In thinking about the #metoo movement, and what feels like a new wave of feminism; which might well be the one positive thing to come out of Trump’s administration; I recently recalled experiences of sexual harassment in my own life. In hearing and reading about many women’s experiences of sexual abuse or harassment, their anger and sense of previously being silenced, I also remembered the anger I have felt, the resentment, and sense of fear, violation and shame, and I realised I have rarely told anyone about the experiences I have had, especially the more serious. I wondered why, and I think that it has something to do with the fact that I had somehow found a way to excuse and normalise what had happened, because that was easier than talking about it, and that I had unconsciously, in some way blamed myself for what had occurred; for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for being alone, for wearing the wrong clothes, for looking in the wrong direction. And I thought that if I had felt this way about my more minor experiences of sexual harassment, how much worse and more damaging these feelings could be in far more traumatic instances of sexual abuse and rape.
I grew up in the UK walking home from school, being whistled, leered and beeped at from men in cars and groups of soldiers (from a nearby army base), on a regular basis; because… young girls, children actually, wearing school uniform are objects of sexual fascination? Because the men thought it was funny? Because they wanted to pay me and my 13 year old best friend a compliment? Because they approved of the Latin inscribed on our blazers – ‘Sine Labe Decus’: honour without stain? (How’s that for an all girls’ school motto?). I hated it. I felt threatened. I wondered what would happen if there was a traffic jam, the vehicle stopped, the men could get out, get close to us. I wished we were invisible.
I remember as a university student happily walking through a park in the middle of the afternoon from a friend’s house to my hall of residence, walking past a man sitting on a bench who was watching me, who I suddenly realised, feeling as though my blood had frozen in my veins, that he was exposing himself and masturbating. I remember thinking to myself that I shouldn’t have looked so happy and been wearing shorts and vest (it was summer), that somehow that was the reason he was doing what he was doing, and I should have been more aware and careful, and not happened to look at him. This man followed me out of the park and then stood on the other side of the street outside my house for a long time, watching. I remained afraid to see him again when I left the house the whole time I lived there, because he knew where I lived.
Older, I was on a very busy bus, sitting down in the aisle seat, and I realised slowly, to my disgust, that what I had assumed was someone’s arm or bag innocently but persistently touching my shoulder while they stood in the aisle and moved with the ups and downs of the bus, was in fact an old man with an erection rubbing himself against me. I sat still, again frozen for a moment, unable to understand how someone could do this, on a crowded bus, to a young woman, whom he didn’t know. Who gets off like that? Who thinks that is okay? So I do the best I can in a country I have been in for only a couple of weeks, whose language is not my own, and I stand up and try to look at him in the hope that I can shame him with a stare. Except I’m shaking and too afraid to really look, in case he does something worse.
A little older still, I am on the London underground in the early evening, and a man decides to get on a very busy carriage behind me, where he proceeded to grope me repeatedly in what was a very confined space, where I could hardly move or turn around. When I managed to say loudly, ‘Get you hand off my ass!’, no one around us said or did anything, and he just got off and moved down the train to the next carriage at the next stop. A normal guy in a suit, going home from work. I blushed, was ashamed and humiliated as I called him out, and I curled up inside when everyone around me acted as though I had said nothing at all. I remember thinking to myself, I shouldn’t have got on this carriage, it was too busy. It was only later I became angry as I realised I was blaming myself, that I was thinking that I should have done something differently to prevent something happening which the man was completely responsible for. No, he shouldn’t have got on. Or if he did, he should have kept his hands to himself.
The last incident I will recount happened last Saturday afternoon, here in Duino, where I was honked at by a truck driver, who gestured he was jerking off through the window of the cab of the truck, while I was walking along in trainers, baggy old jogging pants and a waterproof jacket. I thought, getting older, I had somehow gone off the radar of idiotic men who want to threaten me with their penises from inside their moving vehicles. I thought maybe times had changed. Guess not.
This is by no means a conclusive list of my experiences, and does not describe the more serious incidents that have happened to me, for obvious reasons. These are, in one sense ‘everyday’, minor incidents. I think this alone is enough to make my point. That sexual harassment happens a lot. That it comes out of nowhere, no matter where you are, what time of day it is, what you’re doing, what you’re wearing or how old you are. It happens to a lot of women (as well as other genders). For a lot of their lives. It is sometimes easy to shake off, sometimes even laughable, but is also frightening, demeaning, threatening and violating. It affects how we feel in our bodies and about our bodies. It affects how we feel we are seen and judged and respected. It affects our self esteem. It affects how safe we feel. It affects how we make choices about what we say, where we look, what we wear, where we go, who we see, how late we stay out, if we go alone, because at least in part we have the knowledge and fear that these things, or worse, can happen. And worse, I think those who are affected by sexual harassment or abuse, tend to somehow blame themselves, feel embarrassed, ashamed, mortified or disgusted about it, feel an internalised anger that has no real outlet, no arena in which to say, ‘Hey, that is not okay’, not least because there is a fear of what the repercussions (or lack of them) could be in that wrong place at the wrong time, if something is said then, or later. And this is a damaging silencing, which allows these acts, and worse, to continue.
I think there is power behind saying #metoo, even if that is all it is. There is a great power even in just speaking, in voicing, in saying this happened to me. In saying, even if not directly to the perpetrators, it is not okay, don’t do that. Saying #metoo, I think, is not (as some commentators have criticised) some twisted version of a badge of honour, a way to gain attention, a way to attack men in general, a ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, or an attempt to make all forms of sexual harassment, assault and rape of a similar gravity. It is not for me about vilifying and publically destroying people as a form of revenge. I think it can become that, just as it can also be about beginning to get some form of justice for survivors of sexual assault. But it is also simply, and powerfully, a chance, a symbol of an ability to say what might, for so long, have been unspeakable: actively suppressed, laughed at or trivialised, ignored, contradicted or attacked. It is a new way to begin talk about and acknowledge an aspect of largely female experience that is still not confronted enough. A way to raise awareness about how often this happens to many girls and women. It’s a way to say to anyone that hears don’t do that, it’s not okay. And it’s a way to say to others who are survivors, hey, you’re not alone. And hopefully, eventually, somehow, it may help to change the culture around damaging sexual attitudes and behaviour towards women.
By Laura Summers
Sexual harassment and violence against women:
- ‘The Longest War’ by Rebecca Solnit, in Men Explain Things to Me, Haymarket Books 2014.
- ‘One in five women have been sexually assaulted, analysis finds’, by Alan Travis, in The Guardian, 8 Feb 2018, (Accessed 8 Feb 2018)
- The website of the original ‘metoo’ movement founded by Tarana Burke:
- Article on the ‘metoo’ hashtag taking off after Alyssa Milano’s post in late 2017:
‘The Movement of #metoo: how the hashtag got its power’, by Sophie Gilbert, in The Atlantic, 16 Oct 2017, (Accessed 8 Feb 2018)