I was sexually assaulted when I was 15. It was at a house party for my friend’s 16th birthday. 

I was coaxed into trying rum and cola for the first time, gamely attempting to sip on the horrible concoction of cheap supermarket cola and an even cheaper rum miniature, stolen by someone from their grandma’s post-Christmas stash, before taking it to the kitchen sink to pour away.

A guy I knew vaguely from another senior school was there in the kitchen, along with a couple pressed up against the fridge. I knew her from primary school and later senior science classes, but mostly I remember she smirked when I entered, led her boyfriend out by the hand and shut the kitchen door behind her. For 15, I was pretty clueless with boys and relationships. There was a gulf between us. She might have been ten years older, and she knew it.

The boy I vaguely knew began to talk, leaning in close. I tried to smile demurely and dodge, assuming (correctly) he was drunk and lecherous. He half-pushed, half-walked me backwards, with his hand in my hair.

(My hair was long and curly. I usually wore it in plaits, or sometimes down in a mess of ringlets. It came down to somewhere around the middle of my back. It was well known you could clip 3 or 4 testtube-holder clips to my plait before I noticed. It was heavy duty hair.)

He had one hand in my hair, and another snaked around my barely developed curves. He was careful not to look me in the eye to see that I was unhappy, buried his head in my neck and made soothing murmurs about how much I would enjoy this. One of the kitchen drawers just behind me was ajar and my ponytail dipped into it. He pressed up against me so it shut, and I was trapped. I asked him to get off. He ignored me. I looked wildly over to the shut door and the shapes moving in the dark just beyond the thick frosted panes.

He fumbled about with fingers and knuckles, and tried to brush my hand against his crotch. He wanted to rape me, was trying to get that going on, but then someone opened the door again and I reached out a hand to them, surprising my attacker into taking a step back.

I didn’t know the guy that came in but he looked at me and across to my attacker and said, looking one to another, “You both cool?”. The boy who had just tried to force himself on me gave a shrug and said “You should’ve knocked.” I ran out to the garden.

I found two female friends there and told them what happened. They looked frightened for a moment and then it began. The rationalising. That this couldn’t have happened to someone they knew, by someone they knew. One of them tried to act as if she was impressed and delighted about my newfound sexual maturity. The other said it would cause trouble in our friendship group if I started spreading rumours, so did I have proof?

I realised then that, by that human instinct to avoid trouble, he was careful to leave plausible deniability in everything he did. My hair got into the drawer — he didn’t put it there. He didn’t injure me — I was too scared to move, and he was substantially bigger than me. He moved so that my hand fell across his crotch, he didn’t place it there. It wasn’t clever, exactly, but I realised I couldn’t say anything substantial.

I didn’t say anything else to my friends. I didn’t tell my family. I got asked a few times at school if I had had sex in the kitchen at someone’s party. I counted down the months until I could change schools for sixth form. I’ve seen him twice more. The second time, in a bar, I asked him outright — shaking — did he remember what happened? He looked at his feet and mumbled that we met at a party once but we were kids then. I told him he was a horrible person, and left.

Why am I sharing this, on the Pastry Box, in public? Because it is likely that some of you reading this don’t know why women can’t just report sexual assault, or that sexual assault happens to ‘others’ for some unknown reason, or that sexual assault is always overtly violent and the act of a mad monster. That’s not often the case. It is often sly, calculating and engineered for plausible denial. To be not believed is to relive the assault again, re-evaluating every moment, questioning your own sanity.

The other reason for sharing something so personal and painful relates more widely to our communities and cultures. People hate ‘drama’. They want bad stuff to go away and for things to carry on as they always have. They hate thinking that there is something more that they could have done or that they were somehow complicit, so they reject it. At some point or another, this has been all of us. This was my 15 year old girl friends who were frightened of what the things that happened to me meant for them and their understanding of their world. It is world leaders who can’t understand what the voice of the people is and why it differs from their own views. It is our coworkers and colleagues and industry compatriots when trouble rises up. People want desperately for things to calm down and go back to normal because it’s all so upsetting.

We rid ourselves of guilt that we cannot absolve by remorse or corrective action, by turning it into blame or ‘otherness’. We create narratives to explain shortcomings in ourselves, our friends and family members while demonising those who aren’t already part of our worldview. Abuse of many forms is often inadvertently perpetuated by individuals avoiding conflict. Intellectually, we know and recognise this. But then our own turf is rocked by ‘drama’, ‘scandal’, ‘accusations’, and we want to hush it all up so we can all go back to work.

So, I’ll leave you with this sobering thought, and what this whole soul-baring session was about. The tech industry, for all its logic and cleverness and money and lofty ambitions, is a cesspit for this kind of stuff. By shouting down those who try to speak up for themselves, even when all they can do is whisper, we are not creating good communities and supporting healthy cultures. We are creating a hegemony of cowards. Shout back and give voice to those being drowned out.

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