Wandering hands letters (The Guardian, 14 04 2016)

These were letters from women sharing their experiences of sexual harassment.
This is an extended version of my unpublished letter.

At 19, my first visit to France was 6 weeks en famille with my French pen pal. (We had corresponded since I started learning French at school @ the age of 11.) One day, before we travelled to Lyons city centre on our own, her father volunteered advice on how to deal with any men’s ‘misbehaviour’ on the train. So, when standing in the crowded carriage, I felt a man rubbing his hard penis and his torso against me, I turned, visibly shocked, and shouted, in my best French, the words my friend’s father had provided: “Ça suffit! Non?” The perpetrator jumped back, and other passengers turned to stare

Thus I learnt the value of explicit confrontation, which turns innocent bystanders into witnesses. I have continued to use this French expression, not just in France; it has shock value, and makes clear that a sexual offence has been committed, and that my words are a public termination of abusive behaviour.

A month later, my friend’s father, finding us alone, tried to grab me and kiss me, chasing me around the dining table, as I tried to escape his clutches. No words could protect me, nor was I ever able to tell anyone. His daughter? His wife? My parents? How could I justify the consequences of such a disclosure for them and their relationships? Who would believe me? He would deny any accusation, and could even protest that I had come on to him, and be believed.

For the remaining week of my stay with the French family, I had to behave as if nothing unpleasant or unnerving had happened. And when I got home to my family in England, that pretence had to be sustained: I had to perform a wholly convincing lie, and keep the secret to myself alone. Forever. After all, what could my parents do with the information? What action could they take? And how would it make them feel?

Thus I learned the fragility of a girl’s/woman’s reputation; years before I set about acquiring tools of analysis to understand the roots and impact of sexism and misogyny, and a public voice to challenge these enduring features of personal and public life.

14 04 2016

Postcript: No longer young but still a target.
Years later, during my time in France as an unattached adult and mother, I again had to fend off predatory ‘advances’ (mainly from married men), remain silent and carry on as if no offence or violation had been committed. Then, after 20 years, when the friendly local butcher (a husband and father) effected a lightening strike in my own kitchen, and thrust his hand down the front of my (loose) blouse, squeezing my breast, my silence broke. (I broke. And knew it was time to leave the village and leave France.)

When I raged to local women about what he had done, they all had stories about him. He was a repeat offender. He had a reputation. It was known and accepted. I was unhesitatingly believed. English women friends said, “Go public. Pursue him”. French women neighbours offered support, but advised against taking public action. And my heart cringed for his disparaged, long suffering wife, who I knew. It was clear this was not a marriage she could escape from, and for me to take public action against him would humiliate her (further).

val walsh / 15 04 2016

See also poem in Category ‘Poems 2016’ this blog.


See title in Category ‘Poems 2016’.


Silent Submission

We keep their secrets.

Their intrusions,
fumblings and

Because no-one
will believe us.

They will plead
provocation or

Innocence for sure.

Our reputation
they will damage.

Composure wreck.
Confidence crush.

dismiss. Sanity

Women’s liberation
deride and curtail.

val walsh (2004)