Sexual harassment seems to be a hot topic these days. Allegations of sexual misconduct have been brought out against Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore and Louis CK, to name a few, and here in the UK we have seen our own spate of sexual harassment claims against members of parliament. As a consequence, Twitter has exploded with women coming forward to tell their own – often harrowing – tales of sexual harassment, particularly under the hashtag #MeToo.
I have my own story of rape, but what drew my attention were the smaller, more insidious ways in which men exercise sexual control over women. Listening to women complain about these smaller acts of sexual harassment made me recognise how much gaslighting I subject myself to on a daily basis. And it has been liberating to know that I can stop that now.
When thinking about sexual harassment, the mind immediately goes to rape or violent sexual assault. And while I by no means wish to suggest that rape isn’t a horrific violation of a woman – I should know, having experienced it myself – it is more than that. But it has taken me until recently to acknowledge this fully. I have been gaslighting myself from an early age by ignoring, trivialising, or excusing sexual harassment on a large scale. I am sure he didn’t mean it, I would tell myself. Or, I must have given him the wrong signals. Or, worst of all, I must be exaggerating it. At least he didn’t rape me. After years of doing this, it comes naturally to me and I don’t even realise I do it anymore. But how did this all start?
As women we deal with men’s sense of entitlement over our bodies, our attention, and our time every single day. And from a very early age, society conditions us to accommodate men in this. Our mothers urge us to smile because it will make us look prettier. Our teachers tell us the boys, who chase after us and pull our hair, like us. ‘Boys will be boys’ pretty much excuses any harassing behaviour we encounter growing up.
As adults we tell each other to put up with it. We warn each other about a particularly creepy co-worker, we commiserate about his behaviour, even make jokes about it. But we wouldn’t dream of reporting it. When I was in university, and still naive, I reported a professor who always leaned inappropriately close to me, his arm pressed up against my breast, his leering stare down my blouse. I was laughed at and told not to be silly. That was the last time I tried to report any sexual harassment. And yes, that includes the time my date raped me.
The media isn’t any help either. If a woman does finally find the courage to report sexual harassment – often rape – she is vilified in the press. Her motives are questioned and she is partly blamed for what happened to her. She shouldn’t have been drunk, she shouldn’t have worn such provocative clothing, she shouldn’t have shared a taxi with that man. Is it any wonder that we internalise these arguments and apply them to our own experiences all the time?
In my recent conversations with men on this subject, I have encountered a lot of disbelief. My male friends simply don’t believe the amount of harassment we have to deal with on a day to day basis. I have never seen this type of behaviour, is what they say. You never told me, is another complaint. The underlying message is, as always, that I must be exaggerating. And I am not entirely surprised. Men like to think that sexual harassment is perpetrated by bad men, by rapists. It doesn’t fit in with their world view that good men can mistreat and disrespect women as well. In fact, most of them are not even aware that what they do and say demeans women.
This is why I am so grateful for the #MeToo campaign. Women are fighting back on a large scale, calling out men’s predatory behaviour. And for the first time in my life I feel liberated. Minimising my own reaction to every day sexual harassment has always left me frustrated. Why could I not accept this like all other women did, or at least seemed to do? Why did it bother me so much? Doubting my own experiences all the time has taken its toll. For so many years I felt like I can’t trust my own feelings and instincts, but now I see I am not alone. All women have the same experiences as I. And if all women feel like this, then that means my feelings are valid.
I read a lot of men on Twitter complaining about ‘angry women’. And it’s true: we are angry. We have been angry since we were teenagers and men started bothering us for the first time. We have just never been allowed to express our anger. I have bottled up 30 years of anger about sexual harassment I was not allowed to complain about. Every time a man told me make up would make me look a lot better, I pushed away my anger. Every time a man stalked me home and yelled obscenities at me, I gritted my teeth and kept my anger in. Every time my male boss would put his hand on my ass “accidentally”, I swallowed my anger. Even when I was date raped, I pushed away the experience and didn’t even tell anyone until years later.
But no longer. Now that I know that I am not alone, that women all over the world are speaking out about their experiences I can finally acknowledge my feelings. Not that it is easy to suddenly have to process that much accumulated anger. But it is freeing to recognise how much I have repressed my feelings. To know that the way men have treated me – and are still treating me – is disgraceful and something to be mad about. And now that I recognise my own gaslighting I can work on stopping it and I can start trusting my experiences again.
This is the tiny spark of light I see in the flood of horrendous news about sexual misconduct across the board. We women have known for a very long time how badly men treat us, but we have been silenced again and again. Society has silenced us so much that we stopped speaking out. We changed our way of thinking about every day sexual harassment. But the tide has turned and we can let go now. We can open up, acknowledge that what is being done to us is disgraceful, and fight back. Change is coming, and for me, it starts with the realisation that I no longer have to doubt my own reality.