I’ve had a bit of a blog/social media break recently and it’s been good and useful and I’m almost reluctant to dive back in. But then I ventured onto Facebook and read a post about a recent high-profile case of sexual harassment and saw the #MeToo hashtag, and some man commented that women were being paranoid and that was enough to fire up my ranty blog fingers again.
So here I am.
Of course, (time for the disclaimer because I have talked about this before and know how people react, and by people I mean men), it is not just women that this happens to. The #MeToo thing has resulted in a lot of men coming forward about this happening to them. And before I get bombarded with a chorus of people yelling ‘Not all men’ at me, yes, I know this too. But there are enough men to make it too many men so let’s move on.
One thing I hear over and over again is, ‘why didn’t they speak up at the time?’ (and before I go on I just want to point out that a lot of the time we bloody well do, we tell other women who never look shocked because as you’re telling them they are making a list in their heads of all the times something similar happened to them.)
But the ‘why didn’t they speak up’ thing, this is often the first thing that’s thrown at a woman who comes out about something like this, before any sympathy even, it’s almost an accusation. It’s like they’re saying ‘but if it was that bad you would have said something at the time. Therefore, it can’t have been that bad.’
But let’s think about that shall we?
So you’re in a situation where a man, often someone in a position of power, often someone who’s either related to you or a friend, does something that makes you feel uncomfortable. Now these men are usually good at this, they’ve done it before because it’s not about you or how you look or how friendly you are, it’s never about any of that, it’s about them and power. They do sometimes just make a grab for you, but they’re usually much more subtle and they are doing it before you even realise what’s happening. And as you don’t expect men to just randomly touch you, and you don’t want it to happen, it takes a while for it to register. It’s almost slow motion as you reconcile what’s happening with what’s been said to you.
Is he really just brushing fluff off my jumper/moving my hair out of my face and then accidentally brushed my breast? Which is ridiculous, I don’t think I have ever removed fluff from someone’s clothing, or moved their hair out of their face if they were over the age of ten. But all this is going on in your head as it’s happening. Then there’s a feeling of confusion, shame, then anger, then of helplessness.
‘Please don’t do that.’ you say. And they step back, smiling, feigning confusion, hands up, a look on their face of disbelief that you would misinterpret something so innocent. What’s wrong with you??
So you check yourself. Maybe it wasn’t intentional after all. You almost feel relief because the alternative is to admit that some bloke just touched your boob. And what would you do anyway? Who would you tell? Would you actually raise your voice in the pub and tell everyone around you what just happened? If you were in a group of people in a pub and someone in your group did exactly that and accused somebody else who’s also a friend, what would you do? Would you call the police? And say what? Or would you laugh awkwardly and ignore it?
And so it carries on, subtly, stealthily. Hands on your hips as they squeeze past you, a foot brushing against yours under the table at a dinner party. Do you make a fuss then? Do you interrupt the conversation and say ‘Hey everyone, John just rubbed his foot against my calf.’
A lot of this is always so fleeting and as you say it in your head you know it sounds so pathetic. You know it makes you feel uncomfortable, and, from the look on their face as they do it, almost challenging, you know they know it makes you feel uncomfortable. But it is never concrete enough to actually act on.
There are other situations where you find yourself unable to speak up.
When a man you trusted has you up against a wall with your arm twisted up your back, you’re really not thinking that you should tell him you don’t like it, that you want him to stop, partly because you assume he knows that anyway from the way that you’re struggling and crying. But also because at that moment you’re terrified, and he’s bigger and stronger and has a look in his eye that you’ve never seen before and the only thing in your head is how you’re going to get through this without being hurt and your instincts are telling you to not make him more angry.
But also, it can be someone everyone knows and likes and respects. And you know from past experience that you will either not be believed, because people don’t want to believe this kind of thing of someone they know because that is difficult, and people want easy lives that fit in with the stories they tell themselves about who they are and what kind of lives they lead.
Or you will be blamed and you really don’t want to be that person, because this has happened a few times and you know what it looks like, what the common denominator is, so it must be something you’ve done. And the fact that the common denominator is men does not even enter your head because this is how society has brought you up.
We are told that men are not in control of their urges, that it is up to women to modify their behaviour/outfits etc. We’re numb to this, it’s what we’ve grown up with, we don’t know any other way.
You know that you will be told you misread the situation, that he didn’t mean it, that he was just having a bit of fun and can’t you take a joke? That it was a mistake, that he misread the signals you were giving out by wearing that outfit, or by having big breasts, or by being friendly, or whatever else it was that you did to encourage him.
And again, this isn’t all men and it isn’t the men I know and spend time with, or the ones I’ve spoken to this week or read about, the ones who feel helpless in the face of all this. It’s the other men, the men with no self awareness but who have the inherent arrogance and entitlement that has been drip-fed them throughout their lives which has led them to believe that women are purely sexual objects, here to smile for them on demand. I get that signals can be misread, I get that we can make mistakes. Human relationships are incredibly complex and we will mess up. But the times I’ve been harassed haven’t been because someone messed up, they’ve been intentional power plays.
And we’re not being paranoid, or not able to take a joke, or misunderstanding those people who are, as someone described themselves to me this week ‘someone who is very tactile’. And unfortunately, this isn’t a big news story this week because it’s so out of the ordinary, it’s a big news story because of the high-profile people involved and because once you start talking about this, other people start talking. This week I’ve heard so many stories from women who have been through similar things. Ask any woman and most will have had this kind of experience, we are telling you this and you might not understand it, and might not have experienced it yourself but by not listening to us and respecting our views you are belittling us and making us feel more and more isolated.
This happens all the time, the brush across your breast, the feel of a strange man pressing up against you on public transport, the hands reaching out as you walk through a nightclub or at a concert, the male relative who wants you to sit on his knee, the suggestive comments from a man in a van as you walk down the street.
The sheer, shameful horror as you sit on a bus and realise the man opposite you has his hand down his trousers as he stares at you, daring you to say something. The way you brace yourself as you walk down the street alone at night with your keys in your fist and you hear a noise behind you. The man who won’t take no for an answer and pushes and pushes but it’s okay because hey, there’s no harm in trying and he does it in a jokey way and don’t all the films show men pursuing women and women eventually caving in and going out with them so what’s the problem love? And if you will wear that dress, what do you expect?
I could go on, but I shouldn’t have to. These are all things we experience regularly, things we see our daughters start to experience. Don’t ask why we didn’t say anything before, that’s not the issue here, ask how you can help now, ask what you can do now, it is the responsibility of us all to deal with this and we are telling you what is happening. That should be enough.