The first time I was raped, a stranger climbed into bed with me while I was sleeping at a friend’s house and fucked me. I was seventeen; he was twenty-eight. I didn’t know it was rape. It was just something that happened.
For a few weeks after that he said he was my boyfriend. I accepted that, just as I accepted being fucked. He treated me as you would expect and finally I said, No. I don’t want to see you again. Six months later he persuaded me to see him and sat opposite me with tears streaming down his face, asking me to come back. He hadn’t understood, he said. He really loved me. I said no. I felt a slight flicker of pleasure, perhaps of revenge. Fuck you, I thought.
Another boy climbed into my bed while I was staying in a house in the country. I had never seen him before and never saw him again. I didn’t say no, but I didn’t want him to fuck me. There were other people in the room and I felt humiliated. I didn’t know how to say: Don’t fuck me. I felt … obliged. He was a man, and I wasn’t. There were a lot of men who fucked me because I felt … obliged.
One man would have raped me because I went with him alone to his house, ahead of some friends. He chased me around the room. I kept the table between us, talking as fast as I could. This man was violent. He said I must have wanted it because I had come to the house alone with a man. The only reason I wasn’t raped was because my friends turned up in time.
There have been men who raped me because I was drunk and couldn’t refuse consent. I didn’t know it was rape. I didn’t care. Sometimes I asked men to have sex with me. Men thought that because I liked sex, I was a whore. They thought that because I liked sex, they could have sex with me whenever they liked. Whether I wanted it or not was irrelevant. They could have sex whenever they liked and it made them more manly. But if I had sex whenever I liked, I was despicable.
It’s very common. It happens to millions of women. It’s hard to talk about because you feel culpable. It must have been your fault – you are the slut those men said you were. Or you feel the shame of being made a victim. I never wanted to be made a victim. I am a victim. I am not a victim.
It took me a long time to work out that I had agency in relation to men. I was raised to please a man. My mother told me I should take care never to appear more intelligent than a man. Men don’t like intelligent women, my mother said. Why aren’t you more feminine? she said. Never undermine a man’s authority, she said.
My mother left my father. I remember the night she stabbed him. I remember her crying and crying, shouting at my father. You raped me, you bastard. You raped me.
I rebelled against being feminine. Until I had kids, I refused to cook for any reason. I never wanted to be married. Sometimes I had nightmares that I was going to be married, that I would live forever in an ugly brick house with a chain link fence and no gate.
I didn’t see why I should be a second-class citizen just because I was a woman. It took me a long time to work out that I was a second-class citizen all along.
I worked as a professional journalist. I saw that if I wanted to be considered an equal, I had to be three times as good as any man. I had to work three times as hard. I had to be six times as placatory, in case I undermined the authority of a man.
I began to understand how women’s writing is read as inferior; no matter what kind of writing it is, it will always be ‘women’s writing’. Women have specialness. Their specialness is that they exist only in relation to men, and anything that can’t be related to men is aberrant.
I look at the history of women made invisible and sometimes I despair.
In my mid twenties I had babies. Being a mother meant I was stripped of the illusion of fraternity I was allowed because I was something that somebody could fuck. I began to understand that these things were part of a larger, structural pattern. I began to understand the emotional wasteland that was the damage at the centre of my being.
I always had men who were friends, and who did not abuse that friendship. I like men. But not all men.
It took me a long time to work it out.
My kids worked it out quicker than I did. I’ve done something right. But they still have to live in this world where, all the time, men hurt women, dismiss women, marginalise women, silence women, kill women.
Not long ago I was on a panel with a man who had written a book about criticism as a public act. In this book are six essays about six critics, from the eighteenth century to the present day. They’re all men. As I read this book I felt again, like a thick choking cloud, the privilege of the literary man. It’s the privilege of not even having to think about writing a survey about the critic as a public figure in which not one woman appears. It was reviewed under a headline that said: ‘The critics that really matter.’
This man was taken aback when he was challenged on this point. He is a pleasant and intelligent man. He had perfectly justifiable reasons for only writing about men. The whole of literary history supports this privilege. It is invisible, like God. It proves itself, like God. It is the innate merit of men. Why should he ignore the merit of men for some footling political point about feminism? You could see, even as he attempted to explain himself, that he thought that he had nothing to apologise for.