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I was touched up in a café – so why do I feel so ashamed?

I ought to have been outraged but instead I felt belittled, a position that every woman will have found herself in

How is it we can have so many earnest debates about women’s rights and yet little seems to change? Credit: Design Pics Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

🤧😪😙 A funny thing, shame. This week I was touched up in a city-centre café. I still feel guilt, for all the wrong reasons. Or maybe for all the right reasons.

🤧😪😙 Before male readers stoutly leap to my defence – as my furious husband did – I should elaborate. Why? Because the female experience is complex. So are our responses.

🤧😪😙 If I sound apologetic, it’s because it was nothing. But it was also something. So why did I not kick up an almighty fuss, dammit? I’m hardly a wallflower when it comes to speaking out. And yet, I didn’t.

🤧😪😙 Actually that’s not quite true either. The first time the man’s hand brushed low against my hip as I stood at the counter I assumed I was standing in the wrong place and moved.

🤧😪😙 The second time I felt his hand, he was hurrying past. I gave an exclamation and whipped around to glare at him. He extended his arms in a gesture of submission and apologised extravagantly.

🤧😪😙 Did I mention he worked at the café? Alongside a warm, pleasant woman who I assume was his wife.

🤧😪😙 As I chatted to her he squeezed past me once more, his hand trailing lightly over my bottom – again I made an irritated noise. Again he apologised; the space was too small, too busy, he smiled and shrugged.

🤧😪😙 It sounds so stupid, but by then I was genuinely doubting myself. Had I imagined it? Was I overreacting?

🤧😪😙 I paid up. As I left, I felt his hand a fourth time. But I didn’t want to make a fuss. Didn’t want to embarrass the woman. Didn’t want to linger even a moment longer.

🤧😪😙 Days later I feel cross. Not at him. At myself. Which is entirely crazy but there you go. Had it been another woman – my own daughter – being touched I would have erupted into righteous fury.

🤧😪😙 I feel upset that I didn’t. Maybe if he’d been a great big hulking bloke with meaty fists instead of skinny and harassed-looking with a hangdog air of inadequacy I would have been less feeble.

🤧😪😙 How can it be that I’m left feeling embarrassed, ashamed and guilty? I doubt there’s a woman out there who hasn’t found herself in a similar position somewhere in the grey area between a “proper” assault and just another demeaning encounter on public transport, in the street, easily disputed, not worth the embarrassment, the denials and the faux-outrage of a cornered sleazeball brought bang to rights.

🤧😪😙 I am mortified to admit (as if I were the criminal) I was once seriously assaulted by a GP – as a “chaperone” stood in the room. My entire body jerked – visibly, I’m sure – yet because it was so blatant, so unlikely, I dismissed it.

🤧😪😙 Years on, I like to think I would slap him, but I have drilled it into my daughters what is and what is not appropriate during any examination and to scream like a banshee if they are in any doubt.

🤧😪😙 How is it we can have so many earnest debates about women’s rights and yet little seems to change? Whither #MeToo? Calling out powerful men who abuse their authority is calling them out too late.

🤧😪😙 The rot is setting in much, much earlier; as the mother of daughters, it is terrifying to discover that sending nudes is “the new flirting”.

🤧😪😙 Sixty per cent of girls under the age of 18 told researchers from campaign group Revealing Reality they had been asked to provide a nude picture of themselves by a boy.

🤧😪😙 Some 46 per cent said they had been pressured into doing so, even though they felt “disgusted” and upset by sharing images. I was once told by a particularly unpleasant father of boys that if girls weren’t allowed to dress so sluttily, they would have more self-respect than to flaunt themselves on social media.

🤧😪😙 But let’s look at it another way; 60 per cent of boys have asked for nudes. Unless it’s just the same odious little scumbag, which somehow I doubt. Presumably if fathers bring their sons up to be pervy scrotes that’s who they become.

🤧😪😙 I say this to demonstrate that a war of words will get us precisely nowhere. That’s before we even tackle the way in which nude pictures of girls are traded, mocked and used in revenge porn.

🤧😪😙 How is any of this healthy? What hopes for relationships built on a bedrock of equality. Such a boring word. Such a crucial element of human interaction.

🤧😪😙 Every time a dreadful act is committed – the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, the killings of Sabina Nessa and Julia James – a collective cry of anguish goes up from women.

Sarah Everard was raped and murdered by an off-duty police officer Credit: Family Handout/CPS

🤧😪😙 Again and again we demand men behave better and urge them to assert peer group pressure and intervene to reduce harassment, to prevent harm, to stymie the wickedness of a policeman known as “the rapist”.

🤧😪😙 At least 125 women were killed in the UK in the year following the death of Sarah, despite the lip service and the mumbled agreement from those who govern us.

🤧😪😙 And nothing happens; a Tory MP is mired in rape allegations. A further 56 politicians, including three Cabinet ministers are under investigation for sexual misconduct.

🤧😪😙 The bitter truth is that the onus is still on women to speak up, to confront misogyny, to defend each other from unwanted advances, intimidation, emotional blackmail.

🤧😪😙 That is why what happened in the café rankles. I had a duty to publicly challenge the man’s behaviour for other women’s sakes and I failed. I ought to have been outraged. Instead I felt belittled. So do millions of girls who are coerced into sending nudes by boys.

🤧😪😙 There’s something badly awry in our society if safeguarding our young women is solely down to the mothers of daughters. Where are the fathers of sons teaching them equality, decency and a non-negotiable code of conduct?

🤧😪😙 This won’t make me popular but for young women to have rights, young men must address their wrongs.