In one of my earliest childhood memories, I am sitting on a man’s lap, frozen in fear as I feel his hand creeping up my leg towards my underwear.
I am five years old, with no frame of reference about what is normal and what is not. All I know is that I don’t like what he is doing, and I want him to stop. But I cannot find a way to tell him.
Around me, in this suburban home in the Shropshire town of Telford, are all the usual signs of a convivial summer gathering: grown-ups chatting over drinks and a discarded football lying on the grass where I had been playing minutes before, twirling around in my skirt, thrilled by the way it rose and fell like a ballerina’s.
This man is an adult, someone I should trust, but what he was doing felt wrong in a way I could not put into words.
What I didn’t know then was that this was the start of a pattern of sexual exploitation not just by this man but many others. For years, between the ages of five and 14, I was abused by successive men who left a devastating legacy. As my life fell apart, I found myself homeless by the age of 16, and there were many nights when I would lie there — racked by visceral self-loathing — wishing I would simply disappear.
How could I not hate myself?
Of course, I had tried to seek help. I eventually reported my abuse and was interviewed by a police child sexual exploitation team. But they did absolutely nothing to bring my abusers to justice.