In the wake of allegations facing Harvey Weinstein, women are coming forward to share experiences of sexual assault and harassment to show how rape culture permeates all areas of society.
The #MeToo hashtag has encouraged women from across the world to open up about very personal, and difficult, experiences. And while it’s powerful to share stories to show the gravity of the problem, many have said survivors shouldn’t feel pressured to share their stories so publicly and we should be focusing on perpetrators rather than victims.
Continuing this conversation, Leena Norms, from London, raised an important point about the dangers of dismissing our own sexual harassment experiences as trivial compared to others’.
Leena said she decided not to share her own stories of sexual harassment because she had dismissed her own experiences as ‘not [being] that bad’.
But she then went on to describe her own experiences, which ranged from being subjected to vulgar language in the street, to being groped, to having men threaten to kill or rape her.
She explained that she thought she had “got off the lightest” because her experiences were nowhere near as bad as her friends. But the reality is, all accounts of harassment and abuse are valid. They should not be swept under the carpet.
Her admission just goes to show how sexual harassment is the norm for a lot of women. Women who believe, deep down, that their experiences aren’t shocking enough or awful enough to be shared. Women who believe it would detract away from more serious offences, where others have been assaulted or raped.
But why do women feel forced to remain silent and, dare we say it, feel guilty of admitting they’ve experienced such awful treatment?
“Women are socialised to accept these experiences as normal because they are so commonplace, we downplay them as ‘not a big deal’ because others have have had worse experiences,” Caitlin Roper, campaigner for Collective Shout, tells HuffPost UK.
“The reality is these experiences are shared by all women. They are female experiences. They exist on a spectrum of male violence, with sexist jokes and normalised objectification of women on one end and rape and murder on the other.”
The very fact that the issue is so endemic in society makes it very difficult for women to come out and say it happened to them.
“It’s a very difficult thing to ‘come out’ as a survivor, and much more so in such a public way on social media,” Caitlin explains.
“We know how women are treated for sharing their stories of sexual assault and the hostility and scrutiny they are subjected to, at a time when they desperately need to be believed, validated and supported.
“Women are not obligated to share their stories and to publicly recall their most traumatic experiences.”
The onus is still on women to relive experiences, but the problem with this way of thinking is that it can be triggering (more on that here) and painful for those who feel torn between wanting to share their story and, in the process, having to relive a nightmare.
Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, acknowledges that while speaking out is important, holding women accountable for this means we’re all completely ignoring “the massive power imbalance that has created such systemic abuse”.
“Remember that in the case of Weinstein and many others this was largely acknowledged as an ‘open secret’ for years because so many other people, including other powerful men, knew or suspected what was going on,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“A problem this big needs a political response and, in the meantime, stronger protection for women who do make a complaint.”
Men play a huge role in tackling the problem. That’s why executive producer and feminist Liz Plank coined the hashtag #HimThough to move the focus away from women having to share their stories and onto men.
“I was sexually harassed, physically and verbally attacked,” she tweeted. “But what about him though? Who decided it was women’s job to fix men?”
Samantha Rennie, executive director at Rosa, a charitable fund set up to support initiatives that benefit women, says men must have a deeper understanding of what sexual harassment and assault actually is before things can change.
“It can be anything from unsolicited comments about body and appearance all the way up to rape,” she explains. “In addition, it shouldn’t only be an issue if it happens to your wife or your daughter; we all have to fight this until hashtags like #metoo are no longer necessary.”
As a society, we must also move away from “trivialising sexual harassment as ‘banter’ or an unfortunate come-on”, says Sophie Walker from the Women’s Equality Party.
And finally, we need to stop victim-blaming. Samantha, from Rosa UK, explains: “It can be incredibly difficult for women who have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or assault to speak out because we live in a world that consistently questions the lived experiences of women and does its best to find fault with the survivor.
“Questions like ‘What was she wearing?’, ‘Why was she alone with him?’ only serve to blame women for the actions of an abuser.”
Useful helplines and websites:
- Victim Support - Visit victimsupport.org.uk or call 0808 168 9111 Sexual Abuse Referral Centres - Find a SARC
- Rape Crisis - Visit rapecrisis.org.uk or call 0808 802 9999 The Rape and Abuse Line - Visit rapeandabuseline.co.uk or call 0808 800 0123 (answered by women) or 0808 800 0122 (answered by men).