The Empty Chair: I Believe You

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Image Credit: Amanda Demme/New York Magazine

Warning: Triggers for abuse and assault

Last week a friend of mine was telling me about an incident that had happened when she was walking on her way to her local shop. In front of her were two girls. One in particular was stunningly beautiful and there were a succession of drivers that had honked at her in their cars as they had gone past. A man was walking in the opposite direction to them, but when he saw her he stopped and started heading towards her.

“Can I buy you dinner?” he kept shouting. She ignored him and carried on her conversation with her friend.

“Oi beautiful girl! Let me buy you dinner!”. By this point he had started walking faster in an effort to catch up with them. Again, she ignored him. Suddenly, he grabbed her on the arm and pulled her around.

The girl was startled, and lost her temper, screaming at him. (Note, I’ve toned down the conversation a little here…)

“Don’t touch me you perve! Who do you think you are? Do you think I’d want to go out with some random d*ckhead that’s yelling at me in the street? And what right do you have to put your hands on me?!”

Members of the public were starting to slow down and watch what was happening, and the man was embarrassed.

“I was only asking you if you wanted to go out!”

“No you weren’t, you were yelling at me and then you grabbed me when I ignored you? Who does that? Touch me again and I’ll call the police!”

The man pushed her and started calling her offensive names, but quickly walked off when my friend and other members of the public shouted, continuing to yell expletives at her as he did so. My friend had caught up to them by this point and asked her if she was ok, and her response unnerved my friend considerably…

“Yeah, thanks. That sort of stuff happens all the time.” When asked if she wanted to call the police, she shook her head and said that there wasn’t any point, and continued on her way. She had been the victim of an unprovoked assault, and yet didn’t report it. The man had got away with it.

It made me wonder what would have happened if she had been on her own and in a place that wasn’t so public.

I thought about my own experiences. I’m no supermodel by any means, but over the years I have had random men yelling at me in the street or passing by in cars, my bottom has been slapped and my wrists grabbed on many occasions in nightclubs, I have been followed home, and when sitting on a bus late at night a man sat next to me despite there being plenty of empty seats and repeatedly tried to put his hand on my leg, quickly grabbing my chest and getting off the bus when I yelled at him. Despite this, I consider to have been fortunate and feel safe when I am out by myself.

However, many I know haven’t been so lucky.

This morning I awoke to the image on the front cover of The New York Magazine, in which 35 of the 46 women who have come forward publicly to accuse Bill Cosby of rape or sexual assault are posed sitting on chairs with a uniform expression in black and white to highlight the similarities of these women’s stories. On the bottom-right of the image is an empty chair, representing other unseen accusers.

It’s an incredibly porwerful statement, highlighting the number of people (and I say people here as it isn’t just women who are assaulted) who remain voiceless. Consequently, my Twitter feed has been filled with thousands sharing their own harrowing stories using the hashtag #The EmptyChair, and they have affected me deeply. With over a third of women being the victim of an assault according to a 2012 Mumsnet survey, the culture surrounding rape, assault and abuse means that many don’t come forward because they fear they aren’t going to be believed, will be blamed for provocative outfits and behaviour or levels of alcohol and/or drugs in the system. Poor relationships with the local law enforcement, race and socio-economic standing mean that many have a lack of trust in the system. Even if a case goes to trial, the victim will most likely have every element of their personal life and credibility questioned, being forced to relive the event repeatedly in a public forum. In 2015, we live in a society where victim blaming and rape jokes are accepted and part of the norm.

We accept that we aren’t safe, and adapt our lifestyle to protect us from strangers. If I have been out in the evening to a local bar, one of my male friends will walk me home or The Bloke will walk down and meet me. If I’m in town my friends will walk me to a taxi station and will insist that I ring them when I am home safely, and I do the same for them. But it isn’t just strangers who committ assault, and there are so many that suffer abuse from family members and friends.

We shouldn’t have to fear walking down the street at night by ourselves, we shouldn’t have to consider what we wear in case it attracts attention, and we shouldn’t have to avoid eye contact or innocent conversations with people just in case they assume we are hitting on them.

Above all, we shouldn’t have to fear the consequences of speaking out.

It’s time we did something about it.

For those people, I wanted to share a simple message:

It’s not your fault.

It’s never too late.

I believe you.

49 thoughts on “The Empty Chair: I Believe You

  1. This is so very true, sadly. I’ve lived in a few different places and travelled to a lot more and it seems to be the norm through most of the world. I’ll never understand why any man would think shouting out, grabbing or assaulting someone would get them to be interested in or go out with them. The worst I’ve had was a man slipping his hand between my legs on the train – I reported it to the transit police but there wasn’t really anything they could do. I now have a daughter and am worried for her already, even though she’s only eight. I also taught martial arts and self defence for many years – when I taught the self defence classes (with another female instructor) we were both horrified at how frightened all the women were who came to our classes. It’s not right that half the world’s population should have to be fearful and modify their behaviour in order to accommodate the other half’s unacceptable tendency towards aggressiveness (and before everyone shouts at me, I realise this is not all men, not by a long shot. But it is a reasonable percentage). A thought-provoking post.

      • Oh, you know, they took his description and, to be fair, were very nice to me, but he got off the train before I did and there was no way to track him. It was years ago, when I was a student commuting to school in Toronto. I just remember how angry and upset I was, and the other commuters did nothing.

      • That sounds awful. There’s also the culture that nobody does anything for fear of getting involved. The bus driver did nothing when i started shouting too…

      • Which is awful too! You would think at least they would do something, seeing as it’s in their place of work. I’m sorry you had to experience that. And there is that fear of getting involved, I absolutely agree.

      • I was pleased that people jumped in to protect the girl my friend saw… Doesn’t happen often enough. I understand why to be fair – there’s so many stories of the good samaritan being hurt or even prosecuted…

      • Absolutely. I’m pleased for her too, I suppose because it was so public they felt they had to say something. Also, I believe that once one person jumps in, other people then feel more comfortable in joining in to help. So I’m going to try and be that one person whenever possible…

  2. Being unfortunate enough to live near Rotherham I’ve been reading the stories of abuse of young people in care that has now surfaced. I’m so angry that their pleas for help were ignored. I’ve no time for the pathetic excuses given by Council and Police in the matter, they should have done something – immediately. I spoke to a woman in the gym this morning and she was telling me about her 13 year old daughter who she went shopping with over the weekend. She’s blonde, very pretty and had on a lovely Summer dress – her Mother was a wreck by the end of the trip because she could see men staring and leering at her daughter, they turned as she passed to look at her bottom. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THIS WORLD!!! Why should an element of humanity think it acceptable to do these things to another – perhaps because there is no deterrent, no consequence. I recently sat in the car and cried listening to a young man recount his harrowing story on the Jeremy Vine radio show. If only we could find punishment for these people that match the pain they have caused others …

    • I totally agree… It scares me to think that these people think that sort of behaviour is acceptable to a young girl. I have a friend who is ridiculously attractive and whenever we go out she gets comments and stares and men coming up to her. It’s really unnerving.

  3. It is a true shame that Bill Cosby thought he could get away with it and he did for so long. When you have a powerful person abusing people and his position in life it can really cause you to question why things have to be like that. No one deserves to be treated like those women were.

  4. What perpetually shocks me is not that this happens… But when women say that they don’t think gender inequality is a current day issue.

    WHAT ALTERNATIVE REALITY DO THEY LIVE IN?!

    I understand not reporting abuse (unfortunately). I understand adapting behaviour to increase odds of safety. But I don’t understand ignoring the existence of a pervasive problem that affects everyday life of all women.

  5. A great Post. Thanks so much for expressing yourself relatively freely as these scenarios need as much publicity and understanding as possible. I know that not all men are like that, and I know that there are some “good samaritans” out there who will intervene but sadly, there are the ones noted in this Post and in the resulting comments. I was “approached”by a man a very long time ago, and I can still recall the scene in great detail. Again ……….. a great Post. 🙂

    • Thanks so much. The unfortunate thing is that these sorts of incidents are commonplace and deemed to be acceptable. And of course, not all men are like that. I know lots of kind, caring respectable men who don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush…

  6. I must say that I have been having what I call blank flash backs of late, meaning that I find myself terrified at times to be around men and I know it is the post traumatic stress disorder I was diagnosed with well over a decade ago, still… The inner terror of the rapes, the casual assaults, the demeaning conversations of male friends who have said things such as “You should be flattered” or “Seriously, lighten up and have fun” have been haunting me. At least I know what is happening, that I am in NO real danger but honestly people NEED to make their voices heard when confronted by such disrespectful behaviors and take a stand to take their power back. With each breath I take I remind myself all is well and when the terror tries to take over, I breathe deeper and release. ❤ Hopefully this made some sort of sense, I have the feeling I was all over the place…

  7. I used to live in Morocco and witness this kind of behaviour on a daily basis. Now, whenever something similar happens to me in the streets of London, I get flashbacks of my young teenage years in Casablanca. It may never have been a physical violation (although a man did grab my friend’s chest once!) but I find the silent stares, grins and whistles to be even worse. The unspoken in them makes me so uncomfortable and every time, I wish I had a coat to wrap myself in and crawl back home…

    • When we experience things over a prolonged period of time we then get into almost a state of constant awareness that others don’t. I love London but Im very conscious of the people around me all the time, even though Ive always felt safe there…

  8. I’ve got older and less tolerant. Now I have a 20 something daughter I understand how awful it is to receive the unwanted and unwarranted attentions of anyone. She now has to restrain me if we are out and some nob says something. Of course I see it when I’m not with her and try and check the situation. So far nothing has gotten untoward but one day I’m sure it will. I hope I have the guts to do something. BTW did you see this? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1XGPvbWn0A Bloody awful; it’s not like it only happens in NY either.

    • Wow! I was mesmerised by this. Some of the men were actually really polite, some were rude, some were downright scary. The point is, why does any of them need to say anything at all! Does the guy who says ‘damn girl’ expect a response? The creepy guy walking next to her was the scariest for me…

  9. Pingback: What’s black and white and ‘read’ all over? | TanGental

  10. A stunning cover, I hadn’t yet seen it. It makes me wonder at the incompleteness of the story of sexual assault on women. It’s more complex than crude men hitting on attractive women, or a celebrity who takes advantage of his fame and resources. It’s even more complex when we add to it self-esteem. What if you’re not attractive enough to get wolf whistles so you do dress provocatively or smile at dangerous attention not yet realizing the danger? What if you don’t know how to say piss off because you’re shy or feel embarrassed? This cover is a powerful visual, though and it is only the tip of the iceberg. The empty seat represents countless untold stories. Yet three words bring so much needed relief — I believe you. You don’t even know my story, but I can tell you thank you for those words.

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