When Harvey Weinstein was finally exposed for his decades-long harassment and assault of women, and the #MeToo movement gained traction, it made me think. I thought about all of the times that I had experienced sexual harassment and how I would always shove the experiences to the back of my mind convincing myself that it wasn’t a big deal because no one physically hurt me. But as stories came flooding out and people were realizing just how rampant sexual harassment is in our society, I couldn’t ignore my experiences or that of others. Honestly, when I think about it, I don’t know one woman who hasn’t been sexually harassed, whether at work, or at school, or on the street. Not one.
I wish I could say it doesn’t happen often, but that’s not true. It doesn’t just happen in dark alley ways or when you’re on a night out at the club, it happens everywhere.
Just the other morning as I was waiting for the bus with my big headphones in and wrapped in heavy winter clothes, a man walked up to me. I stepped away from him but he continued to follow me, got in my face and started talking to me inches away from me. I kept trying to look away and ignore him, but he continued to try and get my attention while describing explicit sexual things he was going to do to me. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t inviting attention. I was just standing in a public place. This wasn’t the first time something like this has happened, and unfortunately, it won’t be the last. I never know how to react. Mostly, I shut down and freeze up and do my best to ignore what’s happening to me. Because what can you do about it besides feel scared, angry, and disgusted? How do I protect myself in those situations? I shouldn’t have to protect myself from anything. People should just know it’s never okay to harass someone.
But as people are speaking up and we see stories turn into action and see powerful people like Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Kevin Spacey facing consequences for their behavior, that’s a big deal. Sexual harassment and assault is nothing new by any means, but the fact that there seems to be a cultural shift in the way that we are listening to those who have experienced sexual harassment and assault and are doing something about it, that feels big to me.
A lot has changed since the 90’s when Anita Hill spoke out publicly against the sexual harassment she experienced but that’s not to say that there still aren’t barriers, because there are. As we at the Center know all too well from our new Legal Network for Gender Equity and our longstanding work with clients, women and girls still face school pushout, retaliation, and many other forms of discrimination after experiencing and/or reporting sexual assault and other gender-based violence. And the law doesn’t always provide the robust protections we would expect. But as people who have experienced sexual harassment and assault come forward and continue to come forward, it’s clear that things are changing and people will not allow predatory behavior to continue. I’m fighting for real fundamental change so women no longer be the only ones doing the work to protect themselves from predatory behavior. Hopefully this is the start of setting cultural and social norms about the proper way to treat other people. Period.