It starts somewhere – on sexual assault

It took me two weeks to report it, because it had not occurred to me that it might be a crime. Here is everyday misogyny writ large, I’d thought. Here it is, with one hand shoved proprietarily between my legs, having a root around, looting, in the clichéd council stairwell leading to my rented fourth floor flat.

Firm memories disappear after that introductory grab, replaced with emotions, sounds and half-memories of earlier incidents: aged eleven, in another stairwell, when a fellow eleven-year-old did a kind of parodic pantomime of this adult incident ‘for a dare’, and I had beat a similarly horrified retreat up the stairs, though without the pulsating terror, and mutual exchange of fuck you fuck you fuck you, that accompanied the one I later tried to recall for the police.

I remember being convinced that ‘my rape’ had arrived.

I remember my response to this thought (always punch a shark on the nose before they have a chance to attack).

I remember eyebrows and otherwise lack of distinguishing features, broad South London accent, and a lot of fuck you fuck you fuck you.

I remember – afterwards – feeling an overwhelmingly desperate desire to rip what he’d touched out of my body.

‘I’m sure it doesn’t feel like it right now, but I don’t think, statistically, this will ever happen to you again.’

So said the grandly-named ‘Detective Constable’, in a grubby ‘interview room’ in Camberwell police station, in the dark end of 2013.

‘Um, ok. Yeah,’ I replied.

Only when I was nudged, persuaded, and then pushed, did I go to Google and discover that what had happened to me was, technically, ‘sexual assault’. It didn’t feel like assault. It felt like I was overreacting.

Over the next few months, I went through the motions of my life swathed in inertia, impotence, and self-loathing. Frequently, and for no reason, I found myself so angry that I could feel hot blood coursing through my suddenly shaking body. I wanted to punch or hit something – perhaps my head, into a wall. But it had not been that bad?

The first person I told the next day, I tried to sell it to as a funny story, a routine about how some men are so entitled. I discovered it doesn’t really work. It’s not funny, but it’s also not really horrific, or interesting, so I decided it didn’t really fit in my drinks-in-the-pub routine. I stopped mentioning it.

Then I was in a brightly-lit pub on The Strand, warm with the scent of stale beer and crisps, and, unexpectedly, found there are were tears running down my face. I mumbled off (down the stairs) and cried in frustration on the bus home, across the river flowing dingily through another cliché, a Waterloo sunset, down to the artery-clogged Elephant and Castle, on onto sickly, yellow-lit city twilight on the Old Kent Road. It may be the same bus I got off that night (I can’t remember), but, in any case, I know every inch of this journey. I know, too, that from the moment I step off at Old Kent Road / Ilderton Road, I am swimming with sharks.

I go up the empty stairwell in a curious twisting motion, one eye always looking back where I came from.

I began to understand what I had hitherto only intellectualised: sexual crimes are about power, and voicelessness. I discover that the difference between understanding and intellectualising yawns deep.

Anyway, I decide, half-heartedly, that I should probably get ‘my assault’ ‘on the stats’.

I ring the police – the quickest and easiest way to get it over with, I thought. I told them what had happened. ‘Is Juniper House a club?’ they ask.

‘No, it’s where I live,’ I reply.

But it turns out it’s not just a matter of registering it.

‘The police are on their way.’

Fifteen minutes later, and two tall and stereotypical policemen are sitting in my living room. They are broadly sympathetic. I had no idea they were actually going to try to catch this man.

‘This man – was he black?’ the first man asks.

I worry, briefly, about this man. These men do not look like they regularly use words like ‘intersectionality’.

‘What were you wearing?’ they ask next. ‘How tight were your trousers?’

There are a lot of questions on this subject. I mention the phrase ‘cotton-elastic mix’ a few times, aware that the proper, political version of me would have things to say about this. All I can muster is ‘I don’t think it’s important… I was wearing a coat. It came down to mid-thigh.’

‘Do you have the coat?’

I put the coat on and stand for a while in the middle of the living room, books and general detritus from my life strewed around me, while the two officers sit surrounded by my possessions and study my coat.

Or rather, my bottom – because that’s what this is about. They are judging its protrusion or otherwise, how tempting it is, adjusting for the difference in height as I climb up the four flights with a strange man behind me.

‘Do you have the trousers?’

Now he’s holding the trousers, unwashed since the incident. I haven’t really known what to do with them.

I was confused by the seriousness with which every man (and they were all men) I’d spoken to seemed to take the ‘Incident’. Apart from the fact that the normal numbing sensation of mingled heart-pulsating hatred and a vertiginous sense of female powerlessness still remained after the two weeks during which I hadn’t thought to report it, I’d taken it as a simple extension of my experiences with strange men in London up until that point. The one in Camberwell who threatened me with a broken bottle because I didn’t stop a phone call to talk to him, or the one that followed me down the street shouting (bizarrely) ‘This is London, sweetheart. We talk to each other here!’ or those whose shouting and honking and hooting mark out the beginning of each summer season but at least pose no immediate physical threat. On my way to the police station to report the Incident, one such had sat down next to me and tried to start a conversation.

Taken as a whole, that one particularly brave one who had just gone in and grabbed fitted with the overall pattern of boundary violation that has been my experience since sixteen.

I express my concern to the detective – surely he has more important crimes to solve? ‘Men who go on to rape,’ he says ‘generally start somewhere. My guess is this man, if he hasn’t raped someone already, will rape someone in the future.’

It starts somewhere.

A couple of years on, I am walking down a residential street, on a journey I do almost every day, whose features I know inside and out, with a pop song wailing in my ears. Suddenly a man appears in front of me. He has followed me for a couple of hundred metres, but I hadn’t noticed him get out of the car in which he had, casually, been cruising, tongue out – at least metaphorically.

‘What are you afraid for?’ he asks, giggling. ’I just want to talk to you!’

‘No, thank you.’

As I stride off, his peals of laughter echo down the street.

Image – supplied


London-based, Kirsten Tambling is halfway through a PhD in History of Art. Her writing and reviews have appeared in The Inkling, Exeunt Magazine and Bad Reputation. 

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