This has been a hard post to write, and not in the way most people might think when they catch on to the content. It’s been something that has been bubbling under the surface for quite some time, long before #MeToo and the Times Up movement, long before the Weinstein scandal and subsequent stories that have surfaced since. Longer than I can quite put my finger on. I’ve been wanting write something about it for a while, but I couldn’t find the words. When recent media stories exploded, I felt even more that I should write something, but still, the words eluded me. It’s taken me quite some time to understand what I wanted to say, months and months of deep thought and deliberation, and I still I can’t say I’m completely convinced that I’m going to manage to express quite how I feel, but as this week marks the 100 year anniversary of the Suffragette Movement, I feel the time is right to do my best to try and capture these thoughts. So I apologise in advance if this comes across as the awkward, disjointed rant I fear it might, but here goes. It’s a long ‘un, so buckle in…
I have never been the victim of sexual abuse or assault. Until recently, I probably would have said I haven’t even been the victim of sexual harassment. I couldn’t possibly understand what that feels like or the affect it has on your life. But in the last few months I started to notice something that really started to alarm me, and it’s this that I want to talk about.
It may have all started with this picture:
A perfectly normal profile picture, I hope you’ll agree? This is the picture I chose to use when I set up a Facebook account through which to monitor and comment on a support forum we’d set up for our employees at work. I hadn’t given much thought to the picture I’d used, other than that I liked it and it was taken in one of our businesses, so seemed appropriate. Just a picture of a girl, smiling and enjoying a glass of wine.
Within a few days, the friend requests started coming. This was to be expected – working in HR I assumed a lot of people would want to connect with me thinking I could maybe help them get a job or do business with my Company. We’re quite well known and it wouldn’t be the first time a stranger suddenly wanted to talk to me after finding out who I work for. At first I was selective. But then they were coming in so thick and fast I was struggling to keep up. A lot of them were male – which didn’t surprise me as a lot of the people who contact us about work are chefs and it is quite a male dominated role – but then they started to come from all over the world. Men on other Continents, men who’s profiles clearly declared they worked in completely unrelated industries, men who were older than my retired father – these people clearly did not have a healthy interest in my Company or HR & Payroll practise! Next came the messages. Sometimes it was just a ‘Hi’, others it was a ‘Hi!’ followed by a, ‘Hellooooo??’ followed by a, ‘WHY AREN’T YOU REPLYING TO ME???!’ Then came the unsolicited dick pics….
All of this baffled me – afterall, I already have a personal Facebook profile which has never been the subject of so much attention – for a moment I asked myself if I should be concerned that this was the case, until I gave myself a mental slap around my head and reminded myself that that is INSANE!! I learned quite quickly that I wasn’t the only one – this had started happening to all of the girls in my team. Someone innocently – and I say that because I know they are a caring individual who just wanted to help and aren’t in any way a misogynist – suggested that maybe we could change our profile pictures to a picture of a pet or something that represents the company, because we were pretty and maybe that was the problem. So then I started obsessing over my picture. Was I wearing too much make-up? Was it my expression? Was that glass of wine suggesting I was drunk and up for anything?? Again, I had to remind myself that this was all irrelevant. I chose to leave the picture as it was, and after a while, thankfully, the attention died down, but the bad feeling lingered.
A few months later on a night out, my boyfriend and I witnessed what most of you have probably seen a million times before. A group of girls were having a drink and a dance and a giggle, while trying to brush off the attentions of a couple of sleazy guys who intermittently lurked in a corner staring at them and occasionally popping over to try some awful line on them. The girls did what I expected – they gave apologetic smiles, they made polite but brief comments in reply, they tried pretending they didn’t see them as they danced and tried moving to another location each time they sidled up next to them. After a prolonged period of being rebuffed I noticed the men clearly making offensive gestures at them and started to find myself getting extremely annoyed. My boyfriend, seemed to find it hard to understand why I was allowing it to bother me so much – in his eyes they were clearly assholes, but the girls hadn’t done much to make it clear they weren’t interested – and this is when it all got a bit tense! I found myself infuriated at this – until I realised. He thought this was a one off. He had absolutely no idea that we as girls go through this every time we go out. That it is a rehearsed routine. That we are conditioned to accept this as normal and do what we can to avoid confrontation. He is a kind, well brought up, educated man who believes sexism and harassment is wrong. But his concept of how frequently we experience that was completely skewed. So, in fact, was my own, and I couldn’t really be cross with him for being so blind to this when I’d done exactly the same thing. I have walked around on the planet for my entire adult life accepting this treatment all the while calling myself a feminist and telling myself that sexism hasn’t affected me, and that really needs to change. So I thought perhaps, as I did that night with my boyfriend, I would try to write down just what growing up and forging your way in the world as a woman is like. Here goes…
It’s being completely and utterly used to men in cars with loud music blaring shouting out of windows at you then calling you a slag when you don’t respond (which is the height of irony really, when you think about it). It is awkwardly squirming to try and get away from the man who is standing just that little bit too closely on public transport. It is that panic you feel when you feel something hard against your leg and wonder if it’s his erection. It’s being 14 and having a man in his 50s sit next to you on the bus and whisper that he noticed you looking at him. It’s being told at the age of 12 that you’re frigid because you don’t want to hang out with boys. It’s being told you’re clearly a lesbian because you go to a girl’s school and don’t have a boyfriend. It’s being told you’re leading a guy on because you sat next to him that one time. It’s being pressured into deciding whether or not you’re ‘in a relationship’ with someone after two dates, when they themselves have spent the last 6 months ‘playing the field’. It’s when you have to listen to everyone whisper about how heartless you were when you said no, because he’s sooooo cut up about it. It’s being called a crazy stalker when the tables are turned and you’re the one who was upset about being dumped. It’s getting unsolicited requests from strange men to send pictures of yourself to them for their sexual gratification because they like how you looked in the shoes you posted on your blog. It’s having several previously loved jobs ruined because everyone just can’t stop gossiping about your friendship with the boss. It’s how you can’t just sit alone and read a book in a cafe or a bar or even a bus stop without a guy a guy trying to start up a conversation. It’s being called stuck up bitch when you don’t feel like having the conversation, and once being told he’ll ‘throw you in the canal’ because you asked to be left alone. It’s being told by a guy you’re dating that those are really nice life plans, but we all know you’ll end up not achieving any of them because you’re going to have babies. It’s going to your boyfriend’s work dinner and having a name tag that says ‘Partner of…’ It’s being asked persistently to justify why you don’t want to go out with someone. It’s listening to your male colleagues constantly lie to their wives for no reason about having to work late when we’re all just having an innocent drink, because ‘she’ll kick off if she knew they were enjoying themselves’. It’s when a delivery man shows up and asks you where the boss is, when you are the boss. It’s being irritated at the way men’s stag dos are centred around having fun now, because marriage apparently means an eternity of being nagged at and being miserable. It’s being regularly asked why you haven’t had children yet by other women, then having the same women tell you a few weeks later that you’d be ‘letting the side down’ if you chose not to go back to work when you do. It’s being told you’ll probably have an ok career because you’re pretty. It’s having other girls assume you’re a moron because you happen to like high heels and dresses. It’s that time you got promoted and your male colleagues flat out told you they won’t take orders from a woman. It’s being told you’re over-reacting every time you cry. It’s listening to guys claim they know what sexual harassment is like because a girl in a hen party touched their butt once….
I could go on indefinitely, and I bet the majority of you have experienced the exact same things. We experience them every day and don’t say anything, because it’s ‘normal’. It is so ingrained in everyday life that we barely even notice it anymore. And then when these horrific stories come out of Hollywood we gasp in shock and talk about how awful it is and how we just can’t believe it, but really it should come as no surprise. I’ve been just as guilty as the next person of laughing awkwardly when someone makes an inappropriate joke or making small talk with a guy ‘to be polite’ when I just want to have a catch up with my friends and don’t want to come across as arrogant or rude. We’ve allowed it to become expected that women are there for entertainment. That men have a right to demand attention or a conversation or worse from them. That we don’t really have the right to turn down their advances, that we should be flattered that they view us as having no worth other than sexual gratification. Even to each other, we women have allowed these perceptions to persist by judging each other, competing with each other and berrating each other for choosing different clothes, different jobs and different lifestyles. We’ve normalised it so much that even my wonderful boyfriend, who loves and supports me in everything I do, who thinks I’m capable of achieving anything I want and frequently encourages me to aim higher – seemed sad and shocked when I tried to explain all this to him.
I don’t really know what the answer is. I’m not even sure I know what the point of this post is. But I know I won’t continue to help minimise these everyday situations.
Sorry for the long ass, rambling rant!