Voices: I was groped by a male celebrity at the Baftas – what happened to Rachel Riley is sadly nothing new

·4-min read
It was a golden year – the year that I got groped on the red carpet (Bafta)
It was a golden year – the year that I got groped on the red carpet (Bafta)

I’ve never met Rachel Riley, but I feel a distinct sense of kinship with her. That’s because when she talks about her experience of sexual harassment – the Countdown presenter, who’s 36, revealed on a podcast that a male celebrity had “upskirted” her at a party and then shared the footage with his friends – I am immediately transported to the time a powerful male celebrity groped me at the Baftas.

This is not to detract from Riley’s experience by sharing my own, or to centre myself in the narrative. It is simply to shout “Me too!” as loudly as I can. Because if recent events have shown us anything, it’s that women are still being taken advantage of by powerful men, who act terribly and believe they can get away with it.

Riley, who was speaking on the Dirty Mother Pukka podcast, said that at the time the incident happened, her reaction was “too polite”, and that if it happened again, she would respond differently. I think every woman can relate: we saw how Angela Rayner laughed off sexist comments at PMQs, even though they were far from funny. There’s a reason for that.

I, too, was “too polite” when I was groped at the black-tie event – in fact, I froze. Though my story is “small” – or at least, I’ve framed it that way in the years since it happened.

I was a fledgling national newspaper reporter, new to the industry in London, made giddy by being in close proximity to stars I’d admired for years and had never dreamed of meeting face to face.

Being asked to cover the Baftas was a particularly gilded dream: surrounded by the best British and international contributors to film, it was a golden year; the year that I got groped on the red carpet.

Because that’s what happened, you see. Take one excited, young, female journalist, keen to do a good job, and thrust her into the middle of a room filled with (mostly) powerful men, many of whom are treated – and so expect to be treated – like gods, and what you get next is entirely, sadly predictable.

I shyly asked for a photograph with one of the UK’s most recognisable TV stars – and while standing there next to him, felt his hand slide down to grasp me firmly around the bottom beneath my skirt.

It’s no surprise that the resulting snapshot shows me with a frozen grin – I’d imagine it looks a little like the facial expression of a deer caught in headlights, moments before impact.

But what made it worse were the words that preceded this experience: he asked me who I worked for, while the person was setting up the camera, and then groped me. To him, the fact that I worked for a popular tabloid meant I was “fair game”. He even said, “Oh, in that case...” before he grabbed me, like I’d handed over my right to be treated with dignity; like I had ceased to exist as a person, and had become – in his eyes – just another piece of meat.

I can’t watch the show he’s famous for, now, though at times it feels like I’m the only one who doesn’t. Every time I see his smile, I feel sick.

What happened to me may have been “small”, but it was still entirely wrong. And that’s why my heart aches for Riley, and for all the women who are taken advantage of by successful, powerful men acting with impunity, with entitlement, without care.

I feel kinship with women like Victoria Borwick, a former Conservative MP and former deputy mayor of London, who has become the latest female politician to report her experience of sexual harassment in Westminster she has revealed how a married MP put his hand up her skirt in 2015, when she was in parliament. Tellingly (and every woman will understand this) she said she did not report it because she “just got on with life”.

I stand with women like Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the international trade secretary, who said she was once “pinned up against a wall” by a male MP as she told colleagues to “keep your hands in your pockets”. She also said she had been subjected to the “wandering hands” of as many as half a dozen MPs at Westminster.

What incidents such as these can be boiled down to is a simple dynamic of woman (often younger) meets older (and sometimes more powerful) man. The rest, as we’ve seen so many times, is history. It’s time to rewrite it.

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