I’m 14 years old and in a Year 9 chemistry class when I feel someone sharply pinch my arse. I inhale sharply and swivel in my seat to see who it is.
Henry’s standing there, grinning at me. “Just like a girl,” he says, and winks at me before marching back to his seat.
I smile and go back to my work. It was true, wasn’t it? I had gasped just like a girl, because I was a girl. And although not everyone could see it, Henry could. And that felt good. It was a nice feeling, being seen.
At my all-boys’ grammar school in southeast London, conformity was our currency. And that meant that if you were different, you stuck out like a sore thumb. Being a feminine, soft-spoken kid was never going to be easy.
One day when I was walking home from school, I heard an older boy refer to me as an example of a “Gaysian” – that is, someone gay and Asian. I wondered for a second how he could possibly know that. Was walking gendered, or an indicator of sexual orientation?
The word “gay” always made me recoil. It probably came from hating that my identity had been displaced without my consent, describing me as something I wasn’t. And above all, from a deeply internalised homophobia I still struggle with undoing today.
Being gay, it seemed, was a disease in our school. If you were a little too flowery, spoke a little too high-pitched, you were gay. The word was thrown around so often and met with such indignation and vehement defensiveness from the accused party that it was impossible to ever view homosexuality positively. Teachers, for their part, almost never intervened.
The PE changing rooms hold some of my most vivid memories. I would always change into my tracksuit bottoms as quickly as possible, not wanting anyone to see me in my underwear. And I would always change on the bench to the right of the door, just a couple of metres away from Henry.
I’d just put on my tracksuit bottoms one day when Henry came up behind me and began pushing his crotch against my butt, thrusting back and forth and making loud moaning sounds. I didn’t react. I didn’t push him away, but I didn’t lean into it either. Another boy came up behind Henry and started doing the same to him, and their bodies pushed me forwards. I held onto the wall for support.
On another day, I was changing and I caught Henry looking appreciatively at my arse. I can’t remember what he said, but I know I liked it.
“You always look at me like you want me to repeat my words,” he said.
I laughed, but the truth is that I did want him to repeat his words. At a time when people were going to house parties and crushing on girls, I wanted to feel wanted too. And I knew this was the only place I would get that.
Some nights before I went to bed, I’d replay these scenes in my head. I’d go through my crushes, talking only to myself, and wonder what it would be like to actually be close to them, to really reciprocate. When Henry told me once he thought we were going to have sex by the end of the week, I thought I wanted it too.
Henry had been an unexpected crush. We’d gone to the same primary school, but I’d never really been friends with him, and when we ended up at secondary school together, the first two years were relatively uneventful. It was only when we were 14 that things suddenly turned sexual.
My hormonal brain, however, rejected monogamy. Henry wasn’t the only one who would hit on me. Ben, who was also in our class, was very cute and a very sexual being who even flirted with teachers – and with me, too.
During our geography fieldwork, Ben would slide his hand around my butt and come up close to me. I’d freeze, not wanting to reciprocate and not wanting to push him away. I couldn’t show him I liked it, but I didn’t want to say I didn’t.
I think Ben could tell, though. As we were going back to our seats one day, Ben came up close to me and leaned in as if he was going to kiss me. Then, stopping short of my lips, he made a kissing sound and laughed, “In your dreams.”
Horrified, I cursed myself. Why hadn’t I backed away sooner? Now he was going to win, and I couldn’t let that happen. “No, in your dreams,” I spat back, vowing that I would never allow Ben to hit on me again. I don’t think he ever did.
Almost a decade later, I find it difficult to process how I actually feel about what happened. Was this sexual harassment, or had I inadvertently consented?
“You can’t do that,” I remember one of my friends saying when Henry slapped my butt as we were walking out of class. “That’s sexual harassment.”
I turned around, laughing. “No, it’s not,” I said.
“So, you’re giving your consent then?” my friend asked.
At barely 14 though, I wonder whether I even really knew what consent was; whether I truly knew what sexual harassment was. What I do know now, though, is that I was nothing more than a plaything for my straight classmates, who enjoyed using me as a platform to parade their Lynx-scented masculinity.
One instance sticks out as the one time I felt truly violated. I’d just gotten changed and so had Henry, and just before he left the changing room, he ran his hand down my whole body, and touched my genitals.
I felt disgusted. Why had he done that? He’d ruined the dynamic. I was meant to be a girl. My skin crawled, and still does today when that scene plays in my head.
As the years went by, the bum slaps and the crotch thrusts stopped. My transness, however, was always still visible – people would tell me they only thought of me as a woman, and a classmate delighted in constantly telling me I was a woman trapped in a man’s body. When I drank from my water bottle, I was praised for deep-throating it, and when I read the part of Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men, I regaled the whole class.
I still don’t know how I feel. Although the years since my transition have brought me a whole host of experiences that I feel like I missed out on as a teenager, I don’t know what to call myself. Am I a survivor of sexual harassment? Am I traumatised?
Maybe I’ll never know. But what I do know is that if I could go back to my 14-year-old self, I’d tell her she didn’t have to let boys slap her bum just so she could feel something. I’d tell her she was wanted, and I’d make her feel seen.
This article was published under a pseudonym as the author is currently living in stealth.