Throughout the fall of 2017 the hashtag #metoo exploded on social media. It started as small scale hashtag where women noted how they too had been affected by sexual harassment— unnecessary comment and unwarranted attention based off of objectifying women and classifying them as merely sexual beings, rather than considering their intellectual capacity, and their innate abilities, whether it be athletic or artistic. Throughout history women consistently have been disregarded when it comes to their worth as individuals and instead singled out based solely on their sexual attributes. This has most commonly come in the form of unwanted comments, mansplaining, women not being respected and listened to, but the problems correlated with sexist commentary and actions go much deeper than this. Sexual harassment is the basis to all sexual assault as it is the normalizing factor to deeper societal concerns.
The #MeToo hashtag started with actress Alyssa Milano who tweeted:
According to the Atlantic, within 24 hours, it already had been retweeted a half-million times. Women were coming out with their stories of sexual harassment.
Unfortunately, these comments and acts of sexual harassment, along with the sexual assault, have become so normalized that they are often overlooked and disregarded. Women learn to blow comments off, to walk by with their head down when a group of men are gathered on the streets, and sadly, often learn that their sexuality is the manner in which to get ahead
Background of Sexual Harassment
The way in which our culture defines sexual harassment has changed fundamentally over the past decade. The situation often comes down to what has been allowed or tolerated societally at a given time .Just look at the situation involving Harvey Weinstein or any of the other named predators in the United States Congress. Many have simply stated that they had acted in ways that were socially acceptable at the time. Although the idea of harassing a woman will always be “wrong,” there was a pervasive culture of it throughout much of the past. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was no legal standing for a woman to make a claim against their employer for discrimination based on sex. And if you consider that to be “coming late to the party,” it should be noted that India didn’t establish sexual harassment as being illegal until 1997, in the case of Vishakha v State of Rajasthan. Even worse? Kuwait and Djibouti still do not have laws prohibiting sexual harassment.
Each country and correspondingly, each culture handles sexual harassment differently. Currently, there is an enormous American revolution involving men from every end of the spectrum - from Roy Moore to Senator Al Franken - being outed for sexually harassing women. However, there is still a pervasive culture of the concept of women “asking for it” in India. The 2015 documentary “India’s Daughter” showed some of the underlying attitudes towards rape and sexual harassment in India that go on even today. Jyoti Singh was a 23-year-old medical student who was killed following a gang rape on a bus, and the documentary follows the trial of the men who are alleged to have committed the crime. In one scene, one of these men nonchalantly says that if the woman had just gone along with the men, she wouldn’t have died. Shocking in its content, it isn’t surprising that the documentary was banned in India after the Foreign Minister claimed that it “disrespected women.”
The harassment of women is a global pandemic. Within the current context of the United States,, women need to continue to speak out, to confidently pursue their dreams and advocate for themselves. Ultimately then, a large part of the change will be rooted in men beginning to make changes. According to Mashable, five ways men can help be a part of the end of sexual harassment will be: listening to women, men speaking to other men, for men to practice consent-every step of the way, and advocate for better education and prevention. In a world where women have long been sexualized products within a society, it comes down to all members of society to make the change— it is a change for respect, a change for status.
What follows is a selection of personal scenarios that each member of the Sub Stances team has faced in their daily lives
It is a testament to the fact that sexual harassment is so common in our society that at least for me, personally, I often have to consider whether or not I’m normalizing situations where men sexually harass me. The insidious part about sexual harassment is that it happens all the time, and that one particular moment does not, in fact, stick out to me.
Being objectified has come in ways that work their way into everyday habit. In the workplace, a man can treat a female coworker differently than a man, act invasively to impede her own advancement with snide remarks or full-out assault. In daily life, there’s catcalling, inappropriate touching in clubs and unasked for lecherous words thrown at you on the street. For each of us, it happens differently and has its own pitfalls and insecurities that follow.
The first step of initiating change is acknowledging that these situations and scenarios happen to each of us, whether or not we have simply shunted it into the category of ‘these things happen.’ For me, that’s where I am. There are so many things in my past that I can think of as men causing me to feel uncomfortable because of how I was dressed or how I look, but I have difficulty qualifying those as “harassment,” sexual or otherwise. But naming something gives you power over it - and saying that you have been sexually assaulted is not confirming you are a victim, rather it is saying “me too” to the millions of other women so that none of us feel as alone, ever again.
Even now, as a 24 year old, I still hesitate to disclose my experience with sexual harassment. But then I think, what about those young girls who are becoming in the process of becoming a woman? What is supposed to be a time to be celebrated in a woman’s life is likely to be marred with negative commentary, unwanted advances, gross gestures and so forth.
As a daughter raised by a fiercely protective mother and a proudly feminist father, I do believe I grew up in the best environment a girl could. They supported all my endeavors and my education - no matter the societal barriers. If girls weren’t allowed to play a sport, I became the first and my dad stepped up as my coach. I was the only girl on my block growing up, and I was always welcome to participate not because of my sexuality - but because of my skill. I grew up knowing I was valued as a human being.
And as I slowly transformed into a woman, so did my interactions with the outside world. I started becoming valued for what I looked like as opposed to how I could perform. This was further perpetuated by society’s image of what a preteen/teen/young woman should look and act like. And after time, I hate to admit it, I allowed it to become normal. I grew to expect the unwanted looks, the comments, the gestures, etc. I learned how to be both proactive and reactive to these words and actions in order to protect myself. I had to change, not them. This was the reality.
But now, this Me Too movement and The Silence Breakers as Time’s Person of the Year, has the potential to change that. And to be completely honest, I find this movement to be both debilitating, but also empowering. When I realized just how far-reaching sexual harassment extended, it was a crushing blow. It did not matter whether a person was famous or not or even male or female - sexual harassment was an pandemic. That being said, now people are listening and perhaps more importantly, taking action against the accused and not the accuser.
This all has been a whirlwind and I hope it does not enervate nor lose its value as more and more people begin to speak up, and more people step down from their (usually powerful) positions. MeToo has highlighted the inequality that still exists and the very large need for societal improvement.
After Harvey Weinstein was accused of a series of sexual assaults by many actresses, the hashtag MeToo started to spread over social media. The magical world of Hollywood suddenly shook. And more and more allegations of sexual violence followed. Voices have started to be heard on the web, with every day, more women sharing their stories or simply tweeting #MeToo.
I find this MeToo thing to be very positive, but none of this is new, so why now? Why now, and not earlier? I was not surprised at all by the flood of messages I read on Facebook. Of course, women are victims of sexual assaults on an everyday basis. I am, my friends are. And many courageous women have been talking about it for ages. So, was it because of the Hollywood scandals, this girl taking selfies with her catcallers, the launch of the Me Too hashtag, or the election of Donald Trump? I don’t know, but all of this encouraged women to talk and they started to verbalize everything. Finally, voices were being heard. And “now” is better than “later”.
I thought it was just common knowledge but it obviously was not. And it is good that people started to realize how the reality is. I have never been sexually assaulted strictly speaking, but I am objectified far too often. And the saddest part is that I got used to it.
As a woman, you start to be objectified at an early age. Maybe 12. Then it never really stops. You get catcalled in the streets, looked at in really nasty ways, touched inappropriately in clubs, talked to badly if you’re not nice enough, and more. And it is something you learn to live with.
I find it unbelievable that I got “used to it”. I wish I could just not care about it. But I have to admit, I adapt my behaviour in certain situations because I feel uncomfortable, or because I know there is a risk. I consider myself free, free to dress as I wish, free to say what I want, and it is what I often do, but not always. I have developed reactional behaviours to certain situations. I don’t wear short clothes in some neighbourhoods, I try to never walk home alone after a night out, I am extra careful when I travel, I avoid eye contact when being catcalled and I don’t trust strangers too quickly.
What really frustrates me is that there is no instant solution. I am so glad that this Me Too hashtag got so popular, and that no one can ‘ignore’ the reality anymore, but I don’t think things will change that fast. This is all rooted in our societies, and it will take a long time to really, actually change. I see a long-term solution in education, in a change of mindset and attitude; and for women, to stop ‘normalizing’ it, to keep talking and saying things out loud. Sexual harassment is not normal.
The natural state of my body has always drawn attention—being that it falls into the box of sexual aesthetics society pushes into our everyday lives through the media, marketing, and in recent years, social media. During my years of early womanhood there was a part of me that found it complimentary— comments and sexuality validated my own self-confidence and sense of womanhood. Unnecessary comments walking down the street, flirtatious texts from boys I would never pursue were band-aids to my own insecurities. My identity throughout my teenage years became largely tied to how those around me thought of my body, and while it was athletics that largely kept me looking a certain way, I was also fond of attention that the world around me gave me. Undoubtedly, it was not rooted in authenticity but rather my own self confidence being based on externalities, outside thoughts, and was certainly not built internally. My world, like many young people, was largely shaped by what outsiders thought of me, how attractive people thought I was, and what status I held in their eyes. Ultimately, a part too large, of my own identity became tied to my ability to sexually appeal, my athletic performances, and external achievements. Sadly, a large quantity of these achievements were marked when I felt validated by sexual comments, inappropriate glances, and being objectified.
As I entered my first year of undergraduate schooling, my father sat me down and praised me for my academic successes, my work ethic, but then commented on my choice of attire. It is a conversation I will never forget. I remember feeling livid. How could I be victimized, yet also be at fault for the times when a man commented on the shape of my body or the attire I wore? I was aggravated at my father for calling it a lack of respect, when I indeed had thought I did respect my body (far more than people shoving McDonald’s down their throats), and I certainly did respect myself when it came to how I confidently carried myself in school and in my sports. However, along with this agitated feeling of guilt, even though I was not at fault for being a women, I had also realized that too much of my self “confidence” was vested in what other people thought about me. At 18, I was a product of the media, a product built from the world around me, and so much that I believed it too.
To this day this is a struggle I have both with myself, but also with society—because I should be able to acquire respect as a woman regardless of how I dress, but then again, where did this societal pressure for women to adhere to a set of norms even appear? Why did I feel obligated as a 14 year old to wear pencil skirts that accentuated by waist and buttocks? Why did I feel obligated to wear heels and a shirt that exposed part of my chest? Throughout my years of developing who I am as a woman I have come to deeply respect, and cherish myself for everything I am, from my thoughts and opinions as well as my love for health and exercise.
Six years later, my dad visited me, this fall while working in the Southern Bronx. He came to see where I work as a teacher, and because I run to and from work, as we left, I was clad in my running shorts. As we were walking my dad had noticed people looking at me, occasionally people saying things about my legs, and similar to years former, my dad said I should watch what I wear, especially in the area I am working in. This time, my response was different. I said “no.” I am a woman. I am dressed in running shorts because I usually run home, but regardless of what I am wearing, that is for me. This time it was not a me problem, it is a them problem. I am not asking for this attention. It is not validating, but rather unwanted, and destructive. I told my dad no because I will run in what I want to run in, because it is not a clothing problem, it is a lens problem. The problem lies in the lens of how men see women and women see other women.
It dawned on me that my 18 year old self, like many teenagers are fueled by what the world around us thinks, how men, and other women fuel the notion that women must be sexual looking beings and that is our objective. Women buy into this. Men buy into it. And sadly, young women, teenagers constructing their identity, buy into this. Women, are beautiful by nature— but we are also smart, artistic, loving, and gifted beyond measure. The problem has never been the clothing, rather the problem has always been what other people think they can say to women, and that first and foremost women are looked at as sexual beings, rather than ones of depth. The problem, more than anything, is that women come to believe it. We come without real conscience believing that we are first figures that must portray ourselves sexually before we are anything else. Womanhood itself is defined in our society by two parallels, yet distinct narratives—sexuality and motherhood, both of which should never be sole definers of what is means to be a woman.
My 18 year old self was part of this spinning wheel that silently fueled the problem by application and letting men say unwarranted comments. It was not my attire that changed, but the respect I had for myself. My 24 year old self respects me, and all woman too much to not say anything. The only way this changes is by women lifting women, and men valuing women for more than what is on the surface. When society is constructed not by a man, or not by a woman, but rather by those looking to delve deeper, by those looking for a world built on a foundation of respect, that is when this world will be a better place.
Being a 24 year old who has put in the time to build my intrinsic values and esteem, my worry again is casted out into society. I live in New York City. There is not a day I do not experience catcalls. But contrary, and parallel to this notion, I am surrounded by women who are thinkers, who are doers, and who are not here on behalf of men, but on behalf of themselves and making this place a better one for each generation (regardless of their sex) to come. The problem will never be how a woman carries herself, but the answer will always be in how we as individuals—men, women, and citizens lift one another, how we stop people from catcalling, how we listen fully, and how we choose consent. After all, this world cannot be its best world, unless all citizens are empowered and respected as their full entities —mind and body.
We hope that this MeToo movement does not lose momentum. As women hailing from all over the world, we demand better. We are entitled to the same rights as our male counterparts. We deserve to be treated equally as human beings and to be able to live and to work without fear of being harassed. Our voices matter - they are not to be silenced. Let us make this, the new normal.
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