I don’t use Facebook all that often anymore, but when I logged in this morning to see whose birthdays I’d forgotten about, all I was met with, was a timeline full of women writing down two words.
After the exposure of Weinstein in the press, a renewed cry for change has been making its way around the world as we have to come to terms once more with just how pervasive sexism and sexual harassment/violence is in everyday life.
The worst thing about seeing all of these people sharing that statement on Facebook was the volume of it didn’t even surprise me. But it should have. It shouldn’t be the case that there is a collective sense of acceptance, of normalization, when it comes to the ubiquity of sexual assault.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote about my personal experiences with sexism and sexual harassment ― it’s part of my “me too”:
I don’t want to accept it as normal that when I was 14 and wearing a skirt, two adult men followed me in the subway and tried to touch me.
I don’t want to accept it as normal that when I was 15 and cycling home from school, a guy on a scooter came by and slapped my ass.
I don’t want to accept it as normal that when I was 16, I went to a party to dance and instead had someone try to feel me up.
I don’t want to accept it as normal that when I was 17 and graduated with honours from high school, people told me that it was “so nice for me that I was pretty and smart,” like intelligence for girls is just an additional bonus ― it was “interesting” that I did physics too.
I don’t want to accept it as normal that when I was 18, I was sexually harassed in a train compartment by a group of Dutch football hooligans.
I don’t want to accept it as normal that when I was 19 and went abroad, it was expected that as a girl you had to show off your body and wear high heels and 16 layers of makeup in order to get into a club.
I don’t want to accept that when I was 20, someone made a joke about me getting into my study program because “I’d probably sent in a picture showing off my cleavage.”
I don’t want to accept that when I was 21 and in a club, someone made a rude gesture about squeezing my breasts and when I told him off he found me to be “aggressive,” and I was the one who was told “to calm down.”
I don’t want to accept that when I was on holiday and a friend was supposed to drive me home, he instead drove me to his place because “he was lonely” and he “swore he wouldn’t even touch me” when I protested.
Just last week, a woman was killed in the Netherlands by a man, and the first thing people describe is how she was cycling home alone through the woods. The underlying message being that she shouldn’t have been alone, shouldn’t have cycled home in the dark by herself. The advice being given that women and girls should be more careful, shouldn’t go out at night by themselves.
It’s not our choice as women to be objectified and sexualized. It’s not our choice as women to be harassed, or to be felt up, or to be raped and brutally murdered. It’s never our choice.
The only choice we have is whether or not we share our stories afterward. Only once we’ve already had to live through the experience, had to undergo something we never asked for and had to learn how to deal with the shame, the guilt and the burden of not being believed and the fear of the consequences of telling.
When we shouldn’t have to be ashamed. Because it wasn’t our choice. We didn’t ask for it. We didn’t ”let it happen.” And it isn’t our fault. It doesn’t matter what you wore, what your job is, or what your relationship is with the perpetrator.
What will it take for survivor stories to be believed? Why does it take a plethora of women for someone to take them seriously? Why is it our struggles only get taken seriously when a man decides to believe them?
I don’t find it comforting at all that Weinstein has been publicly shamed. He only got that treatment because he was caught. Because someone was brave enough to tell her story and name him as the perpetrator ― and someone believed them and run that story in the press.
He wasn’t the first and certainly isn’t the last sexual predator in the entertainment industry – or any industry. But by elevating him, he’s become the scapegoat for a problem that is endemic and something that can’t be battled by ousting just him alone.
Aside from the idea ingrained in many men’s mind that they are superior, that they are in control, that they are always desirable, the core of the problem is the imbalance of power that protects the abuser.
Donald Trump said it himself. He feels like he can just “grab them by the pussy.” That “when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything.” And apparently you can, because he is currently sitting in the most powerful office in the world. Apparently, victims can be believed, their suffering validated and taken seriously ― as long as they don’t name names. A lot of people have spoken up and shared their own stories and experiences of sexual harassment, abuse and violence in the wake of Weinstein. But none of them have named names, unless their encounter was with Weinstein himself.
Because as twisted as it is, the anonymity is what it takes to be taken seriously by the press for them to run with your story. Because the moment you say your abuser was Donald Trump, or Bill Cosby, or Casey Affleck, or Woody Allen, or Roman Polanski, or Mel Gibson, or Charlie Sheen or Nelly, apparently things change. If you name names, suddenly you’re no longer just a victim. You become a target. Because these men have wealth, they have power, they control the game. Because sometimes, justice isn’t served. Sometimes, criminals win. Sometimes, victims are made to suffer even more. Sometimes, rapists are victimized instead of held accountable. Sometimes, the truth isn’t enough, because the system is rotten.
And the system, our society – it is rotten to the core due to sexism. Let me give you one final personal story to illustrate.
In 2014, I went to New York for summer school, organized by the honours program of my university. We had time off at night, and all students went out for a drink one night. The professor who was organizing the trip had come with. A guy at the bar started talking to me and offered to buy me a drink. I accepted the drink, then left later that night with our own group. The moment we stepped outside of the bar, my professor walked up to me. He took the time to explain to me exactly why he thought I was a bitch for accepting that drink and not going home with the guy. That I shouldn’t do that, should’ve at least kissed him ― that he hated women who didn’t “come through,” who “heightened expectations” and gave false hope, “leading men on.” He shamed me, publicly, in front of my classmates – for choosing not to go home with a virtual stranger in a city I’d never been in while practically being underage.
The worst part? That a bunch of the male students who were also on the trip couldn’t understand why I was so mad. They stood there and laughed. And up to this day, it has made me feel like I was in the wrong, when I rationally know that I wasn’t. Because buying someone a drink doesn’t make them owe you anything. Accepting a drink doesn’t mean you’re willing to or need to sleep with them, kiss them or even touch them.
But I couldn’t say anything, because even though I felt furious, I also felt embarrassed, alone and incredibly vulnerable. This man was my professor, and he was supposed to grade me for my participation. This man held the power to make or break my academic credentials. And so I never filed a complaint, and sometimes I regret that still.
Nevertheless, while this story illustrates the power that someone with authority and credibility can hold over you in the face of inappropriate behavior, it could’ve been way worse.
Just imagine if it would’ve gone differently. I could’ve gone home with that guy, and I could’ve ended up in danger. But I guess then, according to my professor, I would’ve “asked for it.” Since I accepted the drink, no one would’ve done anything. And imagine, then, the guy who I’d gone home with happened to be a famous, well-liked actor in the U.S. No one would’ve believed me. Perhaps people would be horrified at the vague, abstract idea of a perpetrator, but that changes when it pertains to a person of importance, a person with perceived “credibility” and power over you.
Horror turns into disbelief, when it shouldn’t. It should always horrify you. The fact that it’s horrific, doesn’t make it untrue. People are able to do unspeakable things ― regardless of their level of fame, notoriety, power or wealth.
There is a lot of power in saying “me too,” and in sharing your story. There’s even more power in accepting those stories, recognizing those stories and actively naming the perpetrators of those stories, instead of just the victims.
All the people who are brave enough to speak out ― hear them, believe them, protect them. And let’s hope that one day “me too” will be outweighed by “me neither,” instead.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.