Sarah Everard’s tragic murder in early March has shocked the United Kingdom. But this profoundly personal testimony from Tamsin Tomlinson reveals the reality of threat women face on a daily basis.
I first learned to be afraid of men at a very early age. My mum suffered from severe mental health difficulties and had three bad marriages to three dangerous men. Her husbands physically and mentally abused her for years and finally drove her to suicide when I was four years old.
My brother, who was 14 years older than me, had been abused himself and, as so often happens, the abused becomes the abuser. He had a very violent temper and growing up I quickly learned how to tread on eggshells around him, always being on high alert, learning how to avoid provoking his rage.
I have never had a positive father figure in my life. My dad left before I was born and my stepdad died by suicide. My friends’ dads always seemed surly, grumpy and unknowable. When I started dating boys in my teens, I made some terrible choices and at 15 was in a long-term relationship with a violent boy from a very violent family.
Again, I used the skills which I learned from growing up with my brother. I kept my head down, I did my best not to offend him and I did anything to avoid his temper. When I realised how toxic this relationship had become, I ended it, but only after he had threatened suicide and tried to convince me to end my own life too.
I knew that I had to end the cycle of bad relationships and I fortunately met the love of my life a few years later. He saved me in every way that a person can be saved. He showed me how gentle a man can be. He had been raised to respect women and is a wonderful husband and father. We are still happily married after 27 years together.
But, my story doesn’t end there.
While I was a student I waitressed to support myself and again I came into regular contact with toxic masculinity.
At one table I was serving, there was a group of six men who had clearly been drinking. When I asked to take their order, one of them asked me for oral sex. I was only a teenager, just trying to do my job, but my reflexes kicked in and I replied, “Sorry, that’s not on the menu.” I kept my cool in front of them, but fell to pieces in the staff toilets later. Luckily, I had a brilliant manager, who threw them out, but they kept hanging around outside and I spent the rest of my shift terrified that they were waiting for me.
In later jobs, I was not so lucky with the support from management. I went to work in a very posh restaurant, which often had celebrity diners. One night a group of footballers and their wives came in and, as I was taking their order, a very famous player slid his hand up my skirt as I was writing their choices down. All this took place as he was sitting next to his beautiful wife. I made eye contact with her and there was a spark of recognition between us. This too was a woman who had learned how to behave around dangerous men.
This time, when I reported the incident to my manager, he laughed it off and forced me to keep waiting on their table all night as I burned with humiliation.
When I graduated from university and began my professional career, I thought that as I was older and wiser and going into a professional field, I wouldn’t encounter as much toxic masculinity, or at least I would be better prepared to deal with it. But, as I became more skilled in my profession and succeeded through the ranks, I continued to encounter angry, dangerous men and have been threatened on several occasions in my workplace. On one occasion, I even had to get my PA to call the police because I feared for my safety.
On my very first day in a senior role in a new workplace, a man who was a service user actually patted me on the bottom and said, “Out with the old, in with the new, eh?” in reference to me replacing a senior member of staff who had retired.
In this job I have been cat-called on my way to work, I have been followed home from work and I have been stalked, even to my place of worship on a Sunday.
Men have exposed their body parts to me when I have been out walking on holiday, men have grabbed parts of my body that I didn’t want them to touch. Just putting it in writing has made me realise just how many different men have scared me during my lifetime.
I have learned to walk along well-lit streets, to walk with my keys held between my fingers, to keep my hand on my phone in my pocket with emergency contacts at the ready. I have learned to dress demurely so as not to attract unwanted male attention… I have followed the sad but necessary code of self-preservation that many men are unaware of.
But danger does not lurk only on the streets. Online too the leering, the lechery and the threatening shadows exist. I have been happily married for many years and have absolutely no interest in a relationship with another man, yet here I find myself in my 40s getting inappropriate and unwanted direct messages nearly every day from strangers on Twitter because I use a follow-follow back hashtag once a week.
In my Twitter bio, I state that I am a mum and a wife, a doctor, a professional.
It really unsettles me that I have to mute, block and report on a daily basis people whom I have followed on social media in a professional capacity.
I have learned my lesson and I won’t be following back anymore.
Women should be able to walk home, be safe on our streets, feel secure in their workplace and on social media. So, why aren’t we?
We talk about how many women were raped last year, but never how many men were rapists. We talk about how many girls were harassed, but never how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls got pregnant, but never how many boys and men got teenage girls pregnant. This passive voice shifts the focus from boys and men onto girls and women.
Dr Jackson Katz tells us that even the term ‘violence towards women’ is problematic because it is a passive construction. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, it is as if ‘nobody is doing it to them, it just happens.’ It’s as if men aren’t even a part of it!
Yes, we need to protect our daughters, but more importantly, we need to educate our sons.
I am raising two teenage boys. They already know how to treat a woman. All their lives, their dad and I have been teaching them to be respectful to women and to make sure that women and girls know that they will never be a threat. I am trying to do my best for women like Sarah, and their daughters, and their granddaughters. My story is one of millions. Men, do better, please, for Sarah, for her family, for us all.
* I felt compelled to write this because Sarah Everard’s story feels so close to home for me. My brother, the one who indirectly taught me to be scared of men in my formative years, went on to murder his girlfriend and then end his own life. This is a tragedy that I will live with for the rest of my days. My heart goes out to her family and to Sarah’s family and to all the victims of violence by men. I am so very sorry that it has ended this way. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Men, please, please, do better.
Enough is enough.
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