TW: This essay contains descriptions of sexual assault.
2020 was a year that the world came to an unfamiliar and sudden halt.
Time went by differently – we suddenly had copious amounts of it that weren’t filled with our usual socialising and over-extending schedules – but instead were forced to sit with ourselves in stillness. On an internal level, I sat with my childhood, mental health, physical health, life goals and at times imagined what kind of dress I might wear to the Grammys.
But a different realisation came over me – a suppressed memory that only really began to creep in once I sat still.
I have been sexually assaulted twice in my life, minutes from my home… both at two bus stops on either side of the same road.
Three years ago, walking home with a group of friends after some gig and a greasy but necessary McDonald’s stop, we were heading back to our little place. We were queuing to get onto the bus and as I stepped up, I felt a hand push between my legs, cup my crotch and pull me from the bus onto the street. I stumbled backwards towards a man whose face is now a blur but whose mannerisms resembled a rabid animal.
My friends pulled me away and shielded me from this man who continued to be violent towards the group. We rushed onto the bus. The driver didn’t allow him onboard, but the man stood at the window attempting to spit at me through the opening. The engine picked up and we drove away.
A year later…
I gratefully managed to get a seat on the bus one rush hour morning – everyone was shoulder to shoulder, completely immersed in their devices. I sat on the left side of the back of the bus, caged in, facing the opposite direction. In front of me was a man whose face immediately troubled me. The only thing that seems to be etched into my mind was the fact he had no eyebrows.
Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I just get up and move? Why did no one else notice or help me? Maybe I imagined it?
I was on the phone talking to my mother and I suddenly felt this man’s knees pushing against mine. I smiled. I adjusted myself. I assumed he was trying to get comfortable. He didn’t stop. He continued to press himself against me and started to play with his crotch. Completely shocked, I hung up the call. He played with himself aggressively, evidently aroused. He leaned towards the window to hide what he was doing from other people but I was caught in his eye line. The head of his penis was exposed, but I forced my eyes to the street.
And then it was my stop.
Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I just get up and move? Why did no one else notice or help me? Maybe I imagined it? Maybe he was just adjusting himself and trying to take his phone out of his pocket… for the whole journey?
I recanted the story to the room as I arrived at the office, everyone huddled around me, tutted at the man and checked if I was okay. I don’t know if it’s out of self-preservation or shock but I threw out the thoughts of assault, almost as quickly as I did my morning coffee.
I did not consent to be touched in either situation. Both were unconsented sexual attacks. My instinct at the time was to diminish my experience, ‘because I wasn’t penetrated,’ but I now stop myself at this thought. I was physically and emotionally assaulted. I did not deserve this and I did the best that I could at the time.
Sexual assault doesn’t always look the same. It doesn’t manifest itself in one explicit action. It can be subtle and manipulative and take a while to accept after the fact. This doesn’t take away from the violation.
This is for the woman who questions whether his hand wandered too far or blames herself for drinking too much or dressing provocatively. This is for anyone who feels alone or confused by their experience. This is for me. I refuse to blame or shame myself for not understanding what happened to me.
But finally, this is to both men at the bus stops. I shame you. My fury twists and turns, over and over in my head and I think:
I condemn you. I hold you accountable for having a hold on me and making women scared to travel home. I embarrass you. I expose you and what you did to me so that you no longer hold any power in my narrative, or any woman’s narrative.
I reproach you. You despise me. You are cowardly.
What would you have done if I had called you out – if I had stood up and said these very words to you – would you have stopped? Did your pleasure come from my evident discomfort or were you readily willing to share your repugnant desires with the whole bus. Or is it lewdly that your attempt at power comes from trapping me publicly and exposing yourself to me, only.
Was I so alluring to you at that moment that you couldn’t help yourself? Would the same behaviour have been forced on whoever else may have sat in my seat that morning? Did you wake up that day knowing that you were going to sexually assault somebody?
You felt you had the right in the moment. One of you even called me a slut for denying you. But I had the right to deny you. Go home. Be alone. Do not invite anybody to be a part of what seems to please you. Although invite would be kind and imply consent, two factors that have no bearing in your world.
And my words may be late, indirect and only possible with the power of hindsight, but…
…to the men at the bus stops,
I shame you.
Lily Beau Conway is a 22-year-old singer-songwriter, with a history of working in music publishing as an A&R. She has recently stepped away from the corporate side of the industry to pursue creative writing and music-making full time. Her relationship with her mental health has ignited a passion to find creative ways to articulate and explore life’s experiences, reveling in the moments where written words can provide clarity and inspiration during the more difficult times in life.