I was fifteen years of age and I’d finished that evening’s homework. My knees stung as I knelt on a patch of thick, swirling red carpet in the corner of our sitting room hidden from the rest of the family by the dense shadow that always clung to one side of the bookshelf. They guessed game-show answers. Shoulder jammed between warm wood and cold wall, I absorbed myself in the pages of a graphically shocking non-fiction book about psychological manipulation and sex crimes. With unrivalled excitement, I knew I was close to discovering my soul interest. Ten years later, with four years of science writing under my belt and a degree encompassing anatomy, pathology and forensics, I struggled to understand why a crucial piece of the puzzle was still missing.
The answer would appear years later in the unlikeliest of places.
Flash forward to age twenty-seven. Alone, I walked through November rain aiming for the city’s main station with plenty of time before the last train. Still smiling after a fun-filled pub session with friends from work, buoyant but nowhere near drunk, I took a cut-through down a poorly-lit back street. I continued carefree, thinking my own thoughts, until footsteps in the wet road caused me to glance instinctively over my right shoulder. A man about my age was walking towards me from across the carriageway. He wore smart business clothes, but it was obvious he’d been drinking heavily. He asked me for a light. I smiled and apologised; I’d given up recently. He congratulated me and said he should, too. I told him I was sure smokers had a better social life. He said he wasn’t so sure. We parted company on a high note. As I turned and looked ahead, listening to the man’s footsteps fading into nothing, I realised I’d wandered a few streets off my usual course.
Strolling along, I reached a quiet crossroads and headed for the opposite pavement, then started walking down another narrow passageway between two tall, dark buildings, still on track for the distant station. Just then, my attention was drawn to the sound of a stifled, heated argument up ahead. Two voices: a man and a woman. I kept walking, as yet unable to see them, prepared to simply pass them by when I did finally encounter them and carry on my journey, when something I still don’t fully understand made me stop. At first, I felt unusual. I thought maybe my reaction proved I’d been more affected by the two alcoholic drinks I’d enjoyed after all. Glancing back where I’d come from, I wondered if I should just turn around and find another route to the station. Maybe it was the anger in his tone or the fear in hers, but the urge to wait and listen rather than avoid the situation somehow won.
Taking another few steps, I finally saw them. Any further and they’d know I was watching. The same concrete steps that had so far hidden them from me and vice versa provided a decent level of protection. I was able to slip underneath the risers into a dry, partially enclosed area where I could observe the couple at loggerheads. Their faces were clearly visible, contrasted with the dark wall of the side street, picked out by an ugly yellowish security light hanging above them. The man was mid-forties and lean, but with an addict’s ravaged features. He wore a shiny black puffer jacket and dark green trousers. His baseball cap was brand new; his trainers looked found. As he pointed directly into the young woman’s face, he curled his shaking hand into a tight fist – but, instead of using it, he stopped himself and uttered a sharp verbal threat in such a low whisper I was lucky to hear it.
“Don’t make me tell him.”
Those words caused the woman to stop retaliating. I watched the fight drain from her. Anxiously, she touched the dirty beaded hem of the short summer dress she wore. It was as if she wanted to defend herself, but knew it wasn’t worth it. Her delicate arms, exposed to the rain and cold like much of her young body, hung limply at her sides. She was in her twenties, but in that moment, she looked fifteen. In a sudden motion, he raised his hand to her throat. My heart jolted into my mouth; she didn’t even flinch. She was used to it. I really thought I was about to see violence, but he only lightly held her neck in mock strangulation. She stared into his eyes, but she knew and I knew that the person they both feared was not even in the alleyway. In that moment, whether I was in danger or not, I knew I was witnessing injustice, fear, cowardice and hierarchies of hidden power with my own eyes.
Time was not on my side. I sensed the man was finished with her and ready to walk away. I could also tell from the way he moved that he’d be heading in my direction. If only I’d known how fast he’d break. As he paced along the rain-soaked alley and the inevitability of what was about to happen became clear, I accepted I had a choice. Trying to hide would have been pointless. Pretending I was doing something normal, even worse. But there was more to it than that. Something told me not to hide or pretend. Something told me to show my face. Maybe it was the subtle suppression of inhibition from the drinks or the effect of an impulsive streak I’d been told I had in me from childhood, but instead of cowering in the shadows, I came out into the light and started walking confidently towards him.
My spur of the moment decision resulted in an oddly harmless outcome: the pimp and I simply passed one another as all strangers do in a quiet street. But just as he got parallel with my body, he slightly slowed his footfalls to look at me. At the exact same moment, I turned my head and met his grey eyes. He knew I knew what he was. He knew I’d overheard. There was no shame in those eyes, but beneath his look of cold superiority there was a glimmer of understanding: although my bold presence did not affect the business he’d come to do, it was unexpected, even memorable.
But I was alone again – the woman, who must have seen me, had already gone.
Looking back, as I have many times, plagued by guilt at not being able to do anything for the young woman, I try to gain insight into what gave me the impetus to face another woman’s enemy. Perhaps a stupid part of me hoped I could help her or maybe – and I think this is more likely – I was driven by a determination to challenge the messenger’s authority, to show him up for the lowlife he’d become and to redress the balance of freedom and control that I’m still fighting towards.
“I became a scientist to understand the world, then a writer to try and change it.”
Sex Media is about sex, bravery and what happens when people under incredible pressure embrace a difficult challenge. It’s also a response to my research and experiences of exploitation, harassment and manipulation – and the pride that can come from facing those demons.
Teenage orphan, Opal, is an online sex performer in a tower block in Sangbashi, northern China. Innocent, abused and in fear, she and best friend, Xian, attempt to take justice into their own hands.