I’m often cynical about social media campaigns and hashtag activism, perhaps because of the knee-jerk bandwagon jumping they sometimes encourage, or how they quickly become politicised, twisted or used for questionable personal gain. The #MeToo movement though has been utterly captivating and has sparked something extremely powerful; my blood has been boiling and rage rising over the last few days since its inception.
Women are coming from everywhere, empowered to be able to frankly and safely use the hashtag to proclaim that they’ve been victims of sexual harassment, without having to recount what they’ve been through. Women from all walks of life are coming forward with their stories. Shockingly, but not actually surprisingly, it appears that an enormous percentage of women have experienced sexual harassment or assault at some stage of their lives, sometimes multiple times. I know I have.
There was that time on the metro in Paris when I was 18. I was with my father and my sister when we got on to the crowded subway car; I’d gotten on first and they were side by side with their noses pretty much against the door but merrily chatting away about where we were going to next. When I felt movement against me I thought it was just someone awkwardly contorting to try to get comfortable in the limited space but when it persisted I looked around to see a middle aged man masturbating against the small of my back. When we got off at the next stop I was so stunned and ashamed that I didn’t utter a word about what had happened, and simply carried on our sightseeing tour.
Years later, I had just gotten off a 36 hour train ride in China. The three others I was travelling with went to get some breakfast while I volunteered to look after our baggage. I took out my book and read for a little while, until a feeling of being watched forced my eyes up. There was another man, flagrant as can be and about 2 meters away, wanking away while looking straight at me.
Then there was that time in my first year of Uni, at the beginning of a bonding class night out when a guy, surrounded by friends, shouted “Nice boobs” down at me from from the balcony in a pub. I was wearing a polo neck., that I’d purchased that day and never wore again.
There have been all those times when hands have come to rest on my arse while waiting for a drink at a bar, and those other times when men have gotten that bit too close to me in a queue. There was that other time, again in a pub, when I was walking up a set of stairs, which a man took as an opportunity to reach up my skirt and cup my vulva. I got that guy kicked out of the pub, because there just happened to be a bouncer going down the stairs at the same time who’d seen what he’d done. What did I do afterwards? Brushed it off and went back to my night out, because really it was nothing that out of the ordinary. I don’t think I even mentioned it to the friends I was out with.
There have been other incidents, both a little more scary and serious and less, but who’s to judge what is deemed serious and damaging or not? I still feel somewhat uncomfortable being complimented on how my boobs look (by non-pervy, well meaning friends and boyfriends) because of that guy on the balcony that night. I never brace myself in time for a drive-by cat call from a car filled with young men.I tense up when I have to move past a group of lads who are blocking my way on a footpath. I hate when one of them gets close to me and says “hiya” or “howya love” or makes a kissing noise, or says ‘my friend thinks you’re gorgeous’ once I’ve gone by, because that’s not being friendly, or nice, or complimentary, it’s being intimidating and asserting power over a woman who’s vulnerable because she’s alone. It’s asserting power over a person because she’s a woman.
I’ve often wanted, but have never been courageous enough to turn in my tracks and ask what compels these young men to do it, to mutter at a woman as she walks by and snigger amongst their friends once she responds, or more often doesn’t respond. Why is it funny? What makes it impressive? A shrug, and an “it’s funny just because it is” won’t cut it. Maybe they genuinely don’t know. Appropriate behaviour towards their fellow humans needs to be taught. Respect between the sexes clearly still needs to be taught. Reading signals to understand when someone isn’t interested in continuing a conversation with you needs to be taught. Because it’s not innate in some people. This begins in the home, but it has to be something that’s taught in schools too.
As it is now grown men need to be taught. And look, it’s really not all men, of course it’s not, but even those who would never dream of behaving inappropriately may only be aware anecdotally of the full extent of what their female friends, sisters, daughters, nieces go through on a daily basis and may not grasp the seriousness of the situation. And you know what, it’s just as disgusting and inappropriate when women do it too; grabbing men, shouting at them, reducing them to mere objects or playthings, it’s just that the difference is it happens far less frequently, and it’s far from seen as the norm.
Likewise girls and women need to be taught. They – we – need to learn that it shouldn’t be part of a woman’s lot to expect a bit of sexual harassment here and there. While I was aware of predators and ‘stranger danger’ as a kid it still came as a relative surprise the first time a man viciously turned on me and called me a bitch when I refused to let him buy me a drink. At first I didn’t consider myself harassed enough to even use the #MeToo hashtag, conditioned as I was to putting up with this shit as just a thing women have to do, but the more I read the more I realise what a centuries long epidemic this has been.
The thing is, it’s hard to fully empathise with a cause or movement that you’re not fully engaged with. It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in a situation that’s almost alien to you. It’s desperately hard to reduce an argument to a personal level, to reduce something that is academic to you, that hardly deems thinking about on an everyday occurrence. And so that’s why conversely, I’ve written this as a response to the #MeToo campaign. Because Me. Fucking. Too.