Every afternoon my sister phones to ask how I’m doing and get updates on my chemo side-effects.
We live over two hundred miles apart and our chats have become a vital part of my support network. When we’re up-to-date and she’s given me whatever advice she can think of plus lots of encouragement, we turn to other matters.
We usually spend the time putting the world to rights, discussing the issues of the day and reminiscing. Often there’s a seamless blend of one with another.
We’ve both seen the #MeToo campaign on social media and the outpouring from women across the globe of stories of sexual harassment, abuse, assault and even worse and naturally this prompted us to share our own stories with each other.
My worst experience of sexual abuse occurred in 1972. I was returning to London from my parents’ home after celebrating my twenty first birthday. I was travelling by train and the carriage was divided into compartments. Each compartment had two bench seats, accommodating several passengers, facing each other. The train was quite old and the upholstery was shabby and saggy.
The well-worn state of the seat facilitated the male passenger sitting next to me to slide his hand under my bum and start poking around. Obviously I was shocked but couldn’t actually believe what was going on. I jumped up, grabbed my bag and left the compartment. I found a seat elsewhere and tried to recover my composure. I still couldn’t actually believe what had happened. After a while I calmed down and began to think through what to do.
I regretted leaving the compartment in such a rush but understood why I’d done so. Fight or Flight. And I’d chosen flight.
I decided there was nothing I could do about the incident. I’d no intention of returning to challenge the perpetrator and I couldn’t envisage reporting matters to the guard on the train. All I could do was learn from the experience and plan what I would do if I ever found myself in such a situation in the future.
My sister recalled working as a secretarial temp in the City of London in the 1980s. She’d had a job in a bank for several weeks and was returning to her office one day after lunch. She entered the lift, closely followed by a man she knew was one of the finance directors. No-one else entered the lift. During the short journey up a few floors the man grabbed hold of my sister and gave her a full on the lips kiss. What in those days was known as a snog. The lift quickly stopped and without a word the man left and walked away. My sister continued to her office feeling shocked and embarrassed. She didn’t know the man very well and was appalled at his behaviour. However, apart from making sure she avoided him, she took no further action. Unfortunately, three weeks later, the man suffered a heart attack and died. In the circumstances my sister doesn’t hold any grudges but she can still remember how unsettled she was by the experience. She thinks that even then there were procedures in the workplace to complain about inappropriate behaviour but employees were largely unaware of what they were and how to access them.
The testimonies of so many women in the #MeToo campaign have been very surprising to both of us. We became adults in the late 60s / early 1970s. This was the era of Women’s Lib when the rampant abuse of any and every woman who spoke out was the norm. But we thought things had moved on. Over the years we’d both seen massive improvements in workplace relationships and procedures for dealing with situations when things went wrong. And we thought the everyday sexual harassment of wolf-whistling, bottom-pinching and body-ogling that was prevalent when we were growing up had been consigned to history. How disappointing. Let’s hope that the present round of campaigning and complaining will resolve the matter once and for all.
Thanks for reading my blog today.