Me Too: Why We Need to Keep Talking About Sexual Assault and Harassment

If you have been active on social media lately, you might have become aware of the fact that every feed, dashboard, and home page has become an endless scroll of heartbreak. You sign on, and you receive an awful punch to the gut as you realize just how freaking common sexual assault and harassment is, all by reading those two little words that actress Alyssa Milano encouraged all those who have experienced it to post:

Me too.

Nearly every woman who I’m friends with or following on social media has posted it, and some men have as well. I have seen it posted by close friends, family, and people who I haven’t spoken to since high school. In some cases, it wasn’t a surprise, and in some cases, it was.

And all of a sudden, I find myself transported back to the first time that I realized sexual assault and harassment wasn’t just a horror that existed; it was commonplace. Back to being thirteen years old and discovering the statistic that one in four North American women would report being sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Back to telling a group of my three closest friends this statistic, and upon doing so, having it strike me for the first time that, if this was true, then chances were that one of us would be assaulted at some point in our lives. These were girls that I cared about too. Close friends of mine who I didn’t ever hope to see get hurt, not in any shape, way, or form.

This was a pivotal moment in my life, because it was in that moment that I first realized just how astounding this statistic is. And the thing is, the statistic isn’t even where it ends. It is estimated that for every 100 rapes that occur, only 6 are reported to the police. I have known women who were raped, and then discouraged from seeking police involvement because it was her word against his and they didn’t think that they would be able to do anything with that. I have known women who were raped by their boyfriends, and then didn’t seek legal involvement because they cared about him, or because they didn’t realize at the time that what had happened really was rape. I have known people who were raped and then didn’t come forward because they didn’t want to deal with the shame that would inevitably follow.

In short, I have known too many people who have been raped. And none of these people even count toward the statistic of ‘one in four’. So, yeah, to this statistic that caused me such horror when I was thirteen years old, I call bullshit; the number is much, much higher than that.

And that’s just rape. This “me too” hashtag encompasses much more than that; it includes sexual harassment as well, like being groped without consent, having others make obscenely sexual comments toward us, or being offered unwelcome “rewards” (like raises, or a job) in exchange for sexual favours (etc.). And it seems like every woman has a story to tell in this regard, even if she hasn’t been sexually assaulted.

Let me take this moment to offer my own “me too” to this discussion.

So what do we do with this information? Right now, the internet is over saturated with “me too”s, but what do we do about that?

Well, personally, I think that this whole “me too” hashtag is actually starting us off in a good direction: we need to talk about it.

And I understand; not every survivor of sexual assault or harassment necessarily wants to talk about it right now. PTSD is a real and terrible issue that should be considered in all this, and nobody should feel pressured to talk about a trauma that they aren’t ready to discuss.

But, that being said, societally, we need to start talking about this, and we need to talk about it now. This isn’t just some horror that we hear about on the news; some senseless tragedy that we can’t understand but will never touch us in our cozy little lives. This does affect us. This affects every single one of us, in one way or another, whether you’re the survivor, or you’re the person who chooses not to hear the survivor out because you just don’t want to admit that there’s a problem. Either way, we’re all involved.

We need to start educating our children on consent. We need to start telling our boys that their worth doesn’t come from dominating others, or that they’re any weaker or less manly because they were assaulted. We need to start telling our girls that it doesn’t matter what they were wearing, or if they were drinking, or where they were at the time; they still didn’t deserve it, and they still deserve justice, or at least the right to feel safe in public.

We need to stop doubting survivors when they come forward. We need to listen to their stories when they try to speak out. We need to encourage others to come forward, and we need to create a safe space for them.

And this “me too” hashtag is a great idea, if for no other reason than that we can’t log onto social media without coming across it right now. It breaks my heart to see how many people have dealt with all this, because I wish we lived in a world where people (and predominately women, femme, or female-identifying people) felt safe to go out in public, or go to work, or even take the fucking bus. But at the same time, this hashtag is a great method of forcing us to realize just how common this issue is, how it has affected so many. It helps us to realize that we aren’t alone in all this, and that’s a wonderful thing for people who have been silenced (which many survivors have) by society.

But at the same time, I hope that this conversation won’t end with this hashtag. It’s great that we’re talking, but we need to keep talking; we need to keep drawing attention to the issue. Because only by spreading awareness and continuing the discussion can we enact real change.

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The Objectification of Men

Recently, Suistudio launched the campaign #NOTDRESSINGMEN in order to advertise their line of business suits created for women. The images that have been released for this campaign are, in some ways, fairly standard for this sort of product: two people, one dressed head-to-toe in a suit and standing in a position of power and domination, the other posed provocatively, their identity meaningless, their body completely on display. Now, this is an image that we have seen before – many, many times, in fact. Yet, there is one thing about this campaign that not only makes it different, but has caused plenty of controversy, and that is the fact that a woman is placed in a position of power, while a male model is the one being sexualized and objectified.

There are many who have taken to social media to show their disagreement with this campaign, despite the fact that these images are not entirely new. In fact, it is nearly common for us to see the genders reversed. In many advertisements, women are depicted as sexual objects, to the point where we barely even think about it anymore. We’re used to the images of big-breasted women with their heads tipped back and their lips parted. All the time, we see men standing squarely facing the camera, their stances strong, their jaws locked, their power confirmed. This is the language of our media, and we speak it fluently.

But at the same time, the majority of comments that I have seen disagreeing with the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign have not been upset with it because it dares to reverse the gender roles; rather, they disagree with it because they know that this is an injustice that society already does to women all the time, and they don’t think that it’s right to spread this injustice to men as well.

As one Instagram commenter said, “If it was the other way around with the woman on the couch and man above her, feminist groups would jump and criticise. This double standard needs to end.”

Some people have accused this campaign of “making feminism look bad”, turning it into a movement of women who merely want to dominate and control men, rather than being about equal rights. And is this what the campaign is doing? Are these images trying to destroy the patriarchy and replace it with a matriarchy?

Well, the way I see it, my opinion on this campaign rests heavily on the campaign’s intent.

On the one hand, it is very possible that the commenters are correct, and the purpose of this campaign is not necessarily to challenge anything, but rather, to use the accepted language of our media to convey the age-old message, but with the genders swapped. And, in fact, many of the images do seem to be indicating that.

The reason why we often see men standing firm and square-jawed, staring directly at the camera, is because the image is very clearly trying to convey a message, and that message is very connected with gender: he is strong. He is capable. He can do whatever he needs to do, and he can do it without wrinkling his suit or breaking an expression. It just so happens, all of these tend to be masculine traits, and I don’t think that’s incidental. Similarly, when we see women lounging out over objects without much of anything on, that too is meant to convey a message: she is passive, but sexually available. When we see women compared to or used in place of objects, then that is the ultimate passivity: she isn’t even a person, she’s just a thing, waiting around to be used by whoever shows up and wants her.

So when we see the same poses used but the genders reversed, the messages don’t really change, although the gender roles might be challenged. But, still, the photographer is relying on a specific language, one that the viewer will undeniably be familiar with, to convey a message. And the message really isn’t okay. End of day, whether it’s a man or a woman being objectified, the message is that they aren’t really a person. They’re a sexy object, a thing that can be used and disposed of. And not only that, but in both cases, a specific language is being used to convey the message of ‘sexy’ as well; only one body type is displayed, because the viewer will automatically connect that body type to sex appeal. And when that happens, then that dismisses all other body types as being even potentially accepted by society.

So, essentially, if the intent behind this campaign was to rely upon a harmful language that feminism is, in fact, trying to combat, all so that they could convey to their presumably female audience that this company’s suits will make them powerful and alluring to men, then that is not okay.

But there is one other possible intent that this campaign might have, one that I am more comfortable with accepting: the intent to challenge the majority of media.

As I have mentioned, advertisers have made use of sexualizing and objectifying women for decades in order to make their product look somehow superior, and one thing that I think many commenters are forgetting when they show their distaste for the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is that it is only one campaign. It is not an entire industry, meaning that women are not quite at the precipice of taking over the world quite yet. And, more than that, campaigns that rely on switching societal roles are released all the time with the intent of showing just how unfair our society really is.

For example, in 2004, the Disability Rights Commission released a short film called “Talk”, which follows an able-bodied man who suddenly wakes up in a world designed for the new majority, people with disabilities. Another short film, entitled “Love Is All You Need”, takes place in a world where homosexuality is the norm, and heterosexuality is looked down upon as “weird” and “unnatural”.

There are many issues in our society that are sometimes difficult for us to wrap our heads around – not because we never experience them, but because we experience them everyday. They are normal to us, so we don’t even second-guess them. And the purpose of media like “Talk” and “Love Is All You Need” is to try to point out just how wrong our society is. It forces able-bodied people to imagine, not what it would be like to be disabled, but what it would be like to live with the stigma of disability. It forces heterosexual people to imagine what it would be like if they couldn’t safely take their partners home to meet their parents, or hold hands with them in public.

And, maybe, the intent behind the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is not to create a new norm, but rather, to force us to question the old one, to make us realize that the over-sexualizing and objectification of women is wrong by forcing us to see it from a new perspective. And, I mean, while I said that there was plenty of evidence in the photographs to suggest the other intention, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest this as well. The photographs, after all, are overly sexual, and overly objectifying, even going so far as to intentionally remove the man’s face from the images, as though to completely remove his identity and force the viewer to look at him only as an object – a body without a soul.

Now, what the company’s actual intent was is difficult to decipher. They have not made any attempt to comment either way, although Suistudio has confessed to intending controversy. Besides that, I suppose that the viewer can merely take what they want from the campaign: are they a frightening image of a new sort of objectification, or an isolated incident intending only to make us question our past and present?

The Difference Between Catcalling and Complimenting

A while back, I made the comment that catcalling is linked to misogyny, perhaps without adequately explaining myself. In response to this, I had someone tell me something that I’d heard before, something that I frequently hear used to explain and excuse catcalling:

“Catcalling is not about misogyny. Catcalling is a compliment.”

I thought about this comment today, when I was catcalled on my way to the gym.

Now, my walk to the gym is not a particularly long one – about ten minutes on a nice day, which today was. I was coming up on the gym’s parking lot, when I noticed a man standing a little bit ahead of me, watching me. Once I got close enough for him to speak to me, he yelled out, “look at this sexy lady with her awesome hair!” I half-smiled, already offended by a complete stranger referring to me as a ‘sexy lady’, but I kept walking, not wanting to start anything. He continued to follow me, yelling at me all the way through the gym’s parking lot, and though I stopped listening at a certain point, I heard enough to know that he compared my hair to his underwear.

Walking ahead of me was a man that I had seen at the gym before, though we had never really spoken. He kept glancing back at me, as though to make sure that the man who was following me never crossed any lines. I was grateful for him and his presence there, because I was fully prepared to yell at him to get help or call the police if it got to that point. As it was, I was just trying to ignore the man, just trying to get to the gym where I knew there would be people and I would be safe.

Sure enough, the man stopped following and yelling at me once I got to the gym.

This is not even the first time that something like this has happened to me. And I know for a fact that I am not the only woman who has experienced this.

And the thing is, I have been complimented before. I know what compliments are, and I know how they make me feel. Truth be told, my hair is pretty unique, so I receive so many compliments on it that my coworker has joked that I should take a shot every time I do.

I have been told by many strangers on the street that they “like my hair”, and then they either move on or start a polite conversation with me, which I am happy to continue. That is a compliment.

I have been told before that my hair reminds them of Storm from the 1980’s X-Men comics, and that since she’s pretty badass, I must be pretty badass too. That is a compliment.

I have heard these from women, and I have heard these from men. These do not offend me. These are not the comments that I am calling out when I say that catcalling is linked to misogyny. But this was not what the man was doing as I was walking to the gym.

Because the distinction here is how I feel coming out of these two scenarios. And perhaps this is part of the reason why so many people get ‘catcalling’ and ‘complimenting’ confused: it is difficult to comprehend the way that one party feels when they come out of a scenario, especially if you do not take note of the grimace and the quickened pace that they are intentionally hiding to protect themselves.

Because when I receive a compliment, it makes me feel happy. I come away a little bit lighter, a little bit more proud of how I look. It endears me to the one who complimented me, because they went out of their way to be polite and make me feel good about myself. They didn’t cross any lines. They didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. They just wanted to let me know that they liked something about me, and that was their sole intention.

When I am catcalled, I feel uncomfortable. I feel violated and a little unsafe. I might know logically that this man is not going to attack me, but I make sure that I don’t do anything that might displease or encourage him, like telling him to fuck off (which, by the way, is what I want to do), because there is a part of me that is worried that this man might actually hurt me. When I am catcalled, I do not want to continue a conversation with this man. I do not want anything to do with him. All that I want is to make sure that I am in a safe space, surrounded by kindly people with access to phones.

And I cannot imagine that those who catcall intend it as a compliment, because they have to know that the things they are saying and doing cross lines. I cannot see how a man can  meet a woman in broad daylight, out in public, knowing absolutely nothing about who she is or why she’s there, then instantly describe her as sexy (not beautiful, not pretty; sexy) and not expect her to bristle. I cannot see how a man can follow a woman across a parking lot, yelling anything at her, and not expect her to quicken her pace. And I most certainly cannot see how a comparing a woman’s hair to the man’s underwear is even flattering.

The purpose of catcalling is not to compliment; the purpose is to sexualize. The purpose is to establish that he is a great, big, impressive heterosexual, cis-gendered man who can say anything he wants to the small, delicate, passive, submissive presumed heterosexual and presumed cis-gendered woman. If she is not flattered by it, or if she does not accept it, then she is a bitch, quite possibly one who deserves harm done to her (and this is why so few women challenge catcalling when we are faced with it; not because we are secretly charmed by it and playing coy). If the purpose of catcalling was to compliment, then it would not turn into threats and insults at any point, but it commonly does. I can attest to this, as a woman who have had men scream “fuck you” to me for no other reason that walking on the street in broad daylight.

Catcalling does not take notice of the woman who feels threatened by it. Catcalling does not even take notice of the woman as a person. Catcalling is not meant to make the woman feel good about herself; quite the opposite, really. Catcalling is meant to make the woman feel like she could have avoided this harassment if she had dressed a little bit more conservatively, while it makes the man feel that much more masculine, having publicly proven his aggressive heterosexuality to everyone.

When I say that catcalling is linked to misogyny, I am not at all saying that a man cannot tell a woman that he likes her hair or her eyes or her smile without it being offensive; that is not even remotely the case. Catcalling is linked to misogyny because the men who do it do not realize and do not care that the woman in question is a person, or that she feels threatened by him; they merely feel entitled to a certain level of power over the woman, the power to say and do anything they want without question. Catcalling is linked to misogyny because it contributes to women feeling unsafe in the streets, which lends to this cultural idea that women should not be allowed to go in certain spaces, at certain times, with a certain amount of company or dressed in a certain way, because if they violate any of this, then clearly they are ‘asking’ for ‘something’ to happen to them.

There is a difference between approaching someone respectfully, and following them and/or yelling things at them that make them feel unsafe and demeaned as a human being; that is the difference between complimenting and catcalling. And personally, I find it surprising when people do not seem to understand the distinction between these two approaches. Because, to me, as a woman, the difference seems stark. There is absolutely nothing wrong with treating someone as your equal, walking up to them, and verbally appreciating something about their physical appearance. In fact, this is something that we should do more often, because it makes people feel good about themselves, and we don’t have enough of that in our society. But if you are making them feel uncomfortable, if you are clearly crossing lines and/or reducing them to a sexual object rather than a person, then it is no longer a compliment, and it is no longer about them. At that point, it is entirely about you, and your entitlement to be heard taking precedence over their comfort.

The Status of ‘Woman’

Sometimes I wish that I could escape the status of ‘woman’.

I don’t necessarily wish that I could be a man, or any other gender. That isn’t what I’m trying to say. I’m satisfied with the gender that I was born into it, at least enough that I have no problem being referred to by it.

What I mean is, I wish that I could do something publicly, pretty much anything, without having multiple men try and hit on me, or reduce me to my physical appearance. I wish that, every once in a while, I could just be intelligent, rather than ‘hot’ or ‘ugly’.

I wish that, when these men hit on me, they would take me seriously when I say “no”.

I wish that I could make a statement about something without being told that I was a bitch or deserving of some sort of violence. I wish that I could believe in my own rights without being accused of hating men.

I wish that, when I explained things that I’ve studied and researched, people would just take it for granted that I was right. I wish that, when I explained things, men wouldn’t explain them back to me as though I didn’t know what I was talking about.

I wish that I was the one with a ‘bright future’ ahead of me, rather than Brock Turner. Instead, when people look into my future, all they seem to see is babies. They tell men that they have a glorious career ahead of them, and they tell me that I’ll someday have to put aside my passions in order to raise a family that I’ve said, time and time again, I don’t want.

I wish that, if I were raped by a man, they would listen to my voice, rather than take his side without question. I wish that they wouldn’t automatically assume the worst of me, and the best of him.

I wish that I always had the final say in what happened to my body, even if I was pregnant. Even if I decided that I never wanted to get pregnant.

I wish that I took myself seriously. I wish that I could say things with confidence, with the knowledge that I was allowed to have an opinion, and that there were, in fact, many things that I knew how to do better than the average person. I wish that I knew how to express the entitlement that I’ve seen in many heterosexual, cis-gendered men. I wish that society hadn’t beaten that out of me.

I wish that there weren’t people out there who would reduce me to my genitals, or my body.

These are the things that simply make being a woman exhausting.

I am a woman. And I think I speak for all women when I say that that should not diminish who we are. Being women that should not mean that we are taken any less seriously, or that our future is paved in stone by the biological urges we are expected to have.

Because, before we are women, we are people. We are as diverse as any group – intelligent and ignorant and courageous and cowardly and emotional and stoic and nurturing when we need or when we want to be. Our gender does not dictate who we are as people. Just as a man’s gender does not dictate who he is as a person.

And we as a society need to stop seeing gender, first and foremost, when we interact with others. There are too many other things that we can be.

The Threats and Harassment Women Face Online

Before I started talking about feminism and feminist issues on the internet, I’d heard horror stories from the women that did.

I think that we’re all aware that the internet can be a very polarizing place, and the possibility of anonymity can sometimes bring out the worst in people. People say things that they might not necessarily mean, or things that they would never actually say to someone face-to-face, just because they can get away with it when they’re hidden behind a username.

But that being said, there is a very specific pattern when it comes to the type of threats that are given to a specific type of woman.

This morning, I awoke to find a comment left on one of my articles, where I talked about the dangers that are present in over-sexualizing a woman’s body (the comment has since been deleted, for I did not want to risk the wrong person coming upon it). In this article, I mentioned that I developed early, and felt uncomfortable with my body because at the tender age of twelve, I thought that the people around me would view me as a sexual object as a result. The commenter started out by assuring me that the men in my family did in fact get aroused by the sight of me as a child. He then proceeded to graphically describe a rape scene, wherein I was the victim. I did not read the full comment, for the first half of it made me feel sick.

Now, I do not know this man, and more importantly, he does not know me. He does not know if I am, in fact, a rape survivor. He does not know if his graphic details will trigger me or send me into a panic attack, and he does not care. The commenter in question does not see me as a person, merely as an empty vessel on the other side of his computer screen, and yet he tells me that I deserve to be raped because I dared to proclaim myself proudly as a feminist.

And the funny thing about this comment is that, about a year ago, I had told myself that I would never speak out about feminism despite identifying privately as a feminist, because I knew the sort of threats that feminists face regularly.

When the online forum the Guardian examined comments that have been blocked by their writers, they found that eight of the ten writers who received the most blocked comments were women who had been harassed, mocked, and threatened for talking about gendered issues – including, yes, threats of rape.

Feminist author and columnist Jessica Valenti was forced to take a break from social media when she found that she couldn’t handle the constant threats of rape and death that were targeted toward her five-year-old daughter.

Feminist writers are not the only women who receive threats of rape or even murder for speaking out about feminism either. In Australia, the University of Queensland came up with the idea of doing a bake sale to raise awareness for gender inequality in the workplace, particularly the wage gap, which somehow prompted an onslaught of cyber bullying directed toward those arranging the bake sale, including comments such as, “females are fucking scum, they should be put down as babies” and “I want to rape these feminist c*nts with their f*cking baked goods”.

Heck, the year that I started taking classes on gender studies at my university, a university neighbouring my own, the University of Toronto, received online threats that some unknown assailant would walk into classes teaching gender studies with a gun and began shooting any feminist they saw. I still remember that first day of gender studies, sitting in my seat and glancing nervously at the door, hoping that the gunman wouldn’t decide to come to my school instead.

So, please, tell me again how rape is about pent-up sexuality, because I have heard it used, again and again, as a threat alongside violence and death to try to establish dominance over me and women like me when we speak up.

Before I started talking about feminism, I told myself that I would never talk about it in public, because I didn’t want to face these threats of rape and violence that feminists live with. But that is the entire intention behind these comments. These comments are not made because the women who receive them deserve them. These comments are made because the women who receive them have stood up and said something that they believe in. They have stated that there is a problem within society that needs to be fixed, but the thing about this problem is that there is an audience that doesn’t want to fix it. Maybe they don’t see it as a problem, or they simply don’t want to admit that they’re wrong, but the fact of the matter is they get offended whenever a woman speaks up and tries to change this patriarchal society that we live in. So their response is to try to silence them, to make them feel uncomfortable and unsafe until they shut up and stop trying to fix the problem.

These threats of rape and violence on the internet are not meaningless “trolls” just having a laugh. These are men who genuinely want women to stop fighting for equal rights. These are men who hate having their view of the world challenged so much that they would rather tell a woman that he never met that she deserves to be raped or killed.

And I don’t think I even have to say that nobody deserves that.

So to the women that receive these threats: keep doing what you are doing. I know it may be scary, or triggering, or unfair, but you are a strong woman who deserves to see the day where a women can speak up and not be threatened for it. And the only way we will achieve that day is by fighting for it.

To the women who will not speak up because they are afraid of these threats, I understand your fear. You are not wrong to feel it, but find comfort in the fact that these men are bullies, hiding behind their computer screen in an effort to perpetuate an outdated ideal of what women should be. They think that we should be silent and passive, when that is not what we are. And, hopefully, you will someday feel safe to speak up.

And, lastly, to the men who make these comments, please ask yourself why you feel justified in doing it. What is it about women who fight for their own equality that makes you so angry? What is it about feminists that makes you forget that they are people, with thoughts and feelings and families and experiences? And the next time that you go to write such a comment to a woman who you have not met, who is merely trying to argue her perspective and change the world for the better, stop and ask yourself if you would ever say this to a woman face-to-face with a sound conscience.