I moved from England to India on my own when I was twenty years old, full of excitement, enthusiasm, and expectation. The chaos which overwhelms many was just what I was looking for.
I struggled at first to befriend any locals, so I decided to reach out to nearby Couchsurfing hosts. That is how I met him. Given our fifteen-year age gap, I was hesitant to meet at first, but his profile featured many positive reviews and pictures from his day trips with travellers. He wanted to be my tour guide and friend until I learned the ropes.
After a month of enjoyable day trips, he invited me to accompany him on his business trip to the West coast for four days. I felt I could trust him and longed to visit Kerala. The drive was beautiful, even if he did speed around the terrifying hairpin bends; and the destination did not disappoint.
During the day we explored the hills, and the small, buzzing towns in between. At night, we stayed in a two-bedroom apartment. It was all going smoothly until the third evening.
I had turned in early, exhausted from our day of adventure. Soon after I had passed out into a deep sleep, he came into my room and onto my bed. I wasn’t woken up by the disturbance until it was too late.
His hands were already on me. My screams of protest had no effect and he was much stronger than me. It wasn’t until I kicked him hard in the groin that he finally gave up and left the room, spitting and swearing as he went. I wrapped the bed sheet around me tightly and lay curled up in a ball on the cold, tiled floor, shaking uncontrollably until the sun rose.
With no driving ability or experience with public transport in India, and being in such a remote location, I didn’t know how to get home. Five hundred kilometres is a long way to walk, so I decided that the fastest way was to travel with him in the car. You might call me crazy or stupid for being near him again, but I was in a sleep deprived state of shock, and it seemed like the best option.
So, I endured a ten-hour drive of complete silence. I ate nothing and didn’t request any toilet breaks; nothing to extend the journey. I wanted to sleep, to pass the time and escape the nightmare in which I was living. But each time I closed my eyes, I relived the horror of the night before. Instead I just stared straight ahead, hugging myself in a feeble attempt at comfort and protection; or maybe I felt like being more streamlined would reduce our travel time.
He broke the dense silence as we pulled up in front of my house, saying that he hoped I wouldn’t hold the previous night against him. It was only his hands, he said, so was he still my friend?
Absolutely fucking not.
I turned to him and spat out the words; “you are never, ever to see me again. Don’t message, don’t call, don’t even think about me. If I catch you on this street, I will give you the directions straight to hell.”
I grabbed my things and ran into my house, locking every door behind me. I walked straight into the bathroom and stepped into the shower, without removing my clothes. The cold water fuelled my rage. I scrubbed at my skin until it turned red, desperate to wash off his dirty hands. I wished I could have shed this layer of skin and grown a new one, free from defilement.
Eventually, I emerged from the bathroom and stood in front of my mirror, staring at myself, trying to find myself. I lifted my arms into the air, up and down, hoping to prove that I was in control of my body. But I looked like a puppet. I felt like a puppet.
I suddenly needed to talk to someone about what had happened; someone familiar who I trusted.
Knowing that my mum would break if I told her, I called my ex-boyfriend. We had ended things on good terms just before I moved. When I recounted the experience to him, he laughed and told me that it was my fault for going on the trip in the first place.
I hung up the phone, fell to my knees and wept.
Was he right?
I wasn’t sure, but I knew that I wasn’t capable of hating myself as well as my harasser.
That would be too much hate to endure.
A few weeks later, while doing research for my thesis, I came across a BBC news report for the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder. In an interview with one of the four convicted rapists, the man said, “a decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”
Reading this twisted logic made me feel sick. It made me think back to my experience, and I realised that just like the poor woman in Delhi, it was not my fault.
There is no wrong in wanting to have faith in basic human decency; in wanting to be capable of trust.
I like to think that everything happens for a reason, that every bad experience teaches us some kind of lesson.
So, what was my lesson? To never trust men? That can’t be right.
I think I have gained insight and understanding. I think I am stronger for not giving in to the self-hatred. I wonder instead why some people think that sexual harassment is acceptable just because an “opportunity” presented itself to the harasser; and that they are not to blame for taking it.
This is my story. I hope this provides you with support and reassurance if you have experienced something similar, or an insight if you haven’t.
I am not to blame for taking the risk of being sexually harassed, I am to blame the risk of sexual harassment for existing.