I’ve been meaning to write about the #MeToo and the #TimesUp movement for a while, but I wanted to give this blog post the time it deserved rather than churning out something glib and rushed.
Along with pretty much every other woman I know, I shared #MeToo across my social media platforms. I’m lucky in that I’ve never been raped or seriously sexually assaulted. However, what occurred to me was that the incidents of sexual harassment or assault that I have experienced, I had previously assumed were my fault.
When I was 15 I gave my mobile number to a boy called Colin who I met in Leister Square. I didn’t particularly fancy him but, like many teenage girls, I had low self esteem and I was flattered that he asked. I scribbled my down number on a piece of paper and gave it to him. He called me a few days later and left several disturbing voice mails explaining how he wanted to anally rape me. I could hear him masturbating whilst he was talking. Funnily enough, I did not return his call.
Another incident of sexual impropriety that comes to mind was when I was in a gay bar in Soho, aged 27. One would think that a gay bar would be a safe place for straight women to hang out. I found myself in a scrum while queuing at the bar, face to face with an big man who claimed to be a boxer. His friend shouted in my ear that the boxer fancied me. Before I could extricate myself from the crowd the boxer grabbed me, shoved his tongue down my throat and rubbed his erect penis on my thigh. I managed to slip away andI told my friends about it, but did not report the incident to the management of the bar.
What makes me sad is on both these occasions, I assumed that it was my fault, as though giving my number to a boy or being out with my friends in Soho past midnight somehow justified their actions. I just shrugged my shoulders and chalked it up to ‘boys being boys’. It’s possible that the boxer continued to think it was ok to force himself on women and his behaviour may have escalated. I dread to think of how Colin’s pattern of behaviour might have played out. In the future, if a woman is sexually assaulted in a club, my hope is that she will complain to the manager who will will take her seriously and have the man removed by a bouncer.
There are other moments of other harassment that include being followed home or being fondled by a stranger at the gym whilst I was exercising. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I politely rejected a man who then called me a bitch or a whore. If I were to go into every incident this blog post would be thousands of words long. None of these events traumatised me and I had actually forgotten about most of them until the #MeToo movement, when I gave it some thought. However, just because I’ve never been subjected to anything more serious, it doesn’t mean that these incidents should not be called out for what they were.
An incident of sexual misconduct does not need to ruin your life in order for it to be unacceptable and the current wave of change will permanently alter our attitudes to sex and power. I know a number of people who’ve said that it is going too far, that innocent moments of banter or harmless flirting are being taken out of context and the accusations amount to a witch-hunt. This term is a particularly unfortunate choice of words as ‘witch-hunt’ refers to the systematic persecution, torture and murder of women from 1450-1750, when hundreds of thousands of women were executed because they were thought to be witches.
I used to work on a show in West End where there was a lot of flirty banter that most of the company engaged in. On the whole it was harmless and in jest, but I know there were occasions when it went too far and people did feel uncomfortable. At the time it was considered acceptable in that environment, but this has changed. It is clear that moving forward, those rules of engagement will no longer exist. This may be the cost of progress and everyone will just have to move with the times and be ok with it.
There are cases where the lines are blurred and it is difficult to distinguish where misunderstanding merges into assault or misconduct. The accusation of Aziz Ansari by an anonymous woman is a good example of how a signs can be misinterpreted. They went on a date after meeting at an awards ceremony and he apparently misread her ‘verbal and non-verbal signals’. A few commentators have suggested that now #MeToo has gone too far. I would argue that it has yet to go far enough. Do I believe Ansari to be guilty of rape or serious misconduct? No, of course not. But by the sounds of it he behaved badly and he needs to re-consider his behaviour. If all men reassess how they relate to women, in either professional or personal circumstances, then the movement is continuing to do its job and effect change. It is, after all, the small gestures that everyone makes which amount to systemic change.