Monday, 16 October 2017
Aged 10. On holiday in southern France, you see that your mother doesn’t want to leave you waiting outside a restaurant in the street on your own. She is all fierce and protective Mama-bear. When you ask why, she tells you it’s because of the way men are looking at you. Confused, you protest: but I’m ten.
It makes no difference, she answers. For them you have a woman’s body. You’re fair game.
You feel dirty and stop wearing shorts for the rest of the trip.
Aged 13. It’s common knowledge at school that one fifty year old maths teacher twangs the bras of his students. He does it and then he laughs. You have always been grateful that he was never your teacher and you wonder why the girls who have been harassed by him don’t complain to someone.
But he’s not the teacher who one day comments on your breasts casually in a passing conversation. And when this happens you wonder if it was somehow your fault. And you don’t complain either.
Aged 17. You go to a friend’s house party and a 24 year old army soldier that your friend met that day and invited home tells you that you’re pretty. You don’t know anyone except your friend, who has gone to bed, and the only place for you to sleep is the floor. When he tries to kiss you and you say no, he starts shouting. The only way you can get him to stop is by agreeing to sleep beside him on the floor. He whispers in your ear "at least now you know you have someone who really cares about you". Every part of you is filled with revulsion but you are scared of what might happen if you tell him to leave you alone, or if he gets angry again.
You want to call your parents to come and pick you up but don’t want to seem like a child, or make them worry, or be told you can’t go to parties any more.
Aged 21. You go for dinner in Thailand with a New Zealand acquaintance who works at a local guesthouse. You don’t realise until you arrive at the restaurant on his motorbike, miles from anywhere, that he believes you’re on a date. He starts telling stories about all the women he has slept with, in detail. You panic internally.
You keep trying to steer the conversation away from sex. He keeps dragging it back. You tell him how conservative you are, tell him the story about the person back home you have feelings for, tell him point blank that you don’t want to have sex with him.
He tells you he is a reiki practitioner and that, if he can’t have sex with you, he’ll settle for lying naked in the dark, “exchanging energy”.
Aged 25. Standing on a metro platform in Paris, a leering 50-something year old man with a giant, protruding hernia makes an obscene gesture and remark to your beautiful 23 year old sister. You are filled with rage. You have vivid fantasies about punching his hernia, seeing him doubled over in pain for even looking at her that way. But the crowds come between you and you wonder if the situation had escalated whether anyone would have stopped to help you anyway.
Aged 28. Cairo, during the Friday prayer, in the middle of Ramadan. A man follows you home from grocery shopping without you realising he is there and squeezes your ass as you wait for the lift in the entrance hall to your building. You are furious but before you can even react he is running to his car. You think to cry out, but your doorman is immersed in prayer beside you and has noticed nothing, and what good could it do anyway? The man is already driving away.
Aged 31. The man who you are used to thinking of as your best friend regularly tells you no one will ever love you the way he does, that all your relationship choices have been terrible, that he is the only person who really sees how beautiful you are. He is angry that you don’t love him. He tells you how selfish you are and you feel guilty, and then he tells you that you are the most wonderful woman in the world and he can’t bear to lose you, and you feel guiltier.
Friends tell you to cut him out but it takes four years for you to finally understand that this is a toxic relationship you don’t have to be part of and to tell him not to contact you anymore. The feeling of relief is instantaneous.
If the point of the #MeToo stories is to show how widespread sexual harassment and assault are, I think we also have to recognise their insidiousness. I don’t believe there is a woman alive who has not experienced them in one capacity or another, only to find that there is little or no recourse for complaint or help.
Many male friends have expressed shock and disgust at the fact that women from all over the world, from all walks of life, are posting #MeToo today. We have not all experienced the most brutal and degrading forms of harassment and assault – and my heart aches for all those who have, female and male.
But we all have stories of insidious incidents of objectification and the abuse of power. It’s not limited to certain parts of the world. It doesn’t only affect certain women. It has nothing to do with how pretty you are or what you wear. It’s the systematic abuse of power, plain and simple, which thrives in a festering climate where it is tacitly accepted that those who have more power (strength, influence, money…whatever) can do whatever they want with those who have less.