Last Friday, when all the stories about Harvey Weinstein came out, I picked up a paper on the number 22 bus in Leith.
A few pages in, I read that actress/celebrity Kelly Brook had tweeted blame at some Hollywood actresses who’d just gone public about their ordeals with Weinstein. She said they were ‘enablers’ for not speaking out when it happened.
I thought it was a stupid, attention-seeking thing to say. I asked a bunch of female friends what they thought. They told me that for years there was stuff they hadn’t wanted to talk about either. They wanted to bury it. Spare themselves the bad feelings, the irrational guilt, the bombshell exploding in their family. They didn’t want to be called ‘sluts’ who were ‘asking for it’.
They opened up about the way they had been abused by men throughout their entire lives: by bosses in the office, strangers on the street, even by men in their own families. I’ve taken away their names but here’s a fraction of what they said:
FRIEND ONE: I was 18. I visited my cousin’s house with my brother and my grandpa. My cousin wasn’t at home. Her husband had just finished building an extra level onto their house.
First my brother and my grandpa went up to admire it while I stayed in the garden playing with my cousin’s wee boy.
When my grandpa came down he said “Tom’s asking if you want to go up and see it too?” I went up. When I got to the top of the stairs, he grabbed my breasts and said: “Poor you, you must feel so lonely not having a boyfriend.”
I pushed him away and said: “How can you do this, you’re my cousin’s husband?”
I felt ashamed. I felt dirty. I felt guilty, even though I’d done nothing wrong. I couldn’t find the courage to tell anybody, let alone my mum and dad. I made sure that on family occasions later, I never found myself alone in the same room with him.
One day, months after all this, I was on my own in my mum and dad’s house. Suddenly, this same guy appeared in the hall. I didn’t even hear him open the door. I was terrified. I finally managed to make him leave – but not before he’d told me I needed somebody like him to help me “get rid of all my tensions”.
Finally he left and after that I found the courage to tell my mum and dad.
FRIEND TWO: When I was 19, and just starting college, I was lucky enough to get a well-paid job at a national bank. On my first shift, my senior proceeded to shoulder massage me while going over my basic data input training.
I knew what he was doing was totally wrong. I knew what I should have done was immediately tell him to stop. I knew that I should have made a fuss about it, but I didn’t. I was scared. Scared I would be sacked. Scared it was my fault. Scared I would be shunned by my co-workers for making a mountain out of a molehill.
He was a married man. Mid to late twenties. He made me feel small. He made me feel that I should do what I was ‘told’. He made me feel kind of dirty. He preyed on all the new starts.
It happened for a few weeks until another newbie started. And I watched it from afar. Knowing it was wrong. Knowing it was uncomfortable. But I was still too scared to speak up.
FRIEND THREE: I gave up my career in advertising and became an actress, not because I wanted to, I had no choice.
I’ve buried my story deep inside me for years, but it feels as though women are at last opening the windows and letting out the stink of the wretched oppression we’ve lived with for decades.
I took a job at a London ad agency to work with the creative director.
Instead I was shoved in a stinky, unpleasant room and left there. I should have listened to my gut and left that first day. The creative department was 100 per cent male, over 30, but acted like a gang of overgrown boys. Individually, they were okay, but en masse they acted with menace.
Not their fault entirely; those attitudes trickled down from the top and at the top was a macho bully with a considerable ego.
During my first week, I made a cake for one of the creative’s birthday. As I placed the cake on the table and said “Happy Birthday” the recipient dipped his finger into the cream and said “What’s this – nipple milk?” There was raucous laugher all round. I was mortified – dumbstruck.
I didn’t make another cake or attempt to ingratiate myself from that day on.
In a formal script presentation, with an all-male line-up of account executives and creatives all sat on a long, low couch with the creative director perched behind a high desk, I stood up to present my idea. Half way through, while I was in mid-sentence, the creative director said loudly, “Your tits are looking great today!” The room fell silent. I stopped and said, “What are you doing, I’m in the middle of a presentation.” He turned to the other men in the room and said “See, she can’t even take a compliment!”
FRIEND FOUR: A fair few of my tales couldn’t be printed in a family paper but since I developed a C cup at the age of 10 it’s been something you just ‘deal’ with.
The list of inappropriate behaviour by men is endless. My dad died when I was 11, not long after he’d defended my honour by casting his dinner aside to sprint across the living room and deliver a ‘full flying heidbutt’ to my uncle who’d just walked in and asked me “How’s my favourite Page 3 girl.”
Having no man to fight for me after he died meant I had to develop a thick skin, a sense of humour and a killer right knee to survive! Like the secondary school teacher who trapped me against a cooker on the school trip while he fondled my breasts. I was petrified but managed to threaten him with a frying pan then suffered months of him alternately threatening me and begging me not to tell.
By the way, no fewer than THREE times in my life when heading home from nights out, I’ve stumbled on girls in alleyways, even in bushes behind a bus stop who had just been raped and wanted me to take them home.
They’d no wish to speak to the police, no matter how hard I tried to persuade them.
It’s time Holyrood looked in the mirror, not just Hollywood. This is endemic to our society and it needs to stop. I could have filled this newspaper twice over with stories from Scottish women friends who’ve been bullied, harassed, assaulted or actually raped.
Self-defence is one way to feel stronger and safer. There are classes for men and women right across Edinburgh – Krav Maga is a popular style.
You can call Rape Crisis Scotland, a non-judgemental organisation who provide a helpline, 08088 01 03 02 and email support for anyone affected by sexual violence, no matter when or how it happened. Find them here: https://www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/