By: Catherine Jagoe
The summer before you turn twelve, something changes. You don’t know it, but the forces of metamorphosis are being unleashed in your blood, your brain. You just know that everything feels charged. Even the air seems to vibrate slightly, as if humming out of range of human hearing. The sun is too bright, the grass neon green. On the way to the outdoor pool at the boys’ school where your father works, you pass distant male figures, incandescent in their cricket whites. The odor of manure mingles with the scent of roses and the reek of chlorine.
On the high street of your little town in northern England, there is a life-size cardboard cutout propped up outside Rowland’s, the chemist: the Kodak lady in a bikini, all white teeth, breasts and cleavage. You see her every day on your way to school. In a covered up, chilly, pale world, all that tanned skin is shocking. So is her flat stomach, so unlike yours, round with puppy fat.
The pink-brown circles of your nipples start to swell. You don’t like the conical bumps they make under your cotton undershirt. They’re not breasts. But they’re not flat, like before. At first they look like blisters, but eventually they become small mounds. They feel tender, like a bruise. Running around with this newly floppy, non-streamlined chest becomes less comfortable and sometimes painful. You’re the first girl in Mrs. Groves’ fifth-year class to wear a bra, although the swellings on your chest don’t look like the Kodak lady’s or your mother’s breasts, which you’ve seen in a nude photo hidden in your father’s sock drawer. “Playtex Cross-Your-Heart,” the boys chant mockingly. They know, of course. They see. Standing behind you in line, they take to snapping your bra strap painfully.
You know, but can’t remember how or when you learned, that there’s a topless model every day on page three of the Sun. You become uncomfortably aware of the girlie magazines—Playboy and Penthouse—on the top shelf at the newsagents down the hill. You try to avoid looking at them as you hand over the money for the Guardian you’ve been sent to buy, or the Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars you love. You’re embarrassed to be in the same room as those breasts and the man at the counter. In their presence, you feel shamed and dismayed. Is this what you’ll become? It’s hard to imagine. This is what men want? Those appallingly large breasts are exposed and taboo at the same time. To you, they seem to blare like megaphones, but no one mentions them. They exist in a register beyond normal speech.
You’re tall and are occasionally mistaken for your mother’s younger sister. Once, when you’ve been sent to take your youngest sibling for a walk in her stroller, a woman stops to exclaim over your adorable little one. You’re covered in confusion—you’re only eleven. You stammer a denial, mortified to be taken for one of the girls who gets pregnant and leaves school forever. You’ve seen girls like that berating their whining toddlers at the bus stop. You don’t want to end up like them.
The wild land across the road that you loved to roam with your little brother is sold, and work begins on a new housing development. Now, walking past it, you quail as the construction workers look up and give wolf whistles. On errands for your mother, you have to pass a group of youths permanently stationed on the town hall steps, smoking, horsing around and guffawing. It feels like running the gauntlet. You can’t walk to the shops without passing them. They stare and elbow one another, mutter comments you can’t hear. At these moments, you long to be invisible.
This is the point when your inner self and the life of the world collide. The girl who writes poetry, reads a stack of library books a week, adores French, plays the piano, favors turquoise ink, has a crush on Jonathan Gowdy; the girl who loves swimming and hiking and baking Victoria sponge cakes; the responsible older sister who is passionate, tender-hearted, conscientious, and eager to please, starts to be accosted by the world, which sees only her outside. In your new female flesh, you’ve suddenly become visible, a blinking icon on the sexual radar screen. In this world, you no longer have any control over how you’re seen. You’re becoming aware, from what you hear and read, of how dangerous this being seen is, how much can be done to the female body against its will.
That summer a stranger appears one day while you’re walking alone on the canal towpath, three miles from home. Fat and pale, he lumbers toward you in trousers that seem to be falling down. You tense. There’s no way home except past him. He doesn’t try to touch you but stares fixedly in your direction. Your mouth goes dry, and your palms sweat as you squeeze uncomfortably by on the narrow, muddy path. Nothing happens, nothing at all, but this encounter marks a turning point in your inner life and stays with you for years. It’s your first taste of danger. When you get home, you tell no one. What is there to tell? You’re trying to act grownup. You’re learning the rules, absorbing the grammar of silence. There’s loneliness in this.
Another day, there’s a man loitering in the bushes on the other side of the swimming pool fence. He holds a small, dark thing in his hand, at crotch level. He says nothing, stares at you. Then he vanishes. You’re shocked and bewildered, but too embarrassed to tell the knot of ladies chatting nearby. So you don’t. You stay silent, trying to quiet the commotion in your mind, willing it to go away.
First blood: a rusty stain in the crotch of your underwear, the pink checked polyester ones that you like because they’re lace-trimmed briefs and not the waist-high, little-girl, combed cotton ones you’ve worn till then. But the blood doesn’t look red enough, not like blood at all, really—not what you’d been expecting. You see your mother trying to summon enthusiasm as you tell her, but she comes over as weary and inexplicably defeated. She gives you a package of Dr. White’s napkins and an elastic sanitary belt with hooks, and shows you how to attach them. You feel awkward with this new, bulky thing between your legs, sure it must show.
Your friend Janet, three years older than you, smokes in secret. That summer the two of you sneak out after dinner and stand under the apple trees with their small, hard, unripe fruit. You watch in nervous fascination as she draws the hot smoke into her, talking of boys, glib, knowing, self-assured. The two of you daub your eyelids inexpertly with purple Biba eyeshadow and apply the lip gloss you bought with her on a trip to London. You wet your fingers from a small black flask of Biba perfume with a yellow stopper and yellow flowers, rubbing it on your pulse. Some nights that summer, alone in your bed, you part your thighs, all ache and ignorance, and imagine being with a boy, full of wanting, but not knowing what to do about it.
The fair comes to town for the August carnival and sets up in an overgrown field, beckoning with its heat and noise, its music and colored, flashing lights. You and your siblings beg your father to take you there, dying to spend your pocket money. There are rifles you can shoot, aiming for the bullseye. If you hit it, you get a sad goldfish mouthing silent o’s in a plastic bag. There are screaming bumper cars and a manic merry-go-round you get sick on. You buy a stick of candyfloss the color of Pepto-Bismol, wound around a wand by a woman in a van who smiles as she leans down to hand it to you. It wounds the tongue like meltable wire wool, then dissolves into gritty sweetness, leaving your lips sticky and stained.
You try to throw rings over spikes to get a prize, but never win any of the stuffed animals or cheap jewelry. You eat a nasty, boiled, naked-looking thing called a Hot Dog for the first time in your life. You buy a toffee apple, glazed red with tacky, hard-boiled sugar, and bite through to disappointment—white, mushy fruit. You’re slightly dizzy with the smell of exhaust, bruised grass, hot grease, sweat and Brut.
Suddenly, in the crush of bodies, there’s a hand, too close and in the wrong place. A moment of shock and disbelief. The hand takes you out of the din of the fair and into a still and timeless place of silence. It has attached itself to your body, is feeling your bottom, cupping a buttock, squeezing and rubbing it, refusing to let go, as if it were fondling something it owned. Stroking the plaid fabric of the skirt you made yourself in home economics class, proud you can now use a Singer sewing machine. Your entire being flashes an SOS, electrified by not-wanting. You turn: a small, middle-aged man you don’t know leers at you. Almost in tears, you back away, furiously wishing you could spool back to before it happened. Later you shame-facedly mutter something about it to your dad, who balls his fists and growls, “Where is he?” Mortified, you beg him to let it go, not to make a fuss, desperate not to draw any more attention to your body. So you try to tell yourself nothing has been done. You say nothing to your mother when you get home and go swimming with the family that evening, willing the cold water to wash away the traces of that hand. But it’s not on your skin: it’s in your head, indelible.
You return to that moment at the fair because you want to understand the toxic cocktail of shame, silence, helplessness and fear you imbibed, one that gets infused into women from an early age. Already you knew—without being told—that being groped is an expected consequence of being a woman, nothing to complain of. You’d joined the world that ranks sexual assault, and trivializes certain kinds of unwanted physical contact. Yet being handled like that lodges inside you like a burr, painful and uncomfortable.
It’s your induction into life in a young woman’s body. Harassment in public places by male strangers becomes an omnipresent force in your daily life. The comments and looks on the street, in public places, ramp up. Unwanted advances can happen any time, on the most mundane errands—grocery shopping, going to the post office, walking the dog. From that year on, you inhabit your body differently. You feel like a magnet, a target, in a way you don’t want. Filled with a new wariness, you learn not to make eye contact; where possible, you seek to avoid situations that could trip the alarm now constantly armed within you. This is when you start losing your voice, when your chatty preteen self is edged out by someone more taciturn and watchful. You strive to come across as aloof, forbidding. You practice silence. You take to wearing baggy, concealing things. As a young woman, you want to be invisible.
You’re not. At eighteen, you take your first vacation without family, just you and four girls from high school, on money you saved from your first job, working in a department store. You take the train all the way across England and France, to a campsite on the Mediterranean. One night, your friends get more drunk than usual and disappear on the beach with guys they met at the restaurant. You stand on the beach in the dark holding their passports, shivering a little as the blood-warm sea advances and retreats around your ankles, alone and full of fear for them and for yourself. There are men loitering on the road above, staring down at you. Wherever you are on that trip, there are always men, aware of your presence, following your movements.
At nineteen, you become an au pair in Spain. England was bad enough, but in Madrid you feel as if you’re under siege. You can’t walk through a park, or read a book in public, or order a Fanta, or wander along the sidewalk without a male of some age sidling up and whispering obscene things in your ear, or simply pestering to be noticed. A friend from high school, who is working for a family outside Madrid, is raped when she tries to hitchhike into the city. As au pairs, you earn a pittance: you sometimes have to choose between buying a coffee or the bus fare. She tells you the details, but nobody else. Neither of you thinks to report it to the police. It feels too private and shameful.
At twenty-two, you spend three months living in France alone in a tent as an onsite rep for Canvas Holidays, a British camping firm. You love being in charge of a campsite, solving clients’ problems, living out of doors. Your job comes with a moped, and you use it to explore the Breton countryside, taking long trips, exhilarated by your freedom. But there’s always the question of men, being aware of where they are and what they’re up to, what intentions they might have. In your journal, you draw a symbol for a woman, like a horseshoe-shaped magnet. A vessel with a hole. Unstoppered, unsealed. No way to cap it from the world. Men want into your body. They and the things they could do have moved into your head permanently.
In Madrid, and later in Mexico City, you are groped by strangers on metro carriages so crowded it’s impossible to maneuver away from the hand probing between your clenched legs, trying to insert a finger into your vagina through your clothes. It’s impossible to know which of the phalanx of men around you is the culprit, you’re packed in so tightly. You shift and try to twist away to no avail, wanting to kick, stomp, scream, but afraid you might make things worse. You’re surrounded by men, any and all of whom could harm you even more. When released onto the platform, you emerge shaking with revulsion and fright. You wonder, now, what would have happened if you’d protested out loud in those carriages? Would the crotch grabbing have stopped? Would you have been safe?
You think about the man at the fair, the men in those trains, feeling you up. There’s something pathetic about their furtive, sneaky fondling. Groping signals male inadequacy as well as male power. It’s something one does when one can’t see. To grope, in its primary meaning, is to reach out blindly, to search with one’s hands for something one can’t see well, or at all. Men who grope can’t really see the woman they’re molesting as a whole person, whose consent matters. Intentionally or unintentionally, they remind women of their powerlessness, the precariousness of their safety and bodily autonomy. Because it’s so far from healthy, tender, loving touch, groping generates mistrust and fear.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, you find yourself explaining to your husband of thirty years that you can’t count the number of times you’ve been out hiking, biking or walking by yourself and felt fear. Not mild anxiety, but heart-pounding, clammy-skin fear—fear of being sexually assaulted. He is surprised. You just assumed he knew. You tell him about an incident this week: Walking deep in the labyrinth of woodland paths in the Arboretum, you smell cigarette smoke. You hear and see no one, but you remember the nearby dump where men in hard hats maneuver beeping trucks constantly. You’re alone. You freeze, then flee.
The statistics on sexual assault are daunting and support the wariness you learned as a preteen. One out of every six American women suffers attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Girls and women between the ages of 12-34 are at the highest risk for sexual assault. It makes sense, given this, that you’re more scared of encountering a man in a lonely place than a bear or a mountain lion. Because at some level, women know they’re prey, and are primed to live accordingly. The threshold is different for every woman, but it’s always there. When you move about alone, you find yourself weighing your need to do what you want, go where you want, and comparing it to the amount of risk you may run. The choice is sometimes stark: suffer fear, or consent to a constricted life. One friend has camped solo in the mountains in Turkey, an adventure you think was way too hazardous. Another has never walked alone through the Arboretum, “for safety reasons.”
Even your home is dangerous. All the evidence shows that women should be more afraid of the men they know than of strangers in the dark. At twenty-four, you get into a petty argument with your long-term boyfriend, sniping at him while sitting on the sofa at his parents’ house. Suddenly he punches you in the side of the head, hard, jarring your neck. You’re thunderstruck. This was never in the vocabulary of the possible between you. Your head spins. Nothing but the sound of the blow ringing, as if you were underwater, as if God had reached out of the sky and struck you with a hammer. But it seems a random aberration, so you forgive him. You stay together for another year. Then he comes home one night after midnight, drunk, and won’t explain where he’s been or why. Instead, he starts punching you. Two days later, you fly to the U.S. for the first time, on what is supposed to be a one-year fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wearing your bruises and your baffled grief.
Living in Wisconsin that year, 1986, you feel less scrutinized, freer to move around. Legs in particular seem largely desexualized. People wear shorts everywhere, not just on the beach. You don’t need to smarten up to go to the grocery store—you can show up in stained, baggy sweatpants, as if you were just schlepping around the house. Utility and comfort prevail over looking good. But despite the significant cultural differences about how to dress and act in public, the sexual fault line is still there.
As a graduate student, you’re pressed to go out on a dinner date in the country by a male professor over twice your age, on a day when you’re wearing a tank top and very short shorts. It’s in the nineties and you find the muggy heat unbearable. You just want to be cool—not figuratively, but literally. Lulled into a false sense of security by the culture of leg-baring here, you naïvely hadn’t seen your outfit as a come-on. You’re taken aback and repelled by his offer, and the thought of being alone in a car with him rings alarm bells. But you fear the consequences of simply saying no, so you hedge and agonize, and extricate yourself from the outing by leaving him an awkward phone message later.
You eventually acquire an American boyfriend, whom you later marry. Whenever he leaves on a work trip, you sleep poorly. In your thirties and forties, even in this ultra-safe Midwestern college town, you startle awake at the slightest noise when he’s not there, primed to hear an intruder. It’s not robbery that frightens you so much as sexual violence. One night you become so convinced there’s someone in the house that you barricade yourself in the bedroom with a chest of drawers, clutching the phone under the sheets, only falling asleep when the sky starts to lighten.
Now, as a married woman in your late fifties, you’re fading into invisibility on people’s erotic radar. You’ve morphed from “miss” to “ma’am.” The loss of fertility and desirability has, paradoxically, increased your confidence in public. Menopause has granted some welcome freedoms. You now feel comfortable wearing formfitting clothes, something you’ve avoided for four decades. You’re more secure and at ease in your own body, and in your sexuality, than you’ve ever been. But that doesn’t mean the alarm system has been disconnected.
It’s been a beautiful day, but it’s almost over. You’ve been working inside the whole time, trying to make a deadline. You urgently need to be back in your body, moving, out of doors. You set off on a one-hour power walk through the neighborhood, a loop you sometimes do with a friend. The return half follows the bike path, which was once a train track. The last section is built into a hill, so it’s perched high above the yards that back onto it on one side. On the other, it’s flanked by woods. Shortly after you set off, you note, with a twinge of anxiety, that it’s almost dusk; fall is shortening the days fast—sunset has come significantly earlier than a week ago. In the woods by Lake Wingra, the katydids are sounding their Indian summer rattles as you pass. They’re loudest where the vegetation is thickest, where the jewelweed next to the sidewalk is chest-high. The shades get darker.
You pass the halfway point of the walk and make the turn off Midvale Boulevard onto the bike path for the home stretch. It’s completely dark by this point. A few hundred yards in, the tinge of anxiety becomes a flood that drowns your enjoyment of the walk. There are no street lamps along this stretch past the cemetery; there are houses on one side but some way off, their inhabitants effectively out of earshot. You start upbraiding yourself for being foolhardy, ruing your own stubbornness for putting yourself at risk again. You remember reading the newspaper reports of the woman attacked on the bike path last summer; how savagely she was beaten after being pulled off into the undergrowth and raped. She was found just two feet from the path. She lay there, close to death, for hours before she was rescued. You clutch the house key in your pocket like a primitive weapon, resolved to use it if need be. “So much for taking back the night,” you think to yourself, grimly. You’re just a mile and a half from home. This shouldn’t be a big deal.
By now you’re close to panic. There’s a quarter mile to the next exit from the bike path, and you walk as fast as you can, your heart thudding unpleasantly—the way it did that day at the fair when you were a girl—and turn off, thankfully, onto streets with lights and houses. At least now there are people around, within shouting distance. You’re safe. Or safer. Until next time. Because there always is a next time. And you’ll be listening, again, for the step on the path behind you.
Catherine Jagoe is a British translator, essayist, and poet who has lived in Madison, Wisconsin for over thirty years. She has a PhD in Spanish Literature from Cambridge University and is the author or translator of seven books of poetry, fiction, and literary criticism. Her nonfiction has received a 2016 Pushcart Prize and a Notable Essay citation in the 2019 edition of Best American Essays, and has appeared in Ninth Letter, TriQuarterly, Flyway, Under the Sun and The Gettysburg Review. Her debut poetry book Bloodroot won the 2016 Settlement House American Poetry Prize and the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Edna Meudt award. She is a contributor to Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series. She is currently translating contemporary Uruguayan poetry and working on a book of essays about place and migration. Her website is www.catherinejagoe.com