This past week, Facebook users from all different backgrounds took part in a movement to show the prevalence sexual harassment and assault. Victims would simply post "#metoo".
I was scrolling through my News Feed, and I saw more and more of my friends and my family post #metoo. I wasn't surprised with the number of people who were harassed, but rather shocked to see so many users who were ready to admit horror on an extremely regular basis.
Our society is not one that forgives victims or even tries to understand them. I applaud those who had the courage to share something so personal. Your courage is what made this movement so effective.
Before I go any further, I want to be clear about a few things. For this post, I will primarily be focusing on female victims of sexual harassment. I don't mean to undermine the many cases of sexual harassment and assault where men are the victim.
Sexual harassment and assault are absolutely unjustifiable. When a case of sexual harassment or worse is brought up, people immediately look for reasons why it would be okay - the girl must have been wearing something suggestive, the girl must have been asking for it, boys will be boys. Victim-blaming only makes it harder for the girl to heal from the incident because she now not only has to worry about her abuser, but also about the hundreds of people judging her for something that was never her fault to begin with.
People should be able to dress how they want. If I wear a Rolling Stones shirt, I'm usually wearing it because I'm a fan and/or I like how the shirt looks on me. Me wearing the shirt doesn't immediately open up an invitation for any Rolling Stones fan to come up to me and start a conversation - they can try, but I can try to not engage. If that person continues to force the conversation, it then becomes harassment. Is my discomfort my fault? NO. I didn't cause harassment just because of something that I wore. The person initiating this annoying conversation is the one who is at fault for my discomfort. This situation is no different than when a girl is wearing something that she chose because she liked it, and men coming and engaging in conversation that she doesn't want to have. Victim-blaming takes the accountability off of the harasser, and gives abusers room to continue abusing.
The worst part about the conversation around sexual harassment is the phrase "boys will be boys". I absolutely hate that phrase for so many reasons. First, the phrase immediately implies that boys are harassers by nature. "Boys will be boys" isn't used when a Boy Scout troop rebuilds a park that was affected by a natural disaster. "Boys will be boys" isn't used when talking about a boy who grew up in a bad part of town, but now is deciding what college he'll be going to. "Boys will be boys" isn't used to talk about the men who stand up for women who are hurt by other men. "Boys will be boys" is only used when justifying something bad like violence or sexual harassment. Men can be gentle, but only when they aren't enabled to be aggressive and entitled. The "boys will be boys" idea takes all accountability off of the men who are ruining women's lives by harassing them and for assaulting them. "Boys will be boys" keeps a cycle of bad character in motion for generations to come. "Boys will be boys" is victim-blaming at its worst. And victim-blaming gives abusers room to continue abusing.
So why - in a world where victims are constantly berated - did the #metoo movement work better than other movements that denounced sexual harassment? Because this movement put faces that people know to acts that are objectively deplorable.
When my mom posted #metoo, I immediately thought of all the places she usually goes from nightclubs & bars to grocery stores & middle schools, and I could imagine someone in each of those places saying something crude. But I didn't even think about the fact that she was once a teenager too. I talked to her about it, and she told me of all of the incredibly creepy things that guys would say to her during school days or work days and even when she was just out with family and friends. My mom was sexually harassed as a young woman and as an older one. It's almost as if my mom was harassed solely because she was a woman, and wherever she'd go, she could never leave the harassers. That's why she posted #metoo.
When my 22-year-old friend posted #metoo, I didn't immediately think of the places where she would be harassed or assaulted. I knew what she was referring to when she posted that. She was referring to the time that she was raped during her freshman year in college. She was referring to the time when a guy thought that because she was drunk and talking to his drunk self, that he could (without her consent) have sex with her. This girl was depressed and shaken up for days after the incident. But when news picked up about it, the comments on the articles immediately began blaming her for (allegedly) leading him on and then changing her mind at the last minute or even speculating that she lied about the whole thing for attention. She went to college to learn and experience new things, but instead will be leaving with the knowledge that rapists walk around unscathed and a traumatic experience that will haunt her for her entire adult life.
When these women posted #metoo, they had an audience of several hundred people reading their post. Not everyone knew the story behind the post. But when they shared, the issue became less amorphous. As more and more users said #metoo, those who were more soft-spoken saw the unity in the movement and gained the confidence to share the hashtag, something they would never have been comfortable doing on their own. Everyone who was reading these short posts started connecting the dots and realizing that almost every woman they know has likely had someone sexually harass or assault them.
Now, women know the prevalence of sexual harassment. They live in constant fear of being in a public place where they'll have to deal with some pervert who thinks saying something objectifying and sexist is going to make his day better. Men (who as I mentioned earlier can also be victims) are statistically less aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment because there are many instances where they simply aren't taught what constitutes harassment from a young age, so they grow up thinking that sexism is the norm, and harassment is okay.
Fortunately, the #metoo movement has shown men how serious this issue is: sexual harassment is literally everywhere. But awareness is only half the battle. Now it'll require actions that hold abusers accountable and encourage observers to be active instead of passive when they see sexual harassment take place.
First off, if you see something, actually say something. This goes for both men and women. Losing a friend because you stood up for something is far better than someone's life being ruined. Passiveness and thinking that someone else will take care of it is part of the reason sexual harassment perpetuates. It isn't nipped in the bud early enough, and the act is basically encouraged.
Second, when a story breaks about a sexual harassment case or a sexual assault case, don't immediately go victim-blaming. Obviously, there should still be due process, but harassing someone who's likely been more than harassed is only adding to the problem. Even if you think your conversation will not have any direct impact on the person's mental state, it's always better to tread with caution and express compassion.
Lastly, volunteer with different organizations that try to combat sexual assault, and organize initiatives that educate people on what constitutes sexism and sexual harassment. The more people understand what is right and what is wrong, the likelihood of the wrong happening decreases. If a sexist, who likely cannot differentiate between the proper way to interact with women and sexual harassment, learned how to respect women, he would likely stop being a sexist.