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 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.

Why Do We Bother Fighting?

Quite often, I write and I talk about issues surrounding social justice. And, as you might have guessed, that’s because I care about these issues. I care to see women receive the same rights that men take for granted. I care to see people of colour enjoy the privileges that many white people aren’t even aware that they have. I care that anyone at all, be they gay or bisexual, transgender, disabled, neurodivergent, or whatever the case may be, is able to exist within this society feeling safe and loved and accepted. All of this matters to me.

But because I talk about these issues often enough, I’ve come across a person or two who offers me this question: Why? Do I really think that I’m going to make a difference? Is pointing out that a specific train of thought is sexist really going to stop people from thinking that way? All of these issues that I fight to bring light to – racism, sexism, homophobia, heteronormativity, ableism, etc. – are all so deeply ingrained in our culture that I can’t even really expect it to change. So why bother, right?

Shouldn’t we just give up? Shouldn’t we just accept that the world is flawed and move on with our lives? Wouldn’t that make things easier for everybody?

Well, speaking from personal experience, I have to say – no, it wouldn’t make things any easier. In fact, it only makes things worse.

My problem is that I can’t not be aware of these things. I can’t help but notice that they are not only present but prevalent, in everything that we think, do, watch, say. It exists in the politicians that we choose to elect, in the celebrities that we choose to look up to, in the fictional characters that we choose to relate to. It exists in our personal relationships, in the ways that we talk to different people, in the things that we expect from them. I have seen sexism destroy families, and I have seen homophobia kill children. Some people can go their whole lives without noticing any of this, but I can’t – partly because I live it, as a bisexual woman, but also because I’ve gone out of my way to try and educate myself on these matters.

As I said, these issues are important to me. I need to talk about them. And I know I’m not the only person who feels this way.

But even ignoring all of that for a moment – let’s say we as a society could stop talking about these issues. Let’s say that we just dropped every social justice movement tomorrow, because from the logic of those who ask the question to begin with, you’d think that what would happen would be – nothing. The world just wouldn’t change – it would remain the way that it is right now, forever.

And maybe it would.

Maybe women would continue to be told that it was their fault, that they should have dressed or acted differently to avoid being raped.

Maybe black people in America would continue to get shot in the streets by white cops who get off punishment-free.

Maybe gay, bisexual, or transgender children would continue to kill themselves before they even reach adulthood, because they don’t see any possibility that they will ever get to be themselves.

Or maybe all of this would get worse over time, because no one is talking about these issues. No one is making sure that these people know that they aren’t alone, that someone cares and is truly trying to make a difference for them.

And if that’s all you do by talking about these issues – just let someone know that they aren’t alone, and that if they just keep fighting, things might just get better – then isn’t that a worthwhile fight in its own right? Isn’t hope, at least, worthwhile?

Maybe things won’t get any better, I don’t know. Maybe this truly is as good as it’s going to get. But maybe it’s not. Maybe things will get better. They already have, after all. We reach new and exciting milestones all the time – in 2015, the United States legalized same-sex marriage because people cared enough to talk about it. In 2014, Laverne Cox became the first transgender woman to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, accompanying the claim that we as a society were at “the tipping point” for discussing transgender issues. And, no, things aren’t perfect; we still have a long way to go, but little by little, we are winning battles. And we are doing this because we refuse to give up. Because we know that these issues are worth talking about, and so we talk about them.

We fight, not because there is any guarantee that we’ll win, but because we know that it’s a worthy fight nonetheless.

So if you can say that you feel that same way – maybe not specifically about a social justice movement, but about anything at all – if you feel that it is worth defending, and worth believing in, and worth fighting for if you have to, then by all means, fight. Maybe you won’t win, but at least there will be someone fighting. At least people will see that this is something that people care about, something that matters. And maybe not everyone will agree with you. Maybe not enough people will, anyway. But that isn’t the important part. What’s important is that, end of day, you can rest easy with yourself knowing that you did everything you could in your attempts to make the world a better place.

And that, after all, is what we all want to accomplish in our time here on earth, isn’t it?

We Need to Listen

While I find my voice quite frequently in the form of writing, if you were to meet me face-to-face, you’d discover that I tend to be a very quiet person. And all my life, people have told me that this is a problem.

In school, my teachers would tell me again and again that I had very good things to say when they read my essays or my homework, but that I never contributed to the conversation in class. This more than anything brought my grade down.

At jobs, while I have absolutely no problem speaking the words that need to be spoken, and even engaging in conversations when I come across people who are particularly chatty, I have been told by employers that I need to be more talkative, more socially engaging, and if I can’t do that, then I shouldn’t be here.

In social settings, I have always felt bad about the fact that I am quiet. People will tell me things like “don’t be shy” or “you don’t need to be nervous”, but that has never been the case for me. I’m not shy, and people don’t make me nervous. I’m just quiet. That’s just the nature of me. When I am very talkative, that usually means one of two things: that a topic of conversation has been brought up that I am particularly passionate about, or that I am trying to push myself into a place where I am not being myself and I am not comfortable.

And I think that these two comments really sum up the misconception that tends to be made about me, or quiet people in general: that we’re shy. That we don’t like people. That people make us nervous, and as a result, we are weak, or there is something wrong with us. But, at least in my experience, none of this is true. I love people. I love to be around people, and I love to hear what they have to say, and I love to receive attention from them. And yet, I’m quiet.

And as much as I’ve heard people say, over and over again, that this is a character flaw of mine that needs to be overcome, as much as I’ve had people praise me for making myself uncomfortable and speaking when I wouldn’t normally have spoken, I disagree with all this. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d understand forcing myself to be uncomfortable for something that I actually believed would make me a better person, but I don’t believe this will.

Because, while everyone else seems to believe that, when I’m not talking, I’m not doing anything, this isn’t the case. When I’m not talking, I’m listening, and I’m thinking. And these are two actions that I sincerely do not want to do less of.

Let’s go back to the classroom setting, for an easy example of what I mean here. When I was sitting in class, I was so busy listening to what my teachers and peers had to say that I wasn’t really thinking about what I could contribute myself, and this was what made me a decent student. Because I already knew my own thoughts on the matter, but I was obsessed with hearing other thoughts, because frequently enough, they differed from mine. And once I stocked up on all of these differing perspectives, when I left the classroom, I would sort through them, decide which perspectives made sense to me and which didn’t, and then I would take this thought and put it in my homework and essays. I felt that it was incredibly important for me to listen and think through everything I had heard because I didn’t think that my own opinion on the matter was wrong, but I firmly upheld the belief that my opinion wasn’t the only one that mattered. In fact, I sort of believed that all these opinions mattered, and that the truth lay somewhere in between them all.

And if I tried to tell this to my teachers, they would tell me that the other students could benefit from hearing my opinion as well, but when I tried to force myself to speak in class, then I found that I was so preoccupied with trying to come up with something to say that I forgot to even listen. And listening was just too important for me to give up.

And the classroom is not the only place where my penchant for listening has helped me. When a friend is going through a difficult time, before I judge or suggest any action for them to take, I make sure that I listen to them and try to understand what they are going through. I try to see things from all perspectives, and while this takes more time, it has also helped me gain a deeper kinship with certain people.

Listening has also helped me to become a much more empathetic person than I might otherwise be. For example, as a white woman, I have no idea what it is like to live life as a person of colour – I’ve never done it myself. But I have listened to people, and I have tried to understand them and think about their perspective. So while I am aware that my voice, when it comes to these matters, is not the most important voice, it is essential that I lend these matters my ear and my eye, because that is the only way that I will learn about them.

There is a time and a place to speak, and there is a time and a place to listen, and personally, I believe that one of our society’s problems is that we think that the time to speak is constant. We forget the value of listening, because everyone is so obsessed with talking, with having their voices heard above anyone else’s, that they’re completely forgetting that other perspectives even exist, or that they might also be important.

And we all, every single one of us, have something to say. But what good will that do if there is no one to hear it?