I’ve known it was happening for a long time. Through the years, female friends have shared stories with me, sometimes laughing it off, sometimes crying through it, of men they knew and men they didn’t; pushing through physical, sexual and emotional boundaries. Sometimes it was words and stares, sometimes it was hands, too often it was worse. I’ve known it was happening but the #metoo hashtag has shown me that it is so widespread that sexual harassment and assault are almost endemic in our society.
I could write #metoo on my timeline. I don’t talk about it much, but as a grown man I was sexually assaulted at work on two occasions. I was working as a phlebotomist and two different women in their 50s took the fact I had a needle in their vein as a sign that I wanted their hand on my genitals. I didn’t. I reported the incidents. I didn’t feel unsafe, I didn’t feel threatened. I was bigger and stronger and could easily remove myself from the situation. I did feel shame and embarrassment. My manager was brilliant. She believed me and took instant action to stop it happening to me again.
In comparison to what female members of staff faced everyday, what happened to be felt very insignificant. Yet many of them shrugged the gropes, slaps on the bum, graphic invitations to do one thing or the other etc. by male patients as an occupational hazard. What world have we created where a female nurse having her breasts grabbed by the man whose life she is saving is an occupational hazard? These men weren’t always unaware of the behaviour, some were, but the majority were all too aware and felt protected by the nurses’ need to act professionally.
I’ve known it’s been happening for years because I’ve seen it happening for years. I’ve seen the blocks from which the culture, in which a woman’s body is a man’s prize to be won or taken, is built. As a teenager in Christian youth groups I heard one well meaning leader tell the girls to dress modestly so as not to tempt the boys; the unspoken message was that the girls were responsible for the boys’ behaviour. The thin foundation was laid, upon which future excuses of ‘she led me on,’ or ‘she was dressed provocatively,’ could be built. The poor boys and men can’t help themselves when these evil temptresses lead them astray.
I saw it on the school rugby bus, and to my shame joined in as a 15 year old, as celebrities and girls from the other school were graded for how much of a ‘ride’ or how ‘bangable’ they were. These young women’s value to us was measured by how many of us would have sex with them. A strain of that perversion of a woman’s value lay alive in me for far too long. I hope it is now dead.
I’ve known it was happening when I stood in a nightclub watching a man watching the dance floor, scanning every face, then attempting to lead a woman, barely able to stand out of the building. If not for a lull in the music we wouldn’t have heard her.
‘I don’t want to go home with you. I don’t know who you are!’
A hand on his shoulder and he left her alone and left. Her friends arrived half an hour later and brought her home.
I’ve seen it that very same night, walking home from that club. A woman was walking alone ahead of me. By chance my eye spots a man down the alley acting strangely. As she reached where he was, he grabbed her and pulled her into the alley. In a second she had gone. If I’d not been watching would I have noticed? I shouted out and ran towards where they were and he ran off into the night. As we walked home (she lived two streets from me) her friends stopped in their taxi and picked her up.
I’ve seen it when speaking on church men’s weekends as men told me how angry they were about the amount of sex they aren’t having with their wives. They have told me how they have ‘held up their side of the bargain,’ and how ‘I don’t understand, I help around the house and give her compliments.’ In this strange world where sex becomes a reward that they deserve not a gift to be shared; a bargaining tool traded for chores and comments about clothes and hairstyles. Few of them had ever asked their wives opinion on the matter.
I’ve seen it throughout my church life. I’ve seen it in a small group as a wife turned bright red with shame as her husband decried her dereliction of duty to ‘honour him with her body,’ by not having sex often enough, apparently ignoring his vow to do the same by not using her body as a means to gratify his own. I’ve seen other men tell me their love language is touch and that their wives need to respect it. They assume their wives love language is coercion or emotional blackmail.
I’ve sat through sermons and seminars where women are told their husbands will only feel loved through sex or that they should never refuse him because it’s God’s will. The men are rarely if ever chastened for being demanding or claiming ownership of a woman’s body. In a twisted yet persistent theology, sex has all too often been God’s gift to men, and women are nothing more than God’s servants in the exchange.
I’ve seen it on the tube as men with plenty of room stand too close. In a taxi as the driver points out every ‘cracking pair!’ on the street. On a plane as the passenger slapped the crew member’s bum with an ‘oi oi!’ as an attempt to condone himself. I’ve seen friends groped, grabbed or kissed in bars as they try to push off strangers or drunken friends.
I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it everywhere. It pervades all of the society we’ve created. The reduction of women to sex objects is in the male social education we’ve constructed and it starts at a young age. The horror of the fact that millions of women have written #metoo on social media is an unmasking of what we’ve known for a long time.
Perhaps the thing that is most infuriating is that women are the ones who bear the shame. Women aren’t believed when they speak up. They are questioned on their dress sense, their humour, their drinking habits when the only question required is;
‘Were you harassed or assaulted?’ The blame lies with aggressor.
The idea that women should be ashamed of their bodies and sexuality and that these things are their fault is in the female social education we’ve created and it starts at a young age.
Men, we have a problem, and we’ve got to do something about it. We have to stand against it. Report it. Stop it. Question your own attitudes and behaviour. Confess and change. Apologise. Be fairly punished for acts of sexual violence you’ve committed. Don’t shelter others from the consequences of their actions.
The courage of so many women in speaking up, and telling their stories into a world that has so often shamed them for the actions of another, calls for response. The only right response is to weed out the culture that leads to sexual harassment and assault. We must not tolerate this any longer. I know you’ve seen it too, we all have. It’s line in the sand time. We can be better than this.