For a long time, sexual harassment and assault have remained unspoken, well-kept secrets that women have felt ashamed of acknowledging.
A major shift has taken place this year, alongside the accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. A decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined that so many women around the world had experienced sexual coercion or intimidation. Now, I’d be surprised if I could find a single woman I know who hasn’t.
Earlier this month, actor Alyssa Milano took to Twitter and wrote:
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
Personal stories quickly began pouring in from women and men all across the world. The hashtag #MeToo has become a rallying cry against sexual assault and harassment. Before long, it had become about so much more than Harvey Weinstein.
I remember being subjected to harassment long before I even knew what harassment or assaults were. School-going boys. Middle-aged men. Married men. A policeman. That boy who considers himself a ‘feminist’. Colleagues. On the bus. Across the pavements. In a queue. At a temple. The touch that was made to look accidental. That ‘friendly’ squeeze. The head-to-toe stare that makes you feel uncomfortable. The offensive comment, the explicit remark. Cyber-bullying. The list goes on.
There’s a long history of victim-blaming in order to protect perpetrators of violence, and to legitimize and normalize sexual harassment and assaults. We are raised in a society that tells us girls get assaulted for a reason. Her skirt was too short, her smile too wide, her breath smelled of alcohol, she was out too late.
Society has long been trivializing sexual violence with dismissive phrases like “boys will be boys”. We have been defining masculinity as dominant and sexually aggressive and femininity as submissive and passive. We’ve spent our energy teaching women to avoid being raped, rather than on teaching men not to rape women.
I think the worst part of being harassed or assaulted is that it makes you forget to be kind to yourself. It makes you question your own existence and forget how to accept yourself. For me, it has taken years of ignorance, silence, self-blame, and internalization, as well as thousands of conversations with friends and family, to feel ‘worthy’ again.
Too many of us choose to suffer in silence because we are afraid speaking up will reduce our identity to being ‘just a victim’. But sharing your story does not make you a victim. Sharing your story, if it’s what you choose and what feels right for you, can be one the bravest things you will ever do. You are a survivor – setting the world on fire with the truth. And you never know who else will benefit from your light, your warmth and your raging courage.
The goal of #MeToo was to give people a sense of ‘the magnitude of the problem.’ The power of #MeToo is that it takes long-standing silence and transforms it into a movement. On one hand, it’s a bold, declarative statement: “I’m not ashamed of what I have been through.” On the other, it’s a reassurance from survivor to survivor: “I feel you and we are all in this together.”
There’s still a monumental amount of work to be done, but exposing the colossal scale of a problem we have kept swept under the rug and hidden in our darkest corners? That is revolutionary in its own right.