I’ve been having a hard time figuring out how to approach this topic without alienating anyone. I’ve realized it’s impossible to appease everyone in difficult conversations, so I gave up and wrote the words my soul felt.
After the “Me Too” campaign began, I had an experience that really opened my eyes to the problem at hand. Well, one facet of it. It boils down to this: many men have no idea how to decipher sexual harassment from normal behavior. This is, most likely, because until recently, the two were not mutually exclusive; simply put, sexual harassment has been part of our society for so long that it appears as normal behavior to many people, men and women alike.
Before I continue, I want to make two disclaimers. One, this is not a story reveal. I’m not going to share experiences and point fingers from anything in my life, and my plan is not to write a reflection of how my experiences with sexual harassment have affected me personally. I will also not address every exception or nuance to what I say; I would need an entire book to do that. The problem is too multifarious to address in one go. Two, I know that there are men who have also suffered sexual harassment and assault, and I want you to know that your story is valid and I acknowledge your pain. No one should ever experience this. My focus here is on the widespread, societally accepted mistreatment of women as a whole because that is what I and many of my female friends and family experience on a daily basis, but I in no way intend to diminish or ignore your pain.
I can’t imagine anyone truly believes that posting “Me, too,” will in and of itself create a social change. What it can do- and has done- is create a space for women to come forward and say out loud what has been taboo for too long. All of those uncomfortable, painful experiences can now be named and identified publicly, rather than suffered privately. It is as if we have been sitting in the dark for years, with candles in our pockets but unsure if the light would make people angry with us. The dark is scary, but it’s what we know. When that first woman lit her candle and we saw the relief in each other’s eyes, we knew it was safe for us to light our own candles and add to her light source. In the light we can see each other’s pain for what it is, and begin to heal each other.
The most important outcome of this awareness campaign is that it is starting a conversation with those who didn’t realize we were sitting in the dark. It’s going to be uncomfortable at first, like any change, and we will all experience growing pains. But to truly see change, we will have to meet those growing pains head on.
One of the worst pains we will face is merely explaining to men why this is an issue, because until recently, it hasn’t been. I’m not saying sexual assault and harassment haven’t caused pain, but it was something women had to absorb and own individually- it was not a societal issue. As women have come forward to tell their stories, many men are struggling with seeing and understanding the problem.
I have realized that many men don’t have a clear idea of what sexual harassment is. In trying to explain it, I realized that I don’t have a clear definition for them. This is not a clean cut issue, which lends itself to vague terminology and definitions, but something has to be done to explain the problem. I thought about it for a while, and the best way I personally can come up with to visualize it is to go through the life of a child growing up. Humor me, and come along.
Imagine: your kindergarten class is learning about stranger danger. You’re told to never wander off alone, never get into a car with someone you don’t know, and to make a safe word with your family so you know who you can trust and who you shouldn’t. As a boy, you will learn as you grow up that one day this will no longer apply to you. You’ll be a grown man, and won’t have to worry about strangers anymore. You’re not told to follow the buddy system once you hit puberty, and you just accept that grown ups don’t get lured into strangers’ vehicles the way children do. You love your newfound freedom and the autonomy it allows.
As a girl, you are taught about stranger danger, but you’re also told that when boys like you, they are mean and they pull your hair. It’s just how boys are, they say, it’s just how they show their affection. The importance of the buddy system only grows as you get older. You are constantly reminded to not go to the bathroom alone, and you are warned to never let your drink out of your sight. You are chastised about how you dress, and taught that what you wear directly affects boys’ (and men’s) actions. “Men just can’t help it,” is a valid reason for why men will force themselves on you if your dress is a little short, as if they have some uncontrollable, animalistic instinct that is impossible to quell. “You were warned;” “You should have known better;” “Why was your shirt so low-cut?” There is always something you should have done differently.
You get older, graduate high school and maybe college, and you begin to realize that it doesn’t matter what you wear, say, or do. There will always be men to make you feel uncomfortable. You go on a run, and you get catcalled. You drive with your window open, and guys walking whistle and yell to you. Men shout at you just because they see you. You’re told it’s a compliment, and you should feel flattered. Your responsibility for walking down the street is to bear the weight of men’s actions because they can’t control themselves. Beyond this, you are told that you should be grateful to the man who yelled inappropriate thing at you from his car window, that you should thank him for noticing you instead of being upset at his words.
You can’t walk anywhere alone after sunset because you might get raped, but you shouldn’t take a cab alone for the same reason. Over the course of 25 years, you have developed a fear of the streets and an inner dialogue that is ready to blame you for whatever misfortunes occur. When you get attacked, your outfit will be used as evidence to explain how you were enticing the man to do it, despite your repeated and firm “No’s.” You are shamed for putting yourself into a situation where a man fell weak to his animalistic instinct, and there are always skeptics who believe you are lying. Legal justice does not lie in your favor, no one wants to hear your story, and you are left even more terrified than before you left the house that night.
[Side note: no woman is ever asking for it, unless she is actually asking for it.]
The worst part of all is that nowhere feels safe to share your discomfort. When you bring it up, a common response is that you are probably overreacting, that nothing really happened. You’re imagining it, you’re paranoid. That’s just how men are.
As I was writing this, it became extremely clear to me that we have a deficit of trust in our society. Men of the world- us women need to rebuild our trust in you. And that cannot begin until you trust that our stories and our pain are real. We need you to listen. It may seem that we are nitpicking, that the pendulum of “appropriate speech” has swung all the way to the other side. You may feel that you have to walk on eggshells for a while. If you truly want to fix this problem with us, we need you to listen. For example, don’t ask us about our experiences and then argue about technicalities. We need the time and space to say how we have suffered and are suffering, We do not have a collective, conspiring goal to condemn all men and remove them from importance. And the worst thing you can do is to disengage from the conversation. It is going to be difficult for all people in this, but we are ALL people in this, and none of us is alone.