Laura Whitmore: The Routine Abuse of Women Must Stop

The MeToo movement has highlighted the shockingly high incidence of rape and sexual assault in everyday life, across the world. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. At every turn, whether on a night out, or in the media, women are routinely treated as pieces of meat – and worse. Now the time has come to fight our fears of slut-shaming, embarrassment and social pressures and say – enough! By Laura Whitmore

I’ve wanted to write this for a while but I’ve been scared. I feel ashamed to say I was scared but I was. I still am. Scared of what people might say, drawing attention to things that upset me, adding fuel to the fire. Still. I need to write this. What exactly ‘this is’, I don’t know precisely, but I’ll try to elaborate.

Last year I was in a club with my friends and I could feel a hand on the back of my leg. Initially I thought it was my boyfriend messing or a mate about to pinch my bottom – but the hand went under my skirt, between my legs, and firmly touched me. As I turned, I saw it was a guy who I did not know. He was laughing.

I pushed him away and told him to get his ‘fucking hands off me’. It was dark and I was shocked by what had just happened. I couldn’t recognise his face under the strobing lights and, then, he was gone. I was a bit tipsy and I was wearing a short skirt. Did I deserve that to happen? I told the manager but what could I do? What was the point?

SMALL FLASHBACKS

I had my ass slapped when I was 16 in a local club in Ireland and my older cousin Clair, who was with me, pushed the guy against a wall, and made him apologise to me. That single moment comes back to me every time I feel violated in a similar way. No one has the right to do that to anyone. My body. My property. This I know – but sadly, I’ve experienced similar things repeatedly.

First time I moved to London, someone smacked my ass before I got on to a bus. I’ve had lewd remarks shouted at me. Every time I pass a group of guys alone, my stomach knots and I keep my head down as I worry they’ll shout something and embarrass me. I am by no means a weak woman. I consider myself a strong person. Ask anyone who knows me: I’ll fight for what I believe in, and I will always stand up for myself. But sometimes I feel I have to choose my battles and other times I feel – like in that club – what’s the point?

My heart says now is the time to talk about this, probably because personally I feel stronger and in a better position – and on a wider scale, the truth is that we’ve all had enough.

The recent Belfast case involving young Ulster Rugby players and a young woman may split opinions and we’ve been told to respect the jury’s decision – I do not, however, have to agree with it. My fear now is the media circus and the ‘slut-shaming’ will stop other women from coming forward when they have been the victim of assault or rape. What really struck home with me was the number of women who contacted me over my social media to say that the derogatory messages the men exchanged was simply culturally accepted as ‘lad banter’ and that loads of guys in those kind of social circles do that – and that’s just the way it is. ‘She was asking for it’. This is a comment I’ve seen repeatedly online since the verdict of not guilty came out and it is the ‘entitled’ mentality of phrases like this that sicken me to my core. This piece I’m writing is NOT about that court case. I’m not going to talk about the jury’s decision or that specific event. This is not the place for that. I want to talk personally.

A few years ago my close friend Sara* told me that one drunken night, she had been raped by someone we knew. Someone I had both worked and socialised with. I had so many questions for her. “Why are you only telling me this now? What exactly happened?! Are you ok?”

I knew the answer to the last one – she wasn’t ok.

Sara is one of the sweetest people I have ever met. She is also a bit of a party girl and likes a drink, or two. One night she got hammered and couldn’t find her house keys. A guy she knew very well, and who had been at the same party as her, offered her his hotel room to sleep in: that would allow her to contact the friend who lived with her, and get into their house, the following morning. She remembers feeling distressed about her missing belongings and he gave her water and a sleeping tablet.

She KNEW this guy. She was drunk but felt safe. He then tried to kiss her. She pushed him off her but she can’t remember everything that happened next, instead recalling elements of the night in small flashbacks. She had bruising on her hand when she woke up and was naked in his bed. She was sore and bleeding.

The man in question is someone of importance and works in her line of business. And let’s just say, he had the power – and still does – to screw her career if he wanted to. Which they both knew. She got dressed and left. To this day, although he works in her world, since that night he hasn’t made eye contact with her or acknowledged her presence in a room.

I asked Sara, “Why didn’t you go to the police?” She said, in a completely matter of fact way, “Oh come on, who would believe me... and it’s HIM. I can’t go against him.” I gave her a hug and said I’d support her always one hundred per cent whatever her decision. And my stomach turned as I knew she was right. If she said something, especially now a year later, she WOULD be torn apart, her career in jeopardy and her party girl image heightened even further.

All I can say is, I believe her. And for her, that’s enough.

MONEY SHOT

This terrible account aside, and away from allegations of rape, and flawed judicial systems – what has really hit me is how women are portrayed in general. All this shaming and degrading. In a sense, the ‘Me Too’ movement is just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m not comparing my situation to women who have been very badly traumatised by sexual abuse. All I can speak about is what I know – my personal experiences and things that may resonate with other women.

Things that I’ve felt too embarrassed to speak out about before.

I had a photographer who took pictures of me as I was getting out of a car outside my flat, on a summer’s afternoon about two years ago. I was wearing a floral summer dress, carrying my dog and shopping bags. The article (I use the term loosely) that accompanied the images read ‘near pants shot’.

For the next week, I again spotted a car with a photographer outside my flat. In fact, I even called the police one day as I have an elderly neighbour, and didn’t want to freak her out or have the front of my home printed in some newspaper – that’s not what I have signed up for, nor should I be coerced into it. It’s embarrassing.

The police officer told me that there was nothing I could do about it: he was free to take pictures of me in public spaces and the footpath outside my home is public property – like I’m in some sort of urban zoo. I took a picture of the photographer in question, parked in one of the disabled parking spots, and posted it on Twitter (he wasn’t happy about that), in the hope that it would have him moved. It didn’t.

I remember the next few days wearing jeans in case it might happen again. Imagine that being something you have to actually think about, when you are getting dressed in the morning. I’ve posed for fashion shoots in underwear on closed sets in the past and in an environment I felt comfortable and empowered in. It was my choice. But that shouldn’t make me a target for this behavior, should it? I now worry: will a man put a camera under my skirt? How is this the world we live in? How is this legal?

This wasn’t walking down a red carpet; this was walking outside my home. Besides, I like wearing dresses. Why shouldn’t I be able to wear them without feeling constantly on guard?

Eventually he got what he wanted. If you follow someone around long enough, and shoot from a low angle on a day I’m wearing a dress, yes, you’ll get the pants shot! Imagine this is actually someone’s ‘job’! What’s worse, in a way, is that someone actually prints these pictures! Think about this: the moment there’s a gust of wind is the moment that someone gets their money shot. It’s awful.

To say that there are more important things going on in the world than the colour of my pants would be funny, if all of this weren’t so invasive, so horrible, so cheap and nasty. On top of all that, the paper blurred my knickers, so it basically looked like I was wearing NO PANTS! The whole thing felt dirty and grossly, needlessly sexualised.

I felt so humiliated at the time. I didn’t want to say anything for fear of drawing attention to these awful, pathetically sordid pictures that were now posted online, with no way to remove them. So I was mortified in silence.

I am by no means the only woman to whom this has happened. In fact, most women I know in the entertainment industry have had similar ordeals. And some are affected by it more than others.

Society has this female-shaming culture that seems to be acceptable. Why do we love to degrade women? “Oh well look what she was wearing, she was asking for it.” How is this a justification??! It isn’t. Ever.

I’ve spent most of my career, in the little limelight I’ve experienced, reading about my so-called dalliances with men. Pretty much every man I’ve ever crossed paths with, I may as well have been photographed straddling – from friends, to work colleagues, to actual boyfriends. This is supposed to be a measure of my worth? Not the fact that I have a first class honours degree in journalism; that I was selected as an MTV host ahead of thousands of applicants; that I have worked bloody hard in this industry and made a successful career, bought a house, supported my family, been a faithful girlfriend and lived a life as best I could, trying to be a kind person and standing up for others when I could?

HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER

I could write pages about all of this but I won’t.

But I do want to mention one other thing, because it seems apt now. I was working at the Baftas two years ago, and it was one of those dreamy nights when you realise you have a great job and you’re actually not shit at it. Afterwards, I was approached by a very well known actor – very charming, very talented and most definitely in demand.

I was with my mates, he was with his and we all went to a party. That was it. I spoke to him, as well as to lots of other people, that night. To be honest, all I really wanted to do was dance to Beyoncé and eat the mini fish and chips they were serving. I was invited to dinner with him and a group of folk the next day. I didn’t go. The rest of the night I chatted to lots of other folk and went home with my girlfriend, who I had brought to the awards with me. The guy was lovely and I’m sure he has long forgotten his mad chat – about wolves, of all things – with some Irish lady who likes talking a lot.

How could I have been prepared for the frenzy that happened next? A picture appeared, on the front pages of papers, that someone had taken on a phone, of me talking to him. And it was accompanied by a headline, basically saying that I had ‘shagged’ this man.

Shagged??

Of course, that’s what women are for, isn’t it?

Is my worth to be measured by the men I sleep with – or the men I sleep with in the sordid mind of some sub-editor? And being a little unknown TV person, is it presumed that I would jump at the chance of sleeping with an A-lister who I happen to have spoken to? FUCK OFF.

I even saw it written that, while I was ten years younger than this guy, I was a bit ‘older’ than his usual type. He’s ten years older than me!!! And god forbid, maybe I don’t sleep with guys I don’t know. And maybe I was with someone else I actually liked. But the media would never consider that – and to be totally honest, none of that was their business in the first place.

What wasn’t mentioned was the fact that a well-known Hollywood producer was also in that room that night and I spent most of my time not being alone with him. I had met him over the years at film events and he always gave me time, introduced me to his colleagues and wife and said he thought I was very good at what I did, which was immensely flattering.

Later when whispers of ‘you’re a very pretty girl’ were made, alarm bells rang. He was a well respected man in the industry, but it was almost common knowledge not to be alone with him (and I’ll argue against anyone who refutes that). I only met him in a professional manner and never took him up on his offers of theatre or dinner, when he invited me.

In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t. The day after the Baftas, he found out the hotel, and the number of the room I was staying in.

My mate and I thought we had slept in when the phone rang – but it was the producer asking could I meet him at his hotel later than day. I said I couldn’t as I was working, which was true. If I’m honest, there was a part of me that hoped he really did think I was good at my job and wanted to help – but I’ve been in the industry a while now and you learn to be careful.

I never felt cornered, but I also never spoke out about this as I thought ‘what’s the point?’ People will think: why would he be bothered talking to her? It’s sad that this was the first thing that crossed my mind. Look how many women it took, and years of fighting, before anyone took the allegations seriously.

I also don’t want to take away from other people’s stories or feel like I’m ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, as I saw someone comment under a well-known female actor’s article recently.

For the following 12 months after that Bafta night, every time I was mentioned in the press, I was tagged ‘rumoured love interest of Hollywood Movie Star’. I have a career. I have done serious work. And yet they want to define me as ‘someone’s possible bit on the side’. Why is that seen as a way of measuring my worth?

SPEAKING UP

I didn’t think the media storm could get any worse than that incident – and then I signed up for a show that I had loved so much and grew up with, Strictly Come Dancing. I’m still not ready to talk in-depth about my experience on the show. I love dancing, I topped the leader board twice – but before it even began, I was thrown into the lion’s den and into the middle of someone’s break-up that had nothing to do with me. Once again, I was a ‘rumoured love interest’.

I was placed with a dance partner I was extremely uncomfortable with – and in the end I felt broken. I cried every day. And I really was broken, both mentally and physically, by the end. To the outside world I tried to suck it up and smile, and I did that to the best of my ability – but it affected me deeply. My friends and family knew that I was struggling. And they were there for me. The media, however, saw me as blonde bait in a sequined dress.

How have we sunk to this situation, where women are routinely reduced, and demeaned, in this way? It is impossible to understand, when everything about it is so wrong, so misguided and so vile.

I know that compared to many people I have been fortunate. I love this life and I’ve been blessed with wonderful opportunities – but I’ve had enough of being trivialised and gossiped about. Women are not playthings – either of men or of the media – and should not be treated as such.

As women, we need to start celebrating ourselves and asserting our true worth. We are not meat. We are beautiful, complex creatures. We should not have to feel like we are constantly on guard. I am lucky to have such strong and inspiring women in my life, as well as men, who appreciate and respect women. I’ve always found it easier to speak up for others – but I now also acknowledge the importance of speaking up for myself.

It was Maya Angelou who said, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

Amen to that.

* Sara is not her real name.

•The fee for this article is being donated to the Rape Crisis Centre. Laura Whitmore is a broadcaster, actor and model. From Bray, in Co. Wicklow, she made her first breakthrough when she was chosen as the anchor of MTV News in Europe. Based in London, she has worked extensively with MTV, ITV, BBC and RTÉ. She recently starred in the stage drama, Not Dead Enough, which toured the UK and Ireland.

Laura Whitmore: The Routine Abuse of Women Must Stop was first published in Hot Press 42-05, with Hudson Taylor on the cover and available below.

 

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