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October 26, 2017

My #MeToo Moment: Don't Let Your Daughters Say It

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I have been loathe to make any contribution to the #MeToo movement that has currently taken the world by storm. It's not that I have never experienced harassment but what I have experienced is nothing compared to what some women have faced throughout their lives. Because of this, I don't feel I deserve to or have a place in involving myself in something I have very little direct experience of.

But is my reluctance the same that has kept so many women quiet about their experiences for their entire lives? Celebrities left, right, and centre are coming forward alleging that 'Miramaximus' (Harvey Weinstein) harassed, assaulted, or raped them, some incidents going to the very beginning of their careers as actors. This avalanche of pain and trauma, which resulted in Weinstein being fired from his own company, is sparking other organisations into action, such as those who have controversial fashion photographer Terry Richardson on the books, and inspiring other accusations about long-term abuse, such as allegations against director James Toback.

What I cannot scratch out from under my skin is the idea that Weinstein's behaviour, Bill O'Reilly's behaviour, Terry Richardson's behaviour, Woody Allen's behaviour, Roman Polanski's behaviour, hell, even former presidents' behaviour and current presidents' behaviour, and that of so many men in power has been an open secret and everyone just let it go. Men in power let it go. Women in power let it go. Companies in power let it go. What is the power that these men hold over legions of people who knew (or at the very least suspected) the horror that women in the business had to undergo? What is behind the reluctance to do something to change it? Is it simply the Hollywood culture, borne from decades of sleazy, slimy, powerful men taking advantage of young girls with a dream?

I have been whistled at when walking on the streets. I have been told to smile. I've had my butt grabbed by a man in a superior position. A man offered to rub me down with lotion I had just purchased at the till. I have been asked for nude photos online. I have been told that a tattooed ring is not a real wedding ring. I have been accused of lying about having a boyfriend (before I was married) and a husband. I've had to laugh off jokes about women's bodies at an all-male workplace. And while I want to say I'm lucky, it feels a bit disingenuous, because my experiences may be small but they affected me and have shaped the way I react in current day situations. Like most women, I do smile when someone on the street asks me to. I laughed off butt grabs and rubdown offers, and smirked along with the guys about women's bodies. I smiled when my loyalty was called into question and ignored so many nudges. Why? Because I had to be nice and that is what I feel, and likely what I was told as a child, I should do to protect myself.

Self-protection is at the basis of everything we do. Sure, we have to make compromises and sometimes protect others more than ourselves, but self-preservation is part of our survival makeup. In the modern day, this has extended to retaining our jobs.

As Ruth Reader from FastCompany says,
In any outcome, there’s always the fear that the person you report will retaliate in some way. Your harasser has already proven themselves the kind of person who crosses personal boundaries. Will they spread rumors about you? Will they try and get you fired? Will they threaten you? If other coworkers find out, will they rush to your support or shun you? 
Then factor in the nagging part of your psyche that says, I can handle this situation without outside help. This self-preservation mechanism forces you to second guess whether you’re even being harassed in the first place under the assumption that if you can handle it, it must not be that bad. There is actually very little incentive to report, unless the harassment is so bad you’re unable to do your job, at which point you are more likely to look for another job rather than try to fix your current one. This self-interrogation is part of what prevents women from ever saying anything about their harassment.
In addition to all this, we have dozens of media horror stories about women trying to get their experiences out there about sexual harassment and the company they work for, and even their fellow employees, make an effort to either ignore the situation or make it as uncomfortable as possible. Add to this the fact that, as women, we are likely to be blamed, to be called hysterical, to be told maybe we believed we were raped (like Lindiwe Sisulu says), or told we can't take a joke or are simply too sensitive.
This self-preservation instinct is also possibly why no one says anything when they're witnessing harassment. An article in The Guardian says it so much more succinctly than I could:
There’s a relatively simple two-grid matrix we could use when it comes to ascertaining the ethics of all this: how much power do you have yourself, and how easily can you be discredited by exactly the same cultural contempt for women that spurred the harassment in the first place? As the writer, feminist and human rights activist Joan Smith reminds us: “The men who do this, do it because they have the power and wealth to get away with it. They deliberately pick on women who are less powerful than themselves.” If you had a lot of professional or cultural capital yourself, it is less likely that you would be sexually harassed...
... and ...
Male complicity has different sources, as [Prof Liz Kelly, director of the Child and Women Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University] describes: “It may come from a position of envy, wanting to be that powerful person and get away with it; it may be not wanting the focus to be turned on them – what’s wrong with them that they would object, are they gay? It becomes a masculinity challenge to say anything. And I think there are some men who have a vulnerability themselves, they may be from a minority and they feel like their hold on their position is quite tenuous. There are different ways in which men can become complicit, and not all of it is about thinking the behaviour is OK.”
What makes the situation worse is, of course, the complicity of other women: "One woman described this situation: she was in a circle of colleagues at a work Christmas party, and her boss reached across the circle and grabbed her breast. The thing that she focused on the most was not that, but the fact that everyone in the circle laughed. And the impact that had on her, of realising: ‘These are my colleagues, that was their response, how could I possibly report it?’ was greater than [that of] the act itself" (From the same Guardian piece). Or even female colleagues rooting for #TeamHarasser instead of believing the harassed.

I am not including these quotes to excuse or accuse but as part of my own thought processes behind my reluctance to comment and say #MeToo, which was cracked like a snow globe this morning. As we passed a security guard, I greeted him, but my daughter didn't. He said, 'Hey!' And before I thought about what I was doing, I told my daughter to greet him. I immediately regretted it, because I realised, how was that not a form of harassment? If my daughter does not want to greet a stranger or even a family member she is uncomfortable with, she should darn well not have to. Thus I am also complicit in condoning harassment, albeit a small instance, and even in defining her basic idea of consent. She will look at what I say and do and soon believe, as I do, that she has to greet strangers, be nice to strangers, giggle when they grab her butt, laugh when they make lewd comments about her body, stay silent when they climb on top of her.

If anything, my #MeToo moment is realising just how much I've been trained to be nice - you know, nice but not too nice - and just how much I'm training my daughter to do the same. I am failing in empowering her to fight against harassment, just as my parents did, and just as many parents are doing today out of habit. And damn me to hell if I allow that to happen.

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