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Dublin: 14 °C Saturday 20 April, 2019

The #WhenIWas hashtag is a snapshot into the lived experience of millions of girls

‘Initially, we assumed it was accidental.’

While the world is consumed by high-profile cases making international headlines, Everyday Sexism wants to focus on the instances of sexual violence and harassment which don’t attract global attention, but ultimately contribute to the narrative.

And yesterday, they started the #WhenIWas hashtag.

When I was seven, a man slid a cold, clammy hand beneath the back of my T-shirt while I waited in a queue to ask for a ten-penny mix. 

And when I was 11, a man exposed himself to me and my friend. Initially, we assumed it was accidental and an unavoidable inevitability if you choose to wear small running shorts and then stretch excessively against your car in full view of two schoolgirls.

But after skipping through a pedestrian shortcut in order to avoid him, we began to assume it wasn’t accidental because moments later, he had driven his car up the cul de sac we had entered by foot, gotten out and in a similar fashion, revealed himself again.

While these two instances didn’t have any significant or lasting effect on me, they do instantly come to mind when discussion ignites around the regularity with which such incidents occur.

And at the age of 31 – more than 20 years on from both instances – I still remember them clearly.

I remember how I immediately froze under that man’s clammy touch in my local supermarket, the sense of unease as his hand lingered and the conflict I felt between knowing I had a right to pull away as well as an obligation to be mannerly to my elders.

And two decades on, I still recall the colour of that other man’s shorts, the genuine confusion I felt when we saw him emerge from his car again and the vague sense of unease that descended when I thought about walking home later.

jellies Source: Shutterstock

The thread has attracted thousands of responses, with members of the public – mostly women – recalling moments from their past when their sense of innocence was compromised, their personal space invaded and their understanding of a particular power dynamic brought into question.

A great many of the respondents also recall feeling silenced in the aftermath of these moments.

While I maintain that those two incidents from my childhood were – to me – minor and ultimately played next to no part in my life, what they do do is contribute to a much wider – indeed global – narrative.

They are indicative of a sense of entitlement that is routinely perpetuated and a sense of a compliance that has been historically encouraged.

They act as tiny jigsaw pieces; fragments of a much larger picture; endemic of a society which sexualises young girls while simultaneously teaching them to be agreeable, submissive and the very personification of acquiescence.

Indeed, when combined, they provide an explanation into the creation of a society where a man accused of sexual misconduct is elevated to the position of Supreme Court Judge while a woman who found her voice 35 years on is receiving death threats.

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About the author:

Niamh McClelland

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