Warning: this piece refers and talks about sexual harassment with some detail. Further, I refer to men nearly consistently as the aggressor in this paper and women as the victim, but would like note that this is not always the case, as men can just as easily be and often are the target of sexual assault and harassment (statistics show that 79% of victims are women, 21% are men). As well, most of my statistics solely regard the United States, due to the fact that there has been a great amount of data collected there on this topic.
My mother raised me traveling from the second I was born, running off to Egypt, Greece, Turkey, France, England, Mexico with just a small child and a backpack. I was always so happy when traveling with my mom, constantly receiving free food with strangers acting out of generosity and kindness; but never truly noticed the constant harassment that my mother faced as a white, unmarried American women. She was expected to provide something in exchange for all the hospitality (unwanted attention) from strange men in markets and on the streets and in the places where we stayed, leading us to have to hop from hotel to hotel, escaping the men who would touch her inappropriately during Turkish baths, appear at our door in the middle of the night, talk to her as if she was an item to be purchased. “You are a woman and therefore they believe they have access,” she once explained to me, teaching me that as a woman I will not receive the same opportunities or treatment or safety as men in an identical situation.
When I moved to Jordan after high school, I was warned by my family for my safety, with strict instructions not to walk around at night or talk to strangers, or really any men in general. I barely left my apartment except to go to work for the first month of my trip, out of pure fear. The first time I walked to the office, a three miles journey mostly along the highway, I was met with cars honking at me every ten seconds in attempt to scare me or get my attention, and stares that bore into my skull by every man I passed by. Every time I go traveling alone, I know I have to be careful. I hear stories about people hitchhiking through the countryside in the Caucuses and Western Africa and as much as I want to do that, I know that I will never be able to, at least not by myself. I do not believe that women should stay at home and hide from any potential conflict (I write while traveling through Asia by myself) but I’m also so naïve as to go into small villages where rape is common and women are treated as inferior. This is not about a lack of bravery, it is about safety.
I am lucky. Actually, no I’m not, but the fact that I believe that nothing “too bad” has happened to me yet shows the mindset instilled in women now; that unless you’re brutally raped or murdered, you are essentially lucky. We say that things are improving for women because people are becoming more aware, with Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, the #MeToo movement and the general recent onslaught of prominent men being ousted for their behavior. But the fact that the women who came out against these men are still being called liars and publicity whores, that when I told my friend about sexual harassment statistics he said “but you don’t know how many of those are made up,” and that men still do not understand that they are not owed sex in any context, demonstrates that things are not that much better than before – just better hidden.
Things may be getting better, but that doesn’t mean they are good.
We have become apologists for male behavior, blaming ourselves for putting out the wrong signals, or saying that they just didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong. Me, my mother, and women and general, have become so accustomed to harassment, that we excuse it now as a part of life. Men reaching up my skirt in my apartment elevator in New York, employers inappropriately touching me, older men utilizing unequal power dynamics to create sexual situations, waking up with bruises in somebody’s bed after drinking a little too much, boys holding me down with threats of “telling” if I don’t comply, being fingered while asleep, having boys beg for sexual attention because they believe they deserved it, tongues being stuck down my throat at hostels as I begged “please stop” – and those are just some of my personal experiences, not including any of the horror stories that I have heard from so many friends and family. According to RAINN, there are 321,500 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault on average each year in the United States. One in three women ages 18 to 34 has been sexually harassed at work, and one in six women will experience attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. At this point, when talking to a woman about sexual assault, it’s more surprising to me if they don’t have a similar story to share.
Most of the time, I hear about men using coercive or manipulative tactics for sex, believing that they are owed something, not understanding that this is a form of sexual harassment in itself. In fact, 13.3% of college women indicate that they have been forced to have sex in a dating situation, which is often not immediately thought of as assault. Rather than getting angry with men for actions that they aren’t aware of as harassment or assault, we should instead teach them. Next time somebody shames you or manipulates you or guilts you into sex, explain to them why this is unacceptable. This isn’t easy, and I admit that I don’t usually do this. It’s not easy to tell somebody that you don’t want to have sex, maybe because you don’t want to offend them, or because you think they’ll like you less, or because you don’t think you have a choice in the matter, or because you feel unsafe. But if we do not speak out in these situations then it will continue to happen and the cycle will never cease. Of course it’s not just up to the women; men, please be aware that you are not entitled to sex because you bought us dinner or a drink, or smiled at you affectionately, or touched your arm. And don’t resort to “negging” if rejected; bullying women out of insecurity will not fix anything and instead reinforces the belief that we can’t say no. In many ways, being aware of what you are doing is more difficult, as you may not know necessarily what behavior you are looking for. This is why we need better education systems in regards to sexual conduct. And while I appreciate that at least in the US there have been substantive changes in schools from elementary to college in order to prevent sexual harassment, there is so much more still to be done.
Sexual harassment often stems from gender roles instilled at a societal level, as women are socialized to be submissive in sexual situations. We are taught that we shouldn’t say no, that it’s unattractive to be aggressive or outspoken, and that while women should and can be leaders, they need to maintain their femininity and subservience in order to be successful. If you disagree, look at the 2016 election and the fact that our very own President encourages half the population to just “grab ‘em by the pussy.”
Most men are also taught from birth that they need to be aggressive and take charge, that women like a “bad boy,” and that you’re a “cuck” if you ask for consent. There needs to be a change in how we raise our children in regards to these gender roles, or else nothing will change. In schools, women are still taught not to be overly flirty, or else you will give men the wrong idea, taught that if you dress too provocatively you’re “asking” for assault, and that it’s only strangers to be weary of, when in eight out of ten rape cases the victim knows the perpetrator. A more open dialogue and a change in the language used is necessary or else these issues will continue to arise, no matter how many more men are exposed for sexually inappropriate behavior.
Let’s talk about Woody Allen. The concept of separating men’s sexual behavior from the work they have done or people they are otherwise confuses me; yes, we should not write off everything somebody has accomplished because they groped a woman, or masturbated in front of her, but we need to take it into account when evaluating them as a person. I remember the first time I told my (male) friends about being harassed by a mutual friend, and them defending this behavior by saying, “yeah, but he tells a different story, plus he’s never done anything to me so I still think he’s a great guy.” “He’s just joking around,” “it’s a different culture,” “he just had a little too much to drink,” “he’s not usually like this,” – too often, accounts of assault are met with doubt and defensiveness, justification and oftentimes anger. Women are not prone to telling stories of sexual assault just for the fun of it, for the attention; we know the skepticism with which it will be received. In 2016, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 12,860 receipts of sexual harassment in the workplace, 54.1% of which were dismissed as “no reasonable cause,” meaning that enough proof was not found to prove that discrimination occurred.
The American system of “innocent until proven guilty” can be problematic here, as sexual harassment is on occasion nearly impossible to verify. Even though every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, only 6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison. This is exactly why is it so necessary for the mindset to change on this issue; instead of immediately doubting women and attempting to discredit them (such as calling Anita Hill “a little bit slutty and a little bit nutty” after her testimony against Clarence Thomas), we must genuinely attempt to find the truth. This does not entail always believing the accuser, as of course there are outliers, but we need to address the systemic disbelief and accusation that disincentivizes so many women from speaking out.
As Rhe-Anne Tan perfectly explained, “There is a deep complexity in defining a movement that is so personal and so tied to individual hurt – it’s both systemic and also deeply personal, and this prevents people from engaging with the usual detachment that they afford other issues. This is also what makes reconciling different branches all the more difficult, since positions are held so viscerally and strongly. To disagree with someone’s position is almost equated to invalidating their lived experience, their own existence as a female. Whether or not that’s valid is up for debate, but in the interim it’s clear that we need to respond with compassion and openness to change (which is easier said than done), because the temptation is to talk over the experiences of others.”
I had a hesitancy to write this and especially to use personal examples, as there is an inherent fear in not only opening up, but to being called a liar or too aggressive or that I am just looking for attention. The reason I’m writing this is because these are issues that need to be more publicly and openly talked about, and I want people to understand that sexually inappropriate behavior is not limited to just rape, but a whole list of other more subtle and often confusing experiences. Not all men are guilty of sexual harassment, but instead of getting defensive and saying that you’re one of the “good ones,” perhaps looks back at your actions and re-evaluate, and see if “#you too” were ever slightly too pushy, or could have handled a sexual situation with a little more consideration.
In this New Year, reconsider your resolutions. Women need to continue to lead the change for a different power dynamic, but men also need to make an enormous effort to create a different future, one where women do not need to be afraid.