In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the Me Too hashtag trended on Twitter, kick started by the actress Alyssa Milano who asked for anyone who’d ever been sexually assaulted or harassed to tweet “me too” in order to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. Of course, we women know only too well the magnitude of this particular problem.
That’s because, if my own experience is anything to go by, I’d say it’s impossible to reach your 18th birthday as a woman without having been harassed or assaulted at some point. Your teenage years and your twenties tend to be the worst. When you hit your late 30s and therefore become transparent to the opposite sex, things calm down somewhat, but never fear, it will still happen. Only the other day I was accosted by some bloke while out for a late night shop.
In my time I’ve had to fight off a guy at school on two separate occasions; been harassed on the street by a group of school boys; been followed home on numerous occasions; had guys in cars try and pick me up off the street/while at a bus stop and then hurl abuse at me when I refused to get in the car; received a letter from a neighbour in capital letters (always reassuring) who was of the opinion that as I was alone and he was alone I should ‘ring his bell’. I didn’t. So two days later he was outside my flat screaming through the window that I was a fucking slag, the abuse continued so in the end I had to call in the police; I had a guy masturbate in front of me while waiting for an early morning train in Heidelberg; another guy masturbate at the entrance to a cul-de-sac in Paris while I rooted around for my address book to find the code that would let me into my friend’s building; I had a producer offer me a part in a play, then ask me out and when I declined told me he wasn’t sure he could work with me if that were the case (I told him he should cast somebody else then); I have also experienced the joys of having had a guy rub his erect penis against my leg in a packed bus in Rome; been assaulted by two taxi drivers, one of whom refused to take me where I was staying and instead took me to a wood where I seriously thought I was about to be raped and killed. To be frank, if I were to write down all the occasions I’ve been manhandled, I could publish a book. I will say this though: I’m one of the lucky ones.
That’s because the couple of times I was in real danger I happened to be lucky. There was the time when I was a tourist rep in Spain. The coach drivers were meant to drop us at our house, as a woman had already been attacked on our street. They invariably refused as it meant going round the houses to get back onto the main road. After one late night airport transfer I was duly dropped off at the bottom of my road where the local bar had closed for the night. By this time it was the early hours of the morning and the whole street was in darkness. Outside the bar sat three drunken young men. As soon as they saw me, they got up and started following and catcalling me. I refused to run. What would be the point? They’d soon catch up with me so I carried on walking steadily towards the house where I lived, while they got closer and closer. Then by a pure stroke of luck there happened to be a light on in my house. My Spanish wasn’t great but if I kept it short I thought I could trick them into thinking I was Spanish and that I was calling to some family member willing to ‘protect my honour’. I shouted in Spanish to come out and as soon as I did they ran off.
By my mid-twenties I was living in Paris where being harassed on the street was a daily occurrence. However, my friends and I noticed we were more likely to be harassed if people knew we were foreigners so we tended not to speak English when on public transport. It was worth it. One British acquaintance suffered the indignity of a man coming over her in the metro and had to dash to a friend’s house to remove the cum from her tights and from inside her shoe.
As for me, I was walking down some steps to the metro platform one night when a guy blocked my path. As being stopped by some strange man in public in an attempt to pull you was more or less de rigueur back then, I assumed at first he was about to chat me up. I then realised he was, in fact, planning to mug me. I replied to his demand to hand over my money in Russian assuming he wouldn’t be able to reply. (I was right). He then called for his two mates who had just passed me on the stairs. I wasn’t waiting for them to join the party and instinctively punched him in the face. (It turns out there are some advantages in going to a rough comprehensive in North London after all). He clearly wasn’t expecting me to go on the attack; and as I was going down the stairs and he was going up them, the momentum was on my side. He fell down the steps whilst I ran down them. But again I was lucky. If he’d caught my fist, it would have been a very different story.
The last and most frightening time happened in the States. I got into a licensed taxi outside the train station and asked to be taken to where I was staying. Once I was in the car, the taxi driver refused saying the address I had didn’t exist. I then asked to be taken to the police station. He refused. I asked to be dropped off. He refused. I then asked him to stop at a house so I could ask for directions. Again he refused pointing out that only a few weeks before a tourist had done exactly that and been shot and killed by the homeowner who had mistaken the tourist for a possible intruder.
In the end he drove me to a wood and parked under a massive tree. I really thought this was it. He was a mountain of a man. My chances of fighting him off would be minimal. On top of that it was dark, even on the roads there had been no street lighting and seemingly no pavements, no passing pedestrians and by this point I had no idea where the hell I was. This was in the early 90s long before the advent of mobile phones but he did have a car phone. I asked if I could use it to tell the woman I was staying with that I was lost. For some reason he agreed and on the voicemail I mentioned that the taxi driver, Ivan the Bulgarian (that’s how he’d introduced himself) was helping me. I decided if I was going to be murdered then I wanted people to know who the hell had done it.
But clearly the fact I’d mentioned him by name on the voicemail had made him think twice, and after the phone call he drove me straight to the address which up to then he was adamant hadn’t existed. He tried to come inside the house. Not surprisingly I refused but he did cop a feel. All things considered, I decided I’d got off lightly. And that tells you how prevalent sexual harassment is that after being, to all extents and purposes, kidnapped, scared witless and then molested I still felt I’d been lucky. But the sad fact is sexual harassment is so part and parcel of a woman’s life experience that in order to cope it’s kind of regarded (wrongly) as an occupational hazard of being a woman.
What surprised me at the time was that I didn’t want to report it to the police. I know that’s what I should have done; I’d like to think I was the type of person who would have done exactly that but I didn’t and I wasn’t. All I wanted to do was forget the whole episode and move on. I can’t explain it but I just didn’t want to deal with it or relive it and the last thing I wanted to do was contact the police and go through the rigmarole of reporting it. After all, I was leaving town the next day and America in two weeks’ time. I was hardly popping back anytime soon. So what was the point?
I think the reason why women don’t say anything is that we don’t feel we have a voice. And if we were to speak out, we would be dismissed, ridiculed and ostracised. Maybe some even fear being regarded as ‘damaged goods’. Moreover, instinctively we know, because history has shown us time and time again, that any woman brave enough to raise her head above the parapet tends to pay a rather high price for her courage.
Not surprisingly in the wake of the Weinstein scandal his accusers were later attacked by some for finding themselves in such a situation in the first place and secondly for not saying anything at the time and thus “allowing” other attacks to happen. It would seem when it comes to sexual violence the onus is on women not only to police ourselves but the men that we meet.
If you think about it the flip side of the “why did she let herself get into that situation” argument is that a woman’s at fault for not regarding every man she meets as a potential rapist. Now that’s clearly an untenable position to hold. I’m guessing that when Lauren Silvan met up with Weinstein in a club she never once thought to herself I better not as he might masturbate in front of me into a potted plant. Because you know what? It’s not a normal thing to do. Most men don’t do that. And the only person to blame for such a scenario would be Weinstein.
And you know what would have happened had his victims spoken out earlier? Nothing. At least to Weinstein. In 2005 Courtney Love hinted publically at what Weinstein was up to and while nothing happened to Weinstein, Love believes her career was stymied as a result. If A-listers such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie didn’t feel able to speak out before now it’s presumably because they felt nothing would come of it and the only person on the receiving end of any backlash would be them. It took a journalist to speak to a few brave women and a publication to have the balls to publish the story to get the ball rolling.
Of course when it comes to sexual violence blaming the victim is power for the course. How spurious these supposed arguments are is easy to prove. Just make the victim male. Can you imagine a male victim being dismissed as asking for it because he wore his trousers half way down his arse? Or some middle-aged woman claiming she was seduced by the machinations of some manipulative 13 year old boy and getting away with it? Swap genders and these are arguments you hear all the time.
Moreover, society arbitrarily modifies the rules by which we decide how blameless the victim supposedly is or isn’t depending on the class, nationality, colour and the supposed value society at large places on the victim.
However, with the once powerful Weinstein falling so suddenly from grace, maybe we are beginning to see the demise of the privileged world of male entitlement and the everyday sexual harassment that goes along with it. In the meantime, the threat of sexual violence, like the Sword of Damocles, continues to hang over women’s heads.
My one hope is with women now taking such a public stand it will encourage society to finally stop shifting part or in some cases all of the blame onto women victims, thereby abnegating responsibility from the male perpetrators of sexual violence. We not only belittle women in doing this, but in the process we also belittle the vast majority of men.