[note: this post contains descriptions of cases of sexual harassment and violence]
I can’t help it. I know we’re a fitness blog, but all I can think about is the “me too” thing that took hold this week. Early this week, social media was overflowing with posts of “me too” in answer to this call (and variations thereof):
If all the women and men and those who are non-binary who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
The #metoo tsunami ensued. Some people kept it to women. Others posted “me too” without any context. If the campaign had just the one goal: “to give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem” it succeeded. The vast majority of people posting “me too” were women.
This did start a conversation of sorts, but it’s been a troubled and complicated conversation, as we might expect when there is disagreement about what purpose a social media meme or campaign is supposed to serve.
“Me too” has a history that goes back a decade when Tarana Burke “created the movement in 2007 to let young women of color who survive sexual assault know that they are not alone.” Burke says it was not meant as a viral hashtag, but rather:
“It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”
Well whatever its original purpose, a viral hashtag it has become. And it’s hard not to have thoughts about it. And we’re a feminist blog. So a few of us wanted to say a few things about it. This will not be an organized and coherent essay by any means. But it does capture some of what some of the women in my life have expressed in response to the #metoo movement.
The weekend before #metoo, I was visiting my parents. As my mother and I lingered at the breakfast table, we began to speak of Harvey Weinstein. I mentioned how unsurprised I was by it all. “Remember Teresa Vince?” I said. My mother didn’t. I told her of the Sears worker who, just months before her retirement in 1996, was shot at work by her manager (who then turned the gun on himself), after what has been described as “years of unrelenting sexual harassment.” I started to cry when I said, “All she wanted to do every day was go to work, do her job, and then come home.”
Yes, that’s all we want to do. Not all of us end up dead (but a shocking number do). And perhaps because so many of us have not met an end as bad as Teresa Vince, we want to think, “What happened to me? That’s just trivial.” As Anita says below, “not bad enough.”
In the article “Running while Female” we are reminded of the three women who were running by themselves in broad daylight and killed. The article reported survey results of readers indicating that of the 2533 women and 2137 men surveyed, 43% of the women sometimes experience harassment while running, as compared to only 4% of the men. The article generated a lot of reader responses, where readers felt compelling to write in with their stories of what it’s like to run as a woman.
I’ve had my own share of this nonsense (do I trivialize it to call it “nonsense”?). Just this summer I was running on a pleasant and busy street in Annapolis when I passed a group of men standing outside a building on what looked like a smoke break. As a couple of them eyed me up and down, they both said something along the lines of “wow, looking good.” As often happens to me, I smiled. Then when I was ten feet on the other side of them I felt angry at them and my reaction. But, as a friend commented when we talked about this sort of thing at dinner last night, this is what we’ve been conditioned to do. In any case, my own discomfort at the interaction prompted me to find a different route back, even though my original plan had been to retrace my steps.
Was it traumatizing? Not really. Does this sort of thing devastate me? No. Does it “count” as sexual harassment? Absolutely, in the sense that it is unwanted and unwelcome sexual attention. In what world does a man feel as if he is absolutely entitled to give his opinion about whether he finds a random woman stranger attractive? Ours.
Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual coercion all happen on a continuum, in degrees of severity. Remember, we’re not all in as bad a situation as Teresa Vince was. But the fact that we have been conditioned to be polite, to put up with, and (as I did in finding a different way back to my starting point that day) adapt contributes to outcomes such as the death of Teresa Vince.
What did I do? I smiled. If guys get a smile back, then how in the heck are they supposed to grasp that their attention is not welcome? And then the next women, the one with the presence of mind enough to tell them to go fuck themselves, will be told she’s a bitch. My smile contributed to the normalization of sexual violation.
Unfortunately, saying “no” doesn’t often yield the desired results either. Sometimes it gets taken up as a challenge, or as a reason to abuse.
Years ago, as an undergraduate, one of my professors drove me to a park instead of straight home and said he wanted to go for a walk (it was dark). I didn’t know what to do so I said okay (to the walk, not to what came next). Before long he literally threw me down on the ground and jumped on top of me and rammed his tongue into my mouth. I pushed him off and turned to go back to the car. I wanted to go home. I didn’t like it but I didn’t know enough at the time to understand that I’d been sexually harassed (or even possibly assaulted, considering the force of the throw-down). I was too naive to grasp that I was supposed to be appalled, not merely annoyed and most certainly not flattered (or worse still, convinced I’d done something wrong to prompt it).
This was in the same park where, one afternoon a few years prior, as a teenager, I was walking alone and a strange man sidled up along side me and started chatting (like, have we learned yet that we are under no obligation whatsoever to have a conversation with any random stranger who wishes to have one with us?). Instead of telling him to fuck off I made small talk. Within two minutes he’d whipped his cock out of his pants and asked me how I liked it. I bolted and ran all the way home that day. Police were called. They came and took notes. Nothing further happened.
And still, though I recall both of these incidents, I don’t even feel scarred by them. Which brings me to another thing that came up during #metoo. Besides people feeling as if their experiences weren’t bad enough, I had another friend who didn’t post #metoo because she hated the idea of her FB friends then speculating about what “happened.” She said that it would feel like “a violation all over again.”
But is #metoo about victimhood or about solidarity? If the things that happened occur on a continuum — maybe you were assaulted or maybe you “just” experience the low-level everyday harassment of cat-calling and unwelcome comments about your beautiful eyes and haranguing for not smiling when a guy wants you to smile. The ubiquity, and the fact that we carry on, not necessarily unscathed but many of us not thoroughly destroyed, can help generate a sense of common cause. Have we had enough yet? At the very least, as was Tarana Burke’s original intention, it let’s us know we’re not alone.
Now’s the time when people want to say here we go again. Putting it on the people who have been violated. We’re supposed to self-disclose (many felt some pressure to do so). We’re supposed to “start the conversation.” All of the commentators I’ve heard on media have been women.
One of the most difficult things for a lot of people to wrap their heads around in the #metoo thing is that if so many women have experienced the violation (like, almost everyone it seemed), then there must be an awful lot of offenders (like, many of not most of the straight men in our lives)? I too have complicated feelings about this side of it. More complicated even than about my own and many others’ experiences, large and small, of inappropriate and harmful sexual intrusion. Why? Because I’ve got lots of men in my life and I really like them. So it’s hard to accept that at least some of them, socialized as they are into the same heteronormative gender scripts as I’ve been, and buoyed up by their often invisible-to-them privilege, are the harassers and assaulters and violators. But that’s the sad truth of it.
Not only that, as Rachel Lark and Kate Willet so succinctly put it in their song, “It’s hard to be feminist and still want dick.” If you’re a woman who is attracted to men you’ll feel this more. Regardless, we all have men in our lives whom we want to (and do) think the best of. And sometimes, at the right times and from the right men, sexual attention is wanted and welcome. That means for us straight women when it’s from men we know and whom we interact with in “that way.”
It’s not so difficult to figure out when it’s inappropriate. Teresa Vince’s manager should have known it was inappropriate. My professor should have known it was inappropriate. In neither case were they encouraged or lead to believe this was a welcome interaction.
Strangers on the street? Men, you can be pretty certain that they don’t need or want your opinion of how they look. No woman goes out for a run hoping men will notice her and comment about her booty. What about when you see pretty women who are buying groceries? Don’t be that creep who scuttles around the store with his shopping cart striking up conversations about how good the blueberries look today or asking women he doesn’t know if they can tell him what to do with hemp hearts. The sense of entitlement is misplaced. And (this may help you make some changes) just because it’s harassment doesn’t mean it’s not also pathetic.
I’m a runner. I’ve been a runner for a while. I’ve run in every city I’ve ever lived in, and I’ve been harassed in every city, both when I’m running outside or in a gym. Often, I don’t even realize that some man has said something inappropriate to me until I’ve passed him because, well, I’m running. I’m focused, both on my run and on the quiet I’m seeking while I run. But I’ve know that I have to stay alert to stay safe.
I know the tricks, as it were, to try to avoid harassment. I rarely run at night, and I vary my route. I do run with headphones, but I keep the volume down. I tell my partner where I’m running, and I run with a phone. In fact, I use a handy feature on my phone that allows my partner to track my location. Yes, that’s right. My partner can track my location at all times, and he has used it a few times when I’ve been gone longer than expected. Each time he has tracked me, he tells me, saying, “I didn’t realize you were going for a long run” or “You were gone so long that I got worried.” He runs too, and I can also track his location. He enabled this feature on his phone at the same time I did on mine. He said, “We should both do this, for safety reasons.” The thing is, his reasons are so I can find him if he injures himself, while I want him to find me if I’ve been attacked. Because I think about that when I run, especially on longer runs. And I shouldn’t have to.
I should be safe when I run. I should feel comfortable running in my own neighborhood, in my own city. Often, I do. Often, I experienced long periods in which I’m not catcalled or harassed. I start to let my guard down. I turn my music up, or I try a new route, going through a part of the city with which I’m less familiar. But then, it happens again. Some man hollers something at me, something about my body, and I’m reminded that I must be on guard.
I feel guilty about not posting a MeToo. I feel guilty about not having a major experience to flag. When I thought about my very minor experience- unwanted attention by a high school teacher – I thought: “oh, this isn’t serious enough. Nothing happened in the end. I didn’t even know what was going on.” This reflection, subsequent assignment of ‘not bad enough’ and then refraining from commenting in MeToo threads has made me uncomfortable.
So, not a comprehensive or thorough analysis, but some thoughts.