Trigger warning: this content contains references to sexual harassment, assault, and mental health.
I’m a feminist because in every country I have ever lived in, a man’s career has always been considered more important than my safety as a woman.
To be clear, I am perfectly aware that #NotAllMen are rapists or sexists. But in the UK, if a man chooses to commit sexual assault against a woman, his sentence – should he be prosecuted at all – could be less severe than if he’d toppled the statue of a slave trader. In my experience, men who sometimes don’t even know each other band together to protect each other’s jobs after a crime is committed, and yet for a woman to seek justice it feels like a lonely uphill battle.
I’m not just talking about a glass ceiling where women’s careers are institutionally downtrodden by men’s careers (although this is hugely important too), I’m talking about women’s safety being institutionally downtrodden by men’s careers. I’m a feminist because I believe this is unfair.
From age 14 to 24 I worked in restaurants; most of them were in art galleries. In a London restaurant in 2011, a customer pinched my bum, so I firmly asked him not to do it again. He sniggered and said he was turned on by my anger. When I took it to my manager, he explained that the man was a famous artist, so there was nothing he could do. Silly me. This man’s paintings sell for millions of pounds, so who am I to think I have the right to not be harassed by him? He’s protected because of his job.
But that was a minor incident.
A few months later we got a new Head Chef, who seemed friendly at first, and even took a bit of an interest in me. But then he started to get mad sometimes, and one of the things that would set him off would be if I – a petit teenage girl – were standing in his way. To teach me a lesson he would pick me up, pin me against the fridge, and dry-hump me. The first time was early in the morning before the restaurant had opened, but after a while he grew more confident and did it in front of other chefs, once was even in the middle of a dinner service. Some kitchen staff would laugh and jeer him on, others would say nothing. Nobody helped me because he was their boss. Again, this man had a big career ahead of him: he used to work in one of Gordon Ramsey’s kitchens and was hoping to become famous himself. Abuse is so normal in that industry that you don’t even consider it to be abuse. It’s just chefs being chefs. Men will be men. Boys will be boys. And then of course immediately after each incident I had to go front of house again with my charming waitress smile and flirt with seedy customers for tips, most of which would be given to the (male) manager.
Aha! You might say. We’re in 2021! We’ve got the #MeToo movement, and famous men are being shamed all the time! You could disclose who those men were, sell your story, or sue and get some compensation! Hurrah!
This may be true, but let me explain another incident, where I was sexually harassed by a police officer on a train when I was living in Asia. There was one other passenger in the carriage – also a man – who was paid the equivalent of 50 pence to pretend to go to sleep just before it happened. When I got back to where I was living my friends helped me try and report it to the police, but all nineteen of our attempted reports mysteriously went missing. Then we tried taking it to the British Embassy. Nothing. Nobody once called me back or took it any further.
Then – and this is the bit that really shits me – the people I lived with pressured me to take it to the local press. They were British journalists, so they naturally believed this was the logical next step. I must be clear, I did choose to go through with this, but there was no way I could have predicted that my identity would be leaked, nor could I imagine the onslaught I was about to receive. My phone rang non-stop, and day and night I was called by male journalists, all of them asking me once more to repeat in detail what had happened. Then came the fan mail from various local women and girls, which was very well-meaning but did ensure I’d be reminded of the incident on a minute-by-minute basis. Then came the marriage proposals and death threats from various men around the country. There was no forgetting. To make things worse, most of local newspapers twisted what I said and made the story to be far shoddier than what had actually happened, so I spent a lot of time trying to clarify things and backtrack on what had already been published; no he wasn’t drunk, no he did not say that, no he did not penetrate, etc.
Only one person who interviewed me asked if I was ok, and she was a woman. The men saw my story as a commodity, and my emotional distress was only important insofar as it was useful to them.
#MeToo has indeed changed things, and I’m glad that (some) famous criminals in the West are no longer protected by their careers. It does occur to me that if I wanted to go to the press now about that (very) famous artist and that (slightly) famous chef, I could cause a stir and maybe even see some justice. Times have changed, and that is a wonderful thing. I watched the Weinstein and Epstein cases very closely, and rejoiced with those women who, after a very long uphill battle finally received some compensation.
But there’s still a long way to go because men still benefit more from public outrage than women do. In my experience it was mostly male journalists who made money off the back of my police officer story. And in the case of all these other big #MeToo stories, it was mostly male editorial executives who profited from selling newspapers, male lawyers who made a buck, male newsreaders who went viral for looking shocked and upset on camera, and male Facebook and Twitter executives who profit from this bizarre Attention Economy. Outrage sells, but it’s often women who pay in trauma and men who benefit in revenue.
In my instance it wasn’t just local Asian press; the Daily Mail and the BBC also wanted to get involved. Thankfully, with the help of a friend we managed to stop the Mail from publishing an inflammatory story that was both racist and not true. But the BBC journalist was already a friend of mine, and he hoped his story would make headline news in the UK because not only were the police force and embassy ignoring my complaints, we had also learnt that the police officer was also part of an elite religious group. The story was suddenly getting juicy – everybody hates the religious elite, right?
But then we received news that the officer had finally been arrested. I was relieved. The BBC journalist was gutted.
Justice had finally been served, so he no longer had a potentially explosive story. Although the BBC (as far as I know) does not overtly pay its employees on the basis of how big a story gets, it does help to have a viral story under your belt if you want to apply for a promotion or negotiate a pay rise. So in this instance, justice was not in my journalist friend’s best interest, because he too had hoped to capitalise on my trauma. And let me tell you, he made no attempt to hide his disappointment when he no longer had a story worth publishing.
So, even when perpetrators are exposed, I still notice a zero-sum game between justice for women and careers for men. And that bugs me.
Therefore I’m a feminist because I’m starting to realise that the cost to me is important too. My journalist friend from the BBC may have lost out on a viral story that could have turbo-charged his career, but I’m the one who has had repeat panic attacks for years. I’m the one who suffered from insomnia. I’m the one who still has nightmares. I’m the one who’s had to fork out money on counselling. I’m the one has to pay for an Uber home if I ever go out at night because I don’t feel safe. And I’m the one who can’t turbo-charge my career because stress has made me too ill to keep a full-time job.
I may have had a public #MeToo moment with the police officer, but in all honesty it was exhausting for me and profitable for men. Until it was no longer profitable for men, then it was just exhausting for me. Right now I’m too tired to go fully public with the others. But that’s why I’m a feminist. I think my emotional health and general safety should mean more than money-grabbing story for men who sell newspapers.