Why didn’t you speak up?

Illustration by Kate Gillett https://www.etsy.com/shop/kategillett

Girl talk

I discovered my stomach wasn’t flat;
I just held a lot in.
That sex was not painful so much
as who I had to be while having it.

I told myself:  
make the effort
start, you’ll get into it
aim for twice a week
it’s getting better all the time

this is enough, this is enough.

It doesn’t matter 
that the best orgasms
are snatched alone    

taking myself 
to a climax
that goes someway
 to meet my craving. 

I could not bear to make him face 
that he hadn’t got me there,
too afraid to trample 
his fragile earnestness.

It’s amazing how quickly 
 whore bitch cunt,

or a back rolled, 
cold and absent
 to face me.

Didn’t he notice
I was a million miles underwater,
or did its weight 
mute my scream?

I wanted him to follow 
my breaths

This poem crawled out against my wishes as I read the articles and conversations happening in the past six months coming out of the #metoo movement and widening conversation about ‘bad sex’ and ‘enthusiastic consent’. [Cat Person; The female price of male pleasure]

I say against my wishes, because I’ve been hesitant as a writer to weigh in on this conversation. That in itself unsettles me.

There’s a growing backlash in response to #metoo, that comedian Samantha Bee calls #youtooloud. One of the things commonly said to women sharing their bad sexual experiences is ‘Why didn’t you speak up?’

In 2017, I shared on Facebook an article about a woman speaking up at a bar in response to a man’s persistent, unwanted, sexual advances. The writer explained her own internal impulse to leave the bar quietly, and her struggle to instead speak up to staff and ask to have the man removed. I shared the article with a comment about my own struggle as a woman to speak up, rather than give in, move around and accommodate men. Within an hour of posting, a man I hadn’t spoken to since high school commented: ‘I really, really can't remember you not speaking up.’ I retorted with a pithy ‘That’s because you never heard all the things I held back,’ but his comment stung and I almost deleted the post entirely to crawl back into my safe silence.

The thing is, I remember that guy from high school. He was a year ahead of me and the top student of a neighbouring school. As a teenager I was often described as precocious, a word I’ve since come to suspect means ‘smarter-than-you-but-female’. I struck up a mostly online friendship with this young man. We argued for hours about literature, politics and religion and I valued the space to spar intelligently. Without being entirely aware I was doing it, I did what I could to ensure the conversation would continue. I kept up a witty repartee, but held back my most biting retorts. I made sure my responses were never too cutting and didn’t outshine his. If we had been on the dance floor, I wanted to take off spinning, but because I liked having a partner, I slowed it down so we could turn together—I never quite let rip.

Even at sixteen I learned not to speak up for the sake of keeping company.

I consider myself pretty lucky. I’ve not dated arseholes. On the whole, I’ve encountered good and caring men. None of my lovers would have wanted me to be ‘a million miles underwater’ when they made love to me. Yet, at times I have been, and even admitting that is terrifying. I’m worried the men I’ve been with will feel ashamed, and out of that shame deny my experience, get angry, or simply shut me out. Like that time I felt a bit unsure when a man reached down to stroke me. I drew his hand away, wanting to establish a feeling of more connection before we continued, but the act of drawing his hand away made him turn cold, roll over and end our encounter. If I do speak up, will men show up to hear me?

The conversation coming out of #metoo and beyond is a difficult one because it strikes at an intersection of power, sex, identity and love. It’s a vulnerable space for both men and women. The estrangement I feel from my own voice and perspective, the silencing I have experienced, is not the result of an individual man not listening to me. The struggle for me to find my voice is not the fault of the man in my bed, but he is the person I need to find it with. 

Trying to uncover and release that voice isn’t easy or always pretty. It can come out loud, angry and afraid. That voice can come  like a bat out of hell, a desperate scramble to the surface before it’s swallowed forever. I’ve seen the process of releasing that voice tear open marriages and break up families. I can understand why men feel blamed, want to it shut down or ask for a more polite conversation. But I don’t believe good men want the women they're with to feel silenced, so it’s a conversation we need to try and have.

‘Why didn’t you speak up?’ is an important question, but its just as important to work at hearing the answers precisely because they’re hard to say and even more difficult to hear.


  1. A special thanks to Kate Gillett, whose artistic response to my poem encouraged this blog out of me.


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