The #WhenIWas hashtag has resulted in thousands of women sharing their stories of sexism, harassment & assault in childhood. According to the Everyday Sexism project, as of 15:15pm (GMT 19th April 2016) 12,000 people have already shared their stories on Twitter. Including me.
I didn't even realise what had happened and how truly wrong it was until at least 5 years later when I was reading Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates. The book itself was eye-opening and heart-breaking at the same time. The further I went into it, the more I remembered about my childhood and understood things which happened, including an instance of sexual assault.
I'd always remembered this moment, so in a way I must have known deep down that it was wrong, but I was just confused at the time and thought I couldn't (or shouldn't) say anything. It was the end of the day and the school corridors were almost empty. I was walking along towards the exit, and a boy from my school year walked past and said something I can't quite remember, but instead what I do remember was his hand grabbing my crotch.
I didn't react at the time, I just stood still in shock. I didn't tell anyone afterwards. I was so confused and in some way it felt like my fault, like I'd misled him in some way. It wasn't until I read the book years later and burst into tears that I finally told someone. What kind of world do we live in where I felt ashamed to admit that I wasn't okay with someone touching my crotch without consent? He committed a crime against me and I blamed myself.
What's just as bad is that I'm pretty sure he had no idea what he had done. I am in no way defending him, but rather attacking our culture which not only neglects to give women the knowledge or confidence to speak out when this happens, but also doesn't ensure that every child fully understands what consent means. We often create this image of a stranger rapist who stalks the shadows, waiting for an unknown girl to pounce on. And although that may be true in some cases, the majority of cases of sexual assault are committed by someone known to the victim. Even juvenile boys in school are perpetrators.
Just have a flick through the #WhenIWas hashtag for a few minutes. Take it in; really realised that this happens. Oh, you're a man and you would never do this? Great, but don't get defensive. Instead, get involved and help to solve the problem: be a role model. So many women have similar or many worse stories than my own. These offences are not reflected in crime statistics and the Everyday Sexism project continues to show that without doubt.
It doesn't have to be this way and I think there's a solution which would go some way to helping; compulsory sex and relationship education in schools from a young age. This would mean that all children would grow up knowing the right and wrongs, from consent to healthy relationships and safe sex. We need intersectional education, ensuring that all bases are covered and everything is inclusive. If we teach this to our children before they even pick up any idea that sex is 'taboo', then we can make certain that we have instilled them with the best knowledge and understanding on the issue, prepared for the time when they need it.
I never received any sex and relationship education and I know that had a significant effect on me and my childhood. It won't solve everything, but I am sure it would go a long way to helping this issue and more generally, result in happier and more confident adults.
What's awful is that I see myself as lucky. Lucky that it wasn't worse than that. I am not an exception, I am not a one-off, I am part of an endless group of women who have faced similar situations all over the world, and will continue to do so if we don't change the way we do things. I can almost guarantee that most of those who tweeted with their stories felt scared to do so. It's so easy to think that you're alone, but we are not. We have a massive problem and we need to keep talking about it and start making change.