Over the last week, social media has come alive with women posting the hashtag #metoo. Started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 and promoted by actress Alyssa Milano in the wake of revelations that over 40 women have accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse, the idea was that “if all women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. A spokesperson from Twitter confirmed that within 24 hours the hashtag had been tweeted nearly half a million times.
Like many, I woke last Monday morning to find my Facebook feed filled with friends and acquaintances adding their voices to the fray. Some wrote accounts of the abuse they have endured, others just shared the hashtag to stand up and be counted. While I was outraged that almost every woman I know has experienced harassment or abuse, I was also not surprised. Yet, I initially hesitated to chime in. I have often considered myself lucky – I have never been the subject of sexual violence, never been raped and never been in an abusive relationship. What do I know about sexual assault and how can I complain when there are real victims out there who need support?
However, over the course of the day I couldn’t get the topic out of my mind. As I started to add up my experiences in my head, I realised my own list of incidents is not insignificant.
Like most women, I have been subjected to cat-calls and lewd jokes. I’ve been groped in nightclubs and on public transport. I’ve learned which are the safest routes to take while walking alone and how to carry my keys between my fingers as a form of self defence. I’ve awkwardly grinned my way through creepy comments that are supposed to be “compliments”. When working as a waitress, if I got a dollar for every time a man responded to my offer to bring the dessert menu with “I hope you’re on the menu” followed by a suggestive wink, I would have been a rich woman.
But there has been more than that. There was the male teacher who had a tendency to come up behind me while I was sitting down and massage my shoulders. At only 12 years old I had no idea what to call it, but I knew I didn’t like it.
There was the regular customer at the supermarket where I worked after school who would always try and strike up a conversation. Despite the fact that he was more than twice my age, I would innocently chat with him about my life, thinking he was just friendly. Soon enough he started bringing me presents and lingering around. He somehow identified my car and started leaving suggestive notes on the windshield. For months, I had to have someone accompany me to my car after my shift finished.
There was the time in university when I crashed at a friends house after having a few too many drinks at his 21st birthday party and awoke to find one of his mates had pulled my top down and exposed my breasts.
There was the time I was backpacking in Europe and a guy followed my friend and I through the streets of Barcelona describing in excruciating detail how he wanted to rape and kill us.
There was the man who followed me when I was walking home in Sydney. He was so close behind me I could practically feel him breathing down my neck, making it impossible to get away from him. Knowing I couldn’t walk directly home, I detoured to what I knew was a busy street, forcing him to back off.
There was the group of drunken men who one night surrounded my car in a deserted carpark in Canberra, banging on the windows and shouting foul comments while I cowered alone inside praying that they would go away.
There were the men who thought it would be fun to intimidate me while driving, following me, tailgating and pulling up alongside me to shout obscenities.
There was the cleaner at a posh hotel in Cairo who put extra effort into my room – spreading rose petals on the bed and leaving me extra toiletries. He then started chatting to me in the corridor and was soon monitoring my comings and goings and calling my room just to see whether I needed anything. It ended with him trying to forcibly enter my room while I hid in the bathroom wearing nothing but a towel and hoping that the safety catch I had thankfully remembered to fasten would hold.
I have been harassed at different ages, in different cities and countries and at different times of the day. Not that it matters, but I have been harassed while drunk, while sober, while wearing short skirts and while wearing ugly work uniforms.
Not once have I ever taken any action against the men who have harassed me. I haven’t raised my voice because I have been scared or just convinced that it wouldn’t make a difference anyway. I never even reported the hotel cleaner who tried to break into my room because I was worried he may have been fired and what if he had a wife and children to support? Now I worry that because of my inaction he has put another woman through the same thing – or worse.
I look at the sum of my experiences, which doesn’t even include discrimination I have encountered in the workplace, and wonder why I ever thought I have nothing to say on sexual harassment and abuse. And yet, I still feel I am one of the lucky ones.
Why is it that I feel this way? Is it because this type of behaviour is so insidious that it is normalised – even for the women subjected to it? I certainly know I have considered the catcalls, obscene jokes and occasional nightclub groping as just part of being a woman. I have accepted when I make choices like to travel alone I accept a certain level of risk. But I shouldn’t have to feel “lucky” because I have just been harassed and not raped or violently assaulted. The silence and fear surrounding sexual abuse means it becomes something that women just have to “put up with” to get through life. If there is a silver lining to the Harvey Weinstein affair, it is that the pervasiveness of sexual abuse has been catapulted to the headlines. Alone, women may not have the ability to make a difference, but we are already starting to see that when women speak with a collective voice we can change the discourse. Hopefully, it will mean that women all over will know for certain that this type of behaviour is not ok and they have the confidence to speak out.