The recent #MeToo hashtag movement highlighting the everyday reality of sexual assault is powerful, but it highlights a deeper problem: we don’t believe women.
It’s been a tiring eternity for women, but the events of the last week have felt particularly exhausting. The world looks on, shocked as a man in a position of power is revealed to have taken gross advantage of that power and sexually abused countless women.
I’m sad, but I’m not surprised – I doubt many women are. We’re used to having our bodies used against us, turned from biological functioning beings into temptresses and things foreign to our own understanding of ourselves. We’re used to the constant effort and mediation that goes into not disturbing our surroundings; smiling at the man who catcalls us because we don’t know what he might do if we retaliate, leaving a club when we’ve been groped inappropriately because we understand the bouncer is not likely to make them leave, not reporting sexual assaults and rapes because in a world where statistics are blindingly clear about the number of sexual assaults against women, we are still not believed. The conversation goes far too easily from ‘I was assaulted’ to, ‘yes – but if women lie about it, then that ruins that mans life!’. What if the woman isn’t lying? Rape isn’t a conspiracy; it’s a reality.
Yes, it has been a tiring week.
In response to the mounting stories of abuse of women by Weinstein, women took to social media to make a point about why it wasn’t surprising and to encourage solidarity, using the hashtag #MeToo. #MeToo was a hashtag created to make a point about the wide spread nature of sexual assault – from catcalling, to groping, to rape. The Me Too movement was originally started by activist Tarana Burke ten years ago to reach women who didn’t have access to rape crisis centres. Burke wanted to empower through empathy. What started as a movement to get women talking between themselves has turned into a social media hashtag partly aimed at getting across the sheer scale of the problem. The hashtag explores the full spectrum of the ways in which sexual harassment and assault affect a woman’s everyday life, to show its pervasiveness and of course offer sympathy and strength. I, and I expect most women, struggle to name a single friend who hasn’t been sexually harassed or assaulted in some form. It’s an epidemic. This movement makes that point loud and clear, and it isn’t the first time something like this has been done – remember #YesAllWomen?
The importance of highlighting just how many women have been assaulted is important – solidarity feels at times like the best thing we can get, but it doesn’t replace action. Some women might not be free to share their abuse online, others afraid, and so many women don’t have the means to afford a laptop or a social media account. More importantly, why does the responsibility fall once again on women? There are numerous studies and surveys to attest to the widespread nature of sexual assault, but apparently these are not enough. It seems like a further injustice that women, who have already gone through the sexual assault, have to publicly out themselves and talk about painful and traumatising experiences just to get people to listen. What do women have to do to be believed?
The fact that statistics aren’t enough is a huge part of why so many women don’t report being abused. In no other crime or assault does the world move so quickly from an accusation, to a question. When you walk into a hospital with a stab wound, no one asks if you’re sure you were stabbed. No one asks if you were provoking someone, or asking for it. No one would claim you hadn’t been stabbed, even if you were wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Stab me!’ on the front. If a bouncer catches someone throwing punches, they’re thrown out of a pub immediately – no questions are asked. A man grabbing at your breasts in a bar may not leave a bruise, but don’t be mistaken – it is a violent act and it leaves a nastier mark than a drunken punch.
It’s hard to see a newsfeed filled with men that claim, ‘Rape is bad! I have daughters!’, ‘Hey, that’s someone’s sister, or mother, or aunt’ as though woman’s humanity doesn’t fully exist until it can be tied in some way to a man. I understand that it often comes from a place of real sincerity, to imagine anyone you love being taken advantage of in such a way is heart breaking, but the language reveals a deeper problem. Female humanity is portrayed as being contingent on some relation to a man, or men. When a woman is sexually assaulted, it is her pain and her experience – it is never about the way it makes any man feel. Having a father or a brother doesn’t make it worse for her to be assaulted. Why must we link it to men to make it relevant, relatable or worth speaking out against? Sexual assault is bad because women are human beings – and it’s bad when it happens to men, and non-binary people for the exact same reason.
There are a million more women who will not send out a tweet, or a Facebook status with #MeToo because it hurts too much. Even the #MeToo campaign cannot come close to accurately representing the number of women who have suffered at the hands of sexual harassment and assault. There is too much fear – and rightly so; this is not a world that embraces victims of sexual assault. It’s a world that elects a sexual predator to run one of the most powerful countries in the world. Why don’t we focus less on making women to come out and speak, and create a world where they aren’t afraid to – or even better, where they don’t have to. The problem starts with semantics – women are abused. Women are sexually assaulted. The very way we describe these situations omits the most important thing; the person inflicting that violence. The woman is placed at the centre of an event that was caused by someone else – the abuser is just an abstract, a second thought. With the perpetrator made to be such an abstract concept, blame is misplaced and the wrong people are asked the wrong questions. The wrong person is put in the limelight, forced to defend themselves. It paints sexual assault as just a woman’s issue – but it isn’t.
Yes, Weinstein is being investigated – he has been fired, publicly shamed and abandoned by Hollywood. And I’m not the first person to write that the industry knew about this for years, and did nothing. It will be a matter of moments before a new abuser is exposed, and the world is shocked again as though we haven’t been through this so many times before. As though we won’t keep going through it. Think of all of the abusers who have no fame, who will never be publicly shamed. Think of those in Hollywood who continue to have thriving careers, who were never prosecuted, because a man’s word is still louder than a woman’s. His livelihood still taken into account, when he has tainted a woman’s life forever – in what other serious crime does this happen?
Consider that, in response to the #MeToo campaign, men have started a campaign of their own: #IDidIt. It seems intended to assume responsibility, but in reality only further highlighting the luxury they have of committing sexual assault with no real consequences beyond, perhaps, a bad conscience. If you want to help – don’t sexually assault people. It’s not a challenging concept. If you think you cannot speak to a woman, or touch her without your intentions being misconstrued, look at your own behaviour. When women say that they want accountability, an apology on social media means nothing – we want those who commit sexual assault to be prosecuted, because they are criminals. We do not want to hear about the alcohol problems, or substance abuse; there is no excuse.
We want to pursue our careers, our social lives and just be able to walk down the street without being shouted at, touched or worse. And when something does happen, we want to not live in fear of being put in the seat of responsibility for our own assault. We want to be believed.
On what feels like the millionth social media campaign, and scandal, how much more corroboration does the world need?
Follow Camilla Ackley on twitter: @camillaackley