I was four years old the first time I was sexually harassed. Yes, four years old. I can still remember it clearly – I’d just started kindergarten, and my mum – who was a teacher – had let me take her smiley face stamp to school. My kindergarten teacher had told me I could go around the classroom and give all the kids a stamp on the back of their hands. When I got to one boy, he pinned me up against a wall in a back corner of the classroom, unzipped his pants and pulled out his penis. “Stamp THIS,” he growled at me, while tugging at his exposed penis and lunging towards me. Stunned, I silently stood pressed against the wall and waited for him to zip his shorts back up.
Although I didn’t have a name for what was happening, I knew something was very, very wrong. Afterwards, I remember quietly slinking back to my chair, feeling confused, upset and humiliated. I never told the teacher – or anyone else for that matter – because even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, I was somehow left feeling ashamed and embarrassed by what had transpired.
I still don’t know where that little boy learnt that, but even at a young age, he clearly believed he exerted some sort of power and privilege over me simply because he was male. And from that moment on, I felt it too.
I wish I could say this was the only time I have ever been sexually harassed, but sadly, it’s not. It’s happened countless times since then. I’m sure every woman has had similar experiences.
At the risk of sounding like I’m just jumping on an already very full bandwagon, let me just say that I think it is incredibly important for women to finally start speaking their truths, after years of being shamed into silence. Nothing is going to change until we do.
Most men have no idea just how terrifying it is to be a woman. Some men do, and there lies their power… We are literally scared every single day of our lives. We worry about being attacked when we walk down a quiet street, so we change our route and go the long way instead. We’re too afraid to catch public transport alone at night. We constantly worry about our mothers, sisters, daughters and friends… It’s draining and exhausting.
Sexual harassment – and for too many women, sexual assault – has become such a normalised part of our lives as women, up until recently, we didn’t even bother mentioning it. It was just one of the pitfalls of being female. Something we had quietly and resignedly accepted.
As girls, we are taught to be meek and subservient to men. Not in an obvious way, but we’re conditioned to be polite and mild-mannered. Always be considerate of others, even at your own expense.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I heard the phrase, “That’s not very ladylike,” while growing up. It was used to reprimand me whenever I did anything cheeky or mischievous. After a while, I came to discover being “ladylike” ultimately meant being passive, submissive and respectful of people even when they weren’t respectful of me. Something else little girls often hear? “Boys will be boys.” All that does is excuse boys’ bad behaviour and diminish the power of women.
When news broke back in October that Harvey Weinstein had been sexually assaulting women, I was sad, angry and deflated. But the one thing I was not was surprised. Even I had heard horror stories of Weinstein (none sexually related), so I found it incredibly hard to believe his Hollywood peers were “shocked” by the allegations. Hollywood is a small town – people talk – and this had been something of an open secret for THREE DECADES. He got away with this for 30 years before anyone dared call him out!
Two weeks ago, the Golden Globes took place and the who’s who of Hollywood stepped out in black to protest the systematic abuse of women. It actually made me feel a little sick to see so many hypocrites all gathered in the same room, patting themselves and each other on the back for a job well done after declaring war on sexual predators. This is a classic case of simply kicking them when they’re down. Where were all of these so-called warriors hiding while their peers were often knowingly being assaulted by powerful men in their industry?
Harvey Weinstein was no secret. And there are plenty of other men just like him, both in Hollywood and in the real world. Shame on everybody who knowingly stood by and enabled these abusers. And especially shame on the people who later took credit for supposedly helping to empower the victims, despite knowing about these crimes and previously turning a blind eye.
In the days following the Golden Globes, James Franco was also exposed as a sexual predator. On the night though, he proudly took to the podium wearing a “Time’s Up” pin on his lapel – meant to signify the movement to expose sexual predators and support their victims – to accept his award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. Meanwhile, his peers clapped and cheered him on.
I’ve always believed Hollywood often reflects what is taking place in the real world (except with more cocaine). How much longer will this continue? How much longer will we allow it to be acceptable? How much longer is society going to give these men a pass?
If you’ve ever wondered about the standing of women, remember that America knowingly elected a President who proudly boasted about sexually assaulting women. That should tell you everything you need to know about how much women are valued and respected in the world. We ALL have a responsibility to do better.
But I’m hopeful things are changing. As devastating as these revelations have been, they’ve also helped to build awareness.
Last month, I was having a conversation with a couple of my male friends. They said this movement had really opened their eyes to how women are often treated by men and the challenges they face on a daily basis. Both were shocked by how hard women have it, having never really paid much attention to it in the past. One of my friends said it had even caused him to reflect on his own behaviour towards women in the past… As a woman, it was both refreshing and reassuring to hear their take on the issue, and encouraging to know they were actually paying attention. I simply told them this: “Teach your sons to respect women and their boundaries, and teach your daughters to be strong and to know their self-worth. Empower your daughters so that in the future, no woman will ever feel like they have to tolerate abuse.”