I’ve been seeing this #metoo trending hashtag everywhere and I’ve had fairly mixed feelings about it, honestly. When I sit down to comment on it, I either get so agitated I can’t type coherent sentences or else I feel a bone-deep weariness and sit, staring blankly at the screen, until I give up and close my laptop.
I thought that perhaps now, after dragging a 27kg box down my road and up a flight of stairs, I would be tired enough to tackle this issue, but I’m still sitting here jiggling my leg anxiously. I don’t like the #metoo campaign. I just don’t. I don’t like it, even though of course ‘me too’.
Perhaps because ‘me too’.
Have I felt harrassed?
How about the time I was 16 and a man in his mid-thirties stopped his car in the middle of traffic to run over and chat me up?
How about the time a man at least two decades older than me sat – uninvited – at my table during my lunch break, followed me back to my workplace and then sent me effusive poetry?
How about the many times I’ve had my ass grabbed, or the men who have slid their arm around me and nonchalantly stroked my breast? How about the guy who almost followed me into my house? Or the men who have forced their unwanted, unasked-for compliments on me and then acted like I owed them? Or the guy whose name I didn’t even know, who made me mix CDs I never asked for and followed me on my commute home? Or the guys who have kissed me against my will? Or the man who stalked me from store to store despite not a single sign of interest? Or the many men who don’t listen to the first no? Or the second no? Or the third, or the fourth, or the fifth….?
Here’s the thing about sexual harrassment; 98% of the time, the people doing it would never admit to themselves or anybody else that what they’re doing is harrassment. I think that a lot of the time they really are completely unaware that what they’re doing is creepy, or intimidating, or frightening or enraging or just plain inappropriate. They think they’re flirting. They think they’re being charming, or “cheeky,” or that they’re – shudder – wooing you. They either don’t realise or don’t care that your laugh is a nervous one, or that your smile is plastered on over gritted teeth. They are completely oblivious to the fact that you flinch when they try to touch you, and they ignore any subtle hints you might drop about them leaving you alone.
They don’t stop to think about positions of power, or whether or not women feel like they can shut it down. They mistake any gesture of politeness for encouragement. They mistake silence for enjoyment. They don’t stop to consider that maybe politeness feels like the only option. They don’t bother to contemplate alternative interpretations of the silence.
Did I say or do anything?
I once had a job in a large office block. I worked on the front desk of the building, but since it housed several different businesses – each of which had their own receptionist – I didn’t have very much to do. The office I interacted with the most was the one on the ground floor staffed solely by a group of middle-aged men.
Most of them engaged in what they considered “friendly banter” with me, and a lot of it was inoffensive and light-hearted, so I didn’t mind. There was one man in his early sixties, however, who routinely said things that made my skin crawl. It started with outrageously over-the-top flattery and escalated quickly from there. After a week or so he was saying things like, “You’re way better than the last one, that bitch was no fun. And you’re much easier on the eye!”
“Come down to the garage with me for twenty minutes and I’ll give you anything you want!”
“I’m going away with my wife for a sexy weekend, but I’ll be thinking of you the whole time!”
“Oh you have a form for me? Come sit on my lap and read it to me like a good girl!” – and when I slapped the form down on the table, narrowed my eyes at him and walked out – “That’s okay, I like to watch you walk away too!”
Every time he approached my desk I felt a mixture of negative feelings. Revulsion. Fear. Intimidation. Discomfort. Powerlessness. Shame. Rage. He would say these things – and many others – in front of his colleagues and then wink at me, flashing his dentures in what I’m sure he thought was a dashing grin. His colleagues would laugh, or groan and then laugh. At no point did anybody pull him up on his behaviour. At no point did anybody say that it was inappropriate. At no point did anybody say anything at all.
And neither did I.
- I was young and not very confident.
- I was afraid of how he (and the rest of the office) would react.
- The fact that nobody around him ever said anything made me feel completely outnumbered and made me second-guess myself, wondering whether I was making a big deal about nothing.
- I wasn’t going to be there for very long, so I figured I should just stick it out.
- My job wasn’t actually linked to his office, so I wasn’t sure who I should even talk to about it. If anybody would be moved it would be me.
… So, you know, the usual reasons people don’t report these things. Or rather the usual reason, singular, because it really always boils down to the same simple truth:
I was afraid of the consequences.
Whether you’re afraid the repercussions will be violent, professional, dangerous or simply awkward, it always boils down to the consequences of standing up for yourself to people who are generally larger, more powerful, more important, and completely unpredictable. The #metoo campaign is like picking up fistfuls of sand and feeling it slip through your fingers; there are so many ‘me too’s. Too many ‘me too’s. It would be better to ask for people who have never experienced it to step forward. Find the scant handful who have never felt that tingle of fear, or that burning shame of not feeling able to risk their job/reputation/safety.
I guarantee you they are few and far between.
So maybe stop looking for the #metoo.
Maybe look for the #luckyfew.