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The reality of reporting a sexual offence – and the ordeal that inevitably follows

Aaron Black was found guilty of 15 offences at Inner Crown Court (Photo: Metropolitan Police)

This week, serial sex offender Aaron Black was convicted of 15 offences against eight women. For Zoë Beaty, one of the victims, it was a lesson in the power of reporting a crime

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By Zoë Beaty on

"What did he do to you?" I asked, tentatively. 

I was speaking to a woman I'd met hours earlier, on Thursday last week. We were at Inner London Crown Court, under the wing of the witness service, drinking questionable coffee out of soggy paper cups. I had just told her about a particularly odd experience I wrote about last month as I made my way home through Lewisham after a friend's party. A man had approached me as I walked to a bus stop, and started making lewd comments about my feet. I rushed off, I told her, a little more anxious, but he reappeared minutes later, shuffling closer and closer to me. I became defensive – I felt threatened – and looked at him. He was leaning over my feet, staring and masturbating.

After a few minutes’ deliberation and a panicked conversation with another woman at the bus stop, I rang 101, a non-emergency line for the police and reported the guy. A swift response from the police followed – two days later, on a Tuesday evening, a PC was taking notes about the incident at my house after work. Just 12 hours later, I sat in The Pool offices, giving a formal statement to an investigating officer. The same afternoon, the police called to say they’d arrested a man fitting the description I gave and I left work early to ID him in a parade. He was charged with outraging public decency. 

And so I found myself, last week, sitting in that room at Inner London Crown Court, nervously fidgeting with my witness statement, waiting to give evidence as a witness at his trial. When another woman came in and sat next to me, we glanced at each other and said a polite hello. Minutes later, a third woman joined us. “I’m the one who got him on video,” she said. 

The same man, Aaron Black – a 30-year-old from Catford, London – had committed offences against all of us – and many more women, too. There were nine alleged victims – all young women – at this trial alone and he stood charged with 19 offences in total, ranging from outraging public decency and exposure to sexual assault – all of which he denied. He had been on bail for those charges when he approached me that night. Their stories were eerily similar to mine, I later found out – he approached at least two of us and said that we had “pretty feet”; we were all at bus stops when the offences occurred; each time, he stood too close to us – far too close – going as far as kneeling at the feet of one of them as she sat at the stop, centimetres away from her legs – staring and masturbating. 

I found out yesterday, from a news report, that he sexually assaulted one of the other victims, who I didn’t meet. She froze, the report said, when he pushed her against a wall and massaged her feet while masturbating. 

I was the last to give evidence of the three of us last Thursday. And I was surprisingly nervous. I’d reported from court countless times as a journalist; I was more than familiar with the aesthetics and the format. And, besides, this was an offence in which he didn’t physically touch or harm me – it was over in minutes – plus I had a screen to speak behind, so he couldn’t see me – and I felt strongly that I didn’t want to see him. 

I chastised myself for worrying – just how difficult must it be, I thought, for those girls and women facing much graver crimes? I dismissed myself as a drama queen, not for the first time since the offence occurred. But, when I saw the evidence play out in front of me in court, I realised the importance of what we were all doing that day.

It made me angry that he appeared to have planned it, angry that he knew I would be intimidated, and that he chose to humiliate and demean me as I just tried to make my way home 

Black, the CCTV footage showed, had not only twice approached me, but also followed me for a time. I saw myself on the footage, stepping off the Tube, and then I saw him, creeping inches behind me. He followed me long before he first tried to interact with me and, prior to being in court, I had no idea. It threw me off balance. Unnerved me. 

And it made me angry. 

Angry that my space in public and my safety were deemed by him to be lesser. Angry that he felt he had the right to my body, to use with no regard but for his own sordid pleasure. It made me angry that he appeared to have planned it, angry that he knew I would be intimidated, and that he chose to humiliate and demean me as I just tried to make my way home. And I was angry that he – and all sexually predatory men – get off on power by attempting to take ours. 

Not today, dickhead, I thought. 

The defence claimed that I had “imagined” him masturbating, as he crept up beside me and leaned over my feet. They tried to render me an unreliable witness in the eyes of the jury, since I had been at a party that evening. They used the line wheeled out to undermine countless sexual-offence cases – the silly, drunken girl, out too late to be taken seriously, not to be trusted. I rebuffed it. And then I left the court, full of bloodyminded hopefulness that the jury would see him for exactly what he was, and that he wouldn’t be afforded the right to do it to other women again. 

Because that is the issue here: it is the scale of his crimes, and the pattern of behaviour that makes all these reports – for offences that we might think are inconsequential or a nuisance or even that we just can’t be bothered to deal with – incredibly important. The police told one of the women I met – who I’ll call Laura – that Black had been “getting braver”; the offences were playing out on an upwards sliding scale, as is so often the case when it comes to violent or sexual crime. When I spoke to Laura just this morning, she said that she felt as though he might have assaulted her in the moments that he was offending, or even raped her. 

“Even now, I feel more unsafe or vulnerable,” Laura said. She had videoed Black on her phone late one night in September after he exposed himself and knelt masturbating at her feet at a bus stop in Old Street. “I’m so much more conscious of my surroundings. I won’t get the bus at night now. I’m scanning strangers on the street, head to toe, just in case. It’s sad that I’ve started to see people in that way, like everyone is a threat. These things stay with you.”

I’m thankful for the two new friends I made at court – brilliantly bold, intelligent, angry women with whom I shared a surreal moment, and shit coffee, and bolstering hugs in the witness room

Indeed, the prosecuting barrister in our case said that one girl was having “flashbacks”. More are now wary of going out alone. To some extent, I'm one of them. Were there more women who didn’t report it? I know there have been many incidences that I should have reported in the past. Now, I wish I had.  

Black was found guilty of eight counts of outraging public decency, six charges of exposure and one sexual assault on Wednesday. He was found not guilty of four offences and Judge Graham Wood sentenced him to two and a half years' imprisonment yesterday. He also made a (very specific) sexual-harm prevention order, banning Black from starting conversations about shoes or feet with a woman he doesn’t know for the next 10 years, ordered him not to crouch down beside women and that he must sign the sex offenders’ register. 

The police issued a statement thanking the eight of us women for reporting and for going to court. And, now the case is over, I’ve realised I’m thankful, too – for the police taking it so seriously, and reminding me to take this behaviour seriously. For telling me to always, always call 999 if I'm unsure. For the reassuring way they spoke to me, how informed they kept me, how quickly and patiently they acted, for making me feel justified and supported during the entire process, including at court – something that I’m aware is sadly so rare when it comes to sexual offences.

And I’m thankful for the two new friends I made at court – brilliantly bold, intelligent, angry women with whom I shared a surreal moment, and shit coffee, and bolstering hugs in the witness room. And who, along with the other five women who each reported Black, ultimately meant that a conviction was possible, so that Black is now away from other, perhaps more vulnerable women – another rare feat for sexual crimes. 

Understandably, there are times when reporting crimes, especially sexual crimes, is not possible. But seeing this case unfold from one tiny report on a Sunday night showed me its power. It is not to be underestimated. And nor, I've learnt, is the power of eight angry women, seeking justice – one wanker at a time. 

@zoe_beaty

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Aaron Black was found guilty of 15 offences at Inner Crown Court (Photo: Metropolitan Police)
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