed at twelve, and my subsequent flirtation with John Bender, my Dr Martens and my leather jacket were all a way to protect myself — and to give an impression that I was tough, that I could, if needed, protect myself.
Even now, as an adult, I still wear Dr Martens and my leather jacket, you could call me a ‘punk’. When I walk the streets, my feet hitting the pavement I feel tough, I feel strong.
But clothing rarely protects anyone against men.
Many years partaking in the alternative subculture proves to me that there are entitled men in all walks of life. I am no longer surprised when I find out that a man I knew has abused or taken advantage of a woman.
I have met these men and I have been in relationships with these men. I have lived romantically with a man that not just emotionally cheated on me, but also never told me that the condom broke. I lived with another man who hated using condoms because he thought it ruined the moment. (As an aside, if you’re a dickhead that thinks a condom ruins the moment, maybe you shouldn’t be having sex, if you’re too scared to tell a sexual partner the condom has broken, you also probably shouldn’t be having sex).
I have learnt from these men that I can wear as many stomping boots as possible, I can be tattooed and pierced and there is little protection offered. Walking near men as night still produces an anxiety that is a throwback from being 12 and confronted with a penis.
I am aware of the glass ceiling for many women now, and I feel the ill-effects of a male-dominated world. I am no longer protected from toxic masculinity by strong women. I have to be my own strong woman.
I call men out on their bullshit now. I believe women. I remember not just the experiences I’ve had with men but how women reacted too. I respect women, I empathise when they find a situation distressing — even if I wouldn’t. I tell my male friends to do better. Before I met my current partner, I told everyone I would only have sex with men that could talk about periods.
But I do still wear my armour of boots, and I do still take style pointers from John Bender.