I arrived half an hour early on my first day of work. Sitting on the kerb outside the German supermarket chain, I sketched my shoelaces in my notebook to pass the time. I was twenty years old and this weekend job would fund my college social life.
The chain was new to Ireland and the efficient German methods were refreshing. We packed the shelves during opening hours, humanising the process. Customers, tripping over boxes and pallet trucks, were not used to this minimal level of customer service. We didn’t have cleaning staff or warehouse workers, we did it all ourselves. There were no pretty displays, no recognisable brands, no loyalty cards, no marketing campaigns. Customers had to wait in long queues to pay and then bring their shopping to a designated packing area to arrange in their shopping bags. In return they got very very cheap food. It felt good as a lowly supermarket worker to explain these rules and not have to bow down to the demands of the sometimes arrogant clientele.
Under the guidance of regional manager Mark, I quickly learned the ropes. I took pride in knowing the till codes for the vegetables off the top of my head. The first code he taught me was bananas = 8788, I have no idea why I still know that! It gave me a particular satisfaction to rearrange the produce in their cardboard boxes, to fill some and discard others.
I became good friends with the small group of hard workers keeping our German ship afloat. We often went for drinks together after work. One such Friday I had a day off and regional manager Mark offered to pick me up at home so I could join them for drinks after work. I accepted without a second of doubt, I lived in the middle of nowhere and a taxi would cost me €50. Mark picked me up and in the half hour drive into town we chatted about the other stores he was opening and the staff he was training there. Arriving in town, he asked if I wanted to go straight to the bar or if he could first show me something nice in the area. He said that it was still early and that the others were probably still closing up the store anyway. I wanted to go straight there and had no interest in seeing anything else, but I wanted to be polite. I didn’t want anyone to miss doing what they wanted just because of me.
So we drove to a deserted nature area. Flat grass plains as far as the eye could see. He parked the car and invited me to go for a walk with him. He told me that this place gave him a feeling of peace and that he wanted to share that beauty with me. So we walked, but not very far. He put his hands on my shoulders and tried to kiss me. I told him I wasn’t interested and that I thought it would be best if we went to meet the others in the bar. A wave of relief washed over me as he apologised and turned back towards the car. It was in that moment that I realised that I could have really been in danger. There was no one around for miles, no one to hear me scream. I felt lucky that he had taken ‘no’ for an answer.
Back in the car, Mark locked the doors but did not turn on the engine. The icons on the dashboard glowed blue, I had never seen that before. Must have been an expensive car. He said that if I wasn’t going to do anything with him, that I should at least watch. He unzipped his trousers and started to masturbate. I refused to watch, I looked out the window. He said it was unfair that he had driven all the way out there and that I should touch it. I ignored his request and kept staring out the window. I was paralysed. I couldn’t speak. I just sat there. I thought he was ridiculous and pathetic but knew I was in too much of a vulnerable position to say anything. I knew I needed to be as timid and passive as possible and not do or say anything to anger him. Eventually he drove back into town and we joined the others. I didn’t mention what had happened to anyone and at the end of the night I paid for a taxi home.
Life went on as if nothing had happened. I felt like nothing did happen. He didn’t touch me, or force me to touch him, he didn’t rape me or kill me. I was lucky. I considered him a sad loser. I made sure the girls I worked with never went driving with him. I told them that I had heard stories about him, that he was a dangerous pervert. But apart from that I was silent. I was silent. I didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation until many years later.
I didn’t want to be the victim. I didn’t want people to see me as the weak, complaining woman. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to believe it didn’t bother me. I decided he didn’t deserve any space in my head. I convinced myself that it was nothing. Shortly afterwards he moved to a different store and I only saw him once or twice after that.
When I tell this story to women, they hang their head. They tell me they are sorry that I had to experience this. The sadness in their eyes acknowledging the secret club to which we all belong.
When I tell this story to men, they ask me questions. ‘Why didn’t you report him?’ ‘Why didn’t you tell your parents?’ ‘Why didn’t you tell him you wanted to go straight to the bar?’ ‘Why did you keep working there?’ Their questions unintentionally imply that I had the responsibility to avoid the situation.
Years later I heard that he had been fired. Girls in four or five other stores had reported him for sexually abusing them. You might think that this would have come as a relief, that I would have felt happy to know he faced the consequences of his actions. But all I felt was guilt. Guilt for what those girls had gone through. Guilt knowing that if I had said something I could have saved them. It will not have been difficult for him to get another job, in another supermarket, with other girls. This means that he is still out there, driving in his car, working with young girls, being a sexual predator. You might even know him. You might go for drinks with him on Fridays. You might have friendly chats with him about football, films or music. You can’t imagine that anyone you know could be a rapist. You would know right?
Unless you are the victim, you will not know.
You need to listen to women. You need to create a safe place for women to talk. You need to believe them if they do talk. If they do not want to talk, let them be silent, but make sure they know that you will listen if needed. Make sure the women in your life know that you are an ally. Educate yourself. Look up statistics. Understand that you exist in a different reality. Recognise your privilege and use it to support women.
My story is not at all uncommon. This happens every day. To women that you know. To women you love. To women you see every day. I consider myself lucky. Lucky I was not raped. Lucky I am not dead. I am only realising now how wrong it is to consider yourself lucky after such an experience. How wrong it is that women are taught to be polite and abiding above all else.
I am learning to reject the everyday sexism that lays the foundation for a much greater evil to thrive.
I am learning.
I hope that you are willing to learn too.
Together we can get out of this pit.
Here you can find an excellent text about being an ally to women (everyone should read this at least twice).