My social media has filled up with women using the #metoo; some narrating stories of sexual harassment and abuse (some rather harrowing stories) and others just using the hashtag to express solidarity with others who have been through something similar. And has this hashtag blown up!
I’m not surprised. I would be surprised if there were women who had never undergone any kind of harassment or abuse at all in their lives! I’m still waiting to hear even one woman admit that she hasn’t.
So I’m writing this post to add my voice and perspective to this issue.
First of all, why only women? I’ve heard it asked, why is this hashtag not ‘open’ for men who are abused? A valid point. More than one male person I know have shared stories of sexual abuse. The important thing to remember here is that sexual assault is not inherently a gendered phenomenon, but it becomes gendered in the way that it is socially constructed. The exertion of control and power that comes with sexual assault is understood as a masculine trait, and anybody who is at the receiving end of it is reduced to the feminine, looked down upon, ridiculed. It is absurd how much harder it is for men to even use a hashtag like #metoo to express that they have been harassed or assaulted sexually.
And so, my point is, that assault is not about gender in the sense of the genitalia you possess, but it is gendered in terms of how we understand it socially.
The attention to the victim is important, but so is attention to the perpetrator. The perpetrator of sexual assault is imposing upon the world a very specific persona of ‘manhood’ that is then supposed to define what all men should aspire towards. This is locker room talk, and persons with male genitalia who do not conform to it can be termed as feminine and thereby weak.
A few weeks ago, I was shaken by an incident on a bus. I take the bus to school every day, without thinking twice about it. But on this particular day a man climbed on to the bus. He seemed a little high, not that that mattered. But he was acting a little strange. He seemed captivated by a girl sitting one seat to the left of me, and she smiled back at him. At first, I thought they were friends.
The bus kept going and the seat between that girl and me emptied out. The man in question took the liberty to sit down there. He still had his back toward me, and was smiling at that girl, saying something to her. I was still unsure of whether she knew him. But then he put his arm around her. The girl appeared a little uncomfortable now but she still did not leave her seat or move. And then he asked her, in a very distinct voice, ‘can I kiss you?’
Without waiting for a reply, he leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek.
The girl in question was frozen now but she still made no move to get out of the seat. She was still giving a feeble smile.
Another young man sitting opposite us, looking as uncomfortable as I felt, said to the perpetrator, ‘Don’t do that.’ His stop came then, and he got down. So did the girl.
By this point, as the only other girl on the bus, I was extremely uncomfortable. It was evening and there was still light outside, but the bus was almost empty. I had already moved one seat away from this man but now he turned to look towards me. I turned my head the other way, deliberately avoiding eye contact or acknowledging his presence.
He reached out, nonetheless, and put his hand upon my hand. I had a visceral reaction to his touch, and I moved my hand out from under him and glared at him in a way that was obviously discouraging.
This seemed to enrage this man. He got down at the next stop, which was also my stop, and I followed him off the bus. He ventured off into an alleyway that led nowhere and I broke into a half-run as I went home.
That night and over the next day I narrated this story to a few people. I was given a range of interesting advice (you should have told the bus driver, you should carry a pepper spray or Mace with you), the strangest of which was by a girl who told me she once shouted deeply in the ear of a man who was about to assault her, and that shocked him. That’s interesting, I told her, but in that moment, I just froze.
And I don’t blame you, she said. Remember, it is never the victim’s fault.
It is never the victim’s fault.
What a strange thing to have to declare out loud! My reaction always is, it never is the victim’s fault of course.
And yet somehow, incidents like these always have an impact on me. They take me back to the first time I recognized being sexualized by a man: I was eleven. They take me back to the countless times I have had men press their bodies against mine on public transport, trying to fit their body parts into the curvature of my waist to feel…something, the times I have been catcalled or followed briefly, the time a couple of men on a bike flashed porn into my face and commented on my underwear.
But there is something more here- something we are forgetting to talk about. It came to me as I wondered why this hand touching incident on the bus shook me so much. I’ve seen worse. It always shakes me, but what was different this time? Had I merely forgotten what it was like to be objectified, given how less explicitly that happens to me since I have moved here to the US?
Perhaps that was a part of it. But it was more than that. Over the past three years I have surrounded myself with people and narratives that have empowered me. I am always on my guard- not against all men- but against men who exude that particularly stench of masculine entitlement that I now recognize so well. I like to tell myself that I will fight back against them now, not give in and let them get their way.
And yet, here I was on the bus with a man who could, just by touching my hand without my consent, flood my mind with everything that I have worked so hard to overcome. How strangely powerful he is, just by being him! And how reduced that makes me, just to have to be powerless like this!
And that, in one sense, is the sort of self-blaming internal dialogue that an act like this can trigger. It isn’t simply about the physical act of having your hand touched, but the mental agony of relating that to the myriad ways in which this world is masculine. And everything that that stands for.
I see posts of men touting that they are not the problem, but a part of the solution because they don’t look at women like that. They’re missing the point. This is not about your choice to not kiss a woman on the cheek, but about her lack of choice if you do choose to do so. I thought for a long time about the girl on the bus who was kissed, and did nothing. I wondered how she spent that night, how shaken was she by that man? Would she be comfortable riding the bus again?
I look out for that man, or for other men like that, every day on the bus now. I don’t expect to see him again for some reason, but I often expect to encounter someone else like him.
I gave that man the benefit of the doubt, I tried to put myself in his shoes. A male friend recently opened my eyes to the other side of sexual assault in ways that nobody else ever had. Without supporting the perpetrator, he asked me to imagine how a young man with all that male hormonal energy coursing through him, might feel the first time he sees up close a woman- any woman, given that he does not know what women are like, what consent might mean, what he should or should not do. Why does the conversation always revolve around cutting off the balls of this man in question or throwing him in jail for the rest of his life, or taking his life, my friend asked me.
The problem is deeper than that. The solutions required are deeper. I do not pretend to know what they are, but I can see in the eyes of a man who is desperate, the coursing of structural injustices that lead him on to grope, touch, feel…and do more….
There have been countless times that I have thought of myself as a victim. I have been fortunate enough, when it comes to physical abuse but the lingering emotional abuse of masculinity has haunted me for years, it has brought me where I am today. It is responsible, I firmly believe, for a large portion of who I became when I relinquished control.
Others who are less fortunate have suffered more. I shudder to think what something worse could have done, to a soul like mine. What something worse does every day to souls much stronger than mine. The internet today is chocked full of stories.
It is uncomfortable, I know. And not every woman will speak, nor should we expect them all to. But don’t shut down those who do. Let’s not ignore them. Let’s have a conversation here.