After the #MeToo campaign what’s next? We need to have an all-inclusive conversation that’s not just about who has the loudest voice or the highest profile. It has to be a cultural shift from the grassroots to the upper echelons and it has to happen now. Cue the next hashtag?
It was around three years ago over casual afternoon drinks with my husband, my sister-in-law and her husband, I got as close as I’d ever got to admit I’d been sexually assaulted. As the conversation skirted around the subject, I bottled up what I really wanted to spill out, even though the first of these assaults happened over 30 years ago. Why after so long was I still keeping quiet? The honest answer. I don’t know. I suppose I still felt, as I had then, a level of shame or a feeling I caused them in some way. So instead, I said it was my belief that the majority of women had experienced some form of sexual assault. I will never forget my brother-in-law’s look of surprise. “Seriously? You think MOST women have experienced sexual assault? That’s a big call,” he said with eyebrows raised. I nodded, aware the idea seemed a bit ‘out there’ – a bit of an exaggeration to him. After all, he was one of the decent men out there. Of course, it sounded a bit out there. My sister-in-law took a quiet sip of her wine.
It seems absurd to say I had goosebumps when the #metoo campaign hit social media, but I felt goosebumps along with a giddy excitement – something big was happening. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world were finally going to be brought to account. Even though I had remained silent, it was the vindication of something I had long since felt. A deep knowing that women around the world were dealing with sexually abusive behaviour (silently) every single day.
I knew it because I had experienced it myself. I was nothing special. I wasn’t irresistible, I wasn’t a celebrity. I was just an ordinary girl, growing up in the 80s an ordinary town in the northern hemisphere – and yet the number of ‘unwanted’ experiences I’d had before I was even 20 seemed incredible. I couldn’t be the only one.
With all the dirty washing that’s being aired right now, I actually wonder if the men who sexually assaulted (or harassed) me over the years are quivering in their boots right now, wondering if I am about to ‘out’ them. Has it even registered with them that what they did was wrong and they put me in an uncomfortable position that made me question everything about myself? Do they see themselves as different to the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world?
Well, relax, I’m not going to out every single one of you, however, I am going to list just a few incidents so you can see what an ‘ordinary’ girl generally has to deal with growing up. I had written about these events in great detail more as a cathartic exercise, but I’ve paired them down to provide a quick overview.
Age: 15 (still a minor)
Who: A Family Member
Situation: Lured/Tricked upstairs (he said the TV didn’t work). Held down. Unwanted sexual advances. I was terrified. I found an anger I didn’t know I had and managed to extricate myself from the situation.
Did I tell anyone? Only my best friend, and then my mother two years later
Age: 15 (still a minor)
Who: Cross Country Coach
Situation: ‘Tricked’ (encouraged) into running a longer alternative route. The coach stopped part way through and because I didn’t know the route I had to stop too. It was then I was pinned against a tree while his hands groped my whole body. He said, “You know what’s going on, you know you want it.” Shock gave way to anger and I pushed him off and ran back to the club to pick my stuff up and caught the bus home.
Did I tell anyone? No
Who: Male gym teacher at school
Situation: There were 2 situations 1 day apart with the same gym teacher. Inappropriate/suggestive comments about ‘sexy bodies’ though he addressed these directly to me by name in front of gym class. The next day there was inappropriate touching (he used his finger to caress my hand in lunch queue). Seems innocuous but both incidents embarrassed me and were confusing because they were in public (made worse because he was one of the ‘hot’ gym teachers so who would believe me or feel I had suffered from the attention? I felt humiliated and confused.
Did I tell anyone? No
Who: would rather not say
Situation: Hard to define as the situation was complex. I had gone to a hypnotherapist to help with smoking cessation (which worked I’m pleased to say). While under hypnosis I divulged information about the incident. At the end of the session, the hypnotist suggested I get in touch with a Rape Counsellor. It was the first time I had heard that word in relation to what had happened. I still can’t openly discuss to this day.
Did I tell anyone? My (long-suffering) best friend. My husband 16 years after the event
In my 40s
Who: A visiting senior colleague
Situation: Social situation after work – normally a relaxed, safe and fun environment. However, on this occasion, a visiting senior member of staff persisted with unwanted lurid sexual talk. Even as I changed the subject he would change it back being more and more suggestive After returning from the toilet I picked up my drink to go and sit elsewhere. Shortly afterwards I felt ill. I had the awareness to leave the social situation completely when I realised people, noise and light seemed far off in the distance. I felt like I was in slow motion under water. My significant other found me on a traffic island on the ground, totally disorientated in the middle of a busy highway. I cried and vomited on and off for hours. I was convinced my drink had been spiked and I wished I’d been able to go somewhere to be tested. That aside, the disgusting conversation was bad enough. Nothing ‘happened’ to me as such but I felt violated just the same.
Did I tell anyone? Not on an official basis. The whole team had been drinking so it was going to be too difficult to prove (a) I wasn’t just drunk/ill through alcohol (b) against a senior member of the company after the event
So there you have it. Moments in time that happened to an ordinary girl, living an ordinary life through the 80s, 90s and beyond. Those events happened on both sides of the world (the UK and Australia). You can see that sexual abuse or sexual assault, however, you coin it, hasn’t diminished in our so-called enlightened society. It doesn’t diminish with age, your looks or your weight.
You notice I don’t mention unwanted attention from guys in street – the wolf whistles walking past a building site to the ‘brave’ guys who hang out of car windows to shout something obscene. Whatever. I don’t class the latter as sexual ‘assault’ or harassment as such though it’s certainly embarrassing and unwanted.
As a woman your threshold to withstand these acts increase and to a point it all seems normal. We as women have normalised this behaviour to cope with it and then we do our best to shrug it off.
Even now, with all I have read and learned, I wonder, were all these incidents I experienced really ‘sexual assault’ or ‘just’ sexual harassment? I know 100% none of these acts were invited or welcome – but ‘assault?’ – it’s such an aggressive word. And therein another problem.
You can see how completely different in nature each of those occurrences were. They affected me in wildly different ways, from covering up, to be being less ‘friendly’, being embarrassed and confused, to stopping going out on my own completely. You might think some of them are ‘nothing’ to get worked up about. And perhaps that’s part of the issue too. We don’t really know what our red line is meant to be.
Take former INXS band member Kirk Pengilly’s comments about “loving the 60s and 70s when life was so simple and you could slap a woman the butt and it was taken as a compliment, not sexual harassment”. OK, so the boundaries have changed – things that were cool in the 60s and 70s are not cool now (if you really believe women didn’t mind back then) they’re not now.
Defining sexual assault and sexual harassment
Sexual Assault: According to the NSW Justice Department, sexual assault occurs when a person is forced, coerced or tricked into sexual acts against their will or without their consent, or if a child or young person under 18 is exposed to sexual activities. (sexual acts being: forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape)
Sexual Harassment: (typically of a woman) in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks. Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.
By those definitions the incidents I outlined above would be classed as sexual assault or sexual harassment. One thing in common with all of the incidents I’ve mentioned here is ‘power’. Each was in a position of power over me – whether it was someone I looked up to or was subordinate to in some way. Another thing in common being ‘consent’ – or lack of it. I was not enjoying or inviting this attention. It was being forced upon me regardless of my thoughts or wishes. The problem was, I was an outgoing, sociable type so when things began to happen to me I immediately blamed myself. I must be doing something to give men the wrong idea. And now I know for sure I am not alone in these experiences.
So where are all the other ordinary, every day (silent) women? Are you reading this thinking ‘yes that all seems pretty familiar’? Have they been silently rejoicing for #metoo?
The aftermath of #metoo
So as we celebrate the voice the #metoo campaign gave to over a million women (myself included), it’s time to turn our attention to what comes next. While I’ve cheered my sisters on from the sidelines, admiring their bravery and to hell with the consequences, I do worry that this unique movement will suffer an ‘unforeseen’ setback to derail the amazing progress that’s been made or worse still just run out of steam like so many any other social media-driven campaigns. We can’t allow this movement to be derailed – so we need an action plan in the name of progress. the hashtag ‘what next’ would be great – but it is so overused on Twitter. It still begs the question …
So what’s next?
- extend the discussion around consent and what it means beyond sexual intercourse. The ‘cup of tea’ analogy is fantastic. Let’s build on that.
- begin discussions at home about respect and equality. It starts at home and we as parents must take responsibility. It’s not just about teaching our boys that girls should be treated with respect, it’s about teaching each of our children that men and women are equal and should be treated with respect and kindness in equal measure. We have to show this in our own relationships with our significant other – children learn by example.
- re-enforce that educational and cultural message in our schools. By coming down hard on incidents like ‘bra-pinging’ or ‘slut shaming’ and double standards between the sexes, children will soon learn that there is no room in a modern all-inclusive society for this sort of behaviour. School is also the place to re-enforce cultural expectations and eradicate sexist behaviour early on.
- harness the potential of social media and the internet. I guess you could say let’s use its power for good not evil. The truly great thing about the internet/social media is the transparency it provides. It is possible for the many and the few to shine a light on wrongdoing, but it can also help educate and provide support, no matter who you are in society.
- bring an end to society’s sycophantic sickness. This is probably one of the biggest afflictions in our society today. Until the likes of Trump, or the politicians, the A-List celebrity, or even Royalty are brought to account – we have a long way to go – on both sides of the #MeToo fence. Society needs to stop thinking celebrities, politicians and Royalty can do no wrong or that they are somehow untouchable. Trump’s rise to power has enraged women everywhere because of the way he has yielded his power. His ascent to the highest office despite those accusations has doubtless powered the #MeToo movement – in the US at least. So we need to go further and make sure no-one is above scrutiny.
- find a way to define sexual assault and sexual harassment in the most simplistic terms so perpetrators can no longer hide behind blurred lines and victims know where they stand.
- avoid a witch hunt. Let’s be careful here. Let’s not condemn every man/woman that looked at us in a way we don’t like. This will set awareness and education back in the dark ages and will stop the campaign/progress from being taken seriously. We want a fairer more open society, not a scared, paranoid society.
- let’s not generalise. Sexual assault and harassment may be disproportionate with more men than women suffering, but men have reported sexual assault and same-sex sexual assault also exists. So let’s make sure #MeToo and #whatnext? are inclusive. Let’s talk about human beings and society rather than women versus men
- stop with the excuses. Don’t tell me that men are now worried they can’t compliment a woman in case they get accused of sexual assault. There is a big difference, Unless you lack social awareness or emotional intelligence, you know the difference and you know there is a time and a place for your compliments. As mothers we must stop turning a blind eye to our children’s sexist behaviours – ‘boys will be boys’ is not helpful and at some point, boys have to be men. We must ensure our children do not grow up with a skewed sense of ‘entitlement’. Remember Brock Turner?
- build trust. The majority of women do not report assault (myself included) because they genuinely think ‘what’s the point?’ Some women are fearful of losing their own jobs, or not being believed. Alternatively, nothing will happen at all. Some women worry strangely enough, about the perpetrator losing their job or breaking up their family (particularly if they have been involved in a family setting). There are just too many variables about how any given situation could go. We need an open and transparent system that everyone can trust and framework for working together. We need to trust in what’s next.
As 2017 comes to a close, I am sure there will be a million posts, hashtags and articles written on the subject of sexual abuse and sexual assault and this article will be consigned to the great computer ‘Trash’ icon in the sky. But before I sign off, indulge me for a moment longer. Just as the onset of the #MeToo campaign gave me goosebumps, so too did the latest front cover of Time magazine. Can you imagine the vindication I felt, even though I myself had never really been brave enough to break the silence? Can you imagine what that meant to a million of the silent?
So yes let’s celebrate the Silence Breakers but let’s not stop there. Let’s not turn a deaf ear to these voices when it all becomes old news. Because abuse never feels old. Let’s be braver in those difficult conversations. Let’s not skirt around the subject and hide behind ‘other people’s experiences’ – because it’s happened to you. It’s happened to a woman you know. Let’s create real change and real social progress that’s inclusive, open and transparent. Let’s start now.