The #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment went viral recently, with social media feeds full of posts and hashtags from women and men around the world sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault, “to give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
And that it has. Tragically, a lot of us were only too familiar with it to begin with, but this campaign, and the heavily publicised Harvey Weinstein scandal which broke before it, have given us the opportunity to elevate the issue.
This is not a woman-only issue as all genders are victims to these abuses, but women are disproportionately targeted.
The Weinstein scandal is a great example of men in power getting away with it for a long, long time – so much so that their behaviour becomes something talked about not just sotto voce, but in public, as fodder for humour.
Inappropriate behaviour is often on full display in cases like this, a known part of the culture. The reason it continues and builds on itself is because nobody feels empowered to step in and speak against it, because we are all pathetically inured to these situations and accept them in some part as par for the course, and because there is a mass social culture that bolsters gender inequality.
When we see sexism happen, we might imagine that others should speak up against it, that it’s not worth stepping into the fire to fight it ourselves, or because the social costs are simply too high.
For example: what will my boss think of me if I say I don’t find his sexist joke funny? Often, the abuses fall into the ‘micro’ category, and are even easier to ignore.
A question that has bubbled up repeatedly in the course of this conversation: what can men do about it?
Influence. Men are often, though not always, the perpetrators of these abuses. Men have more opportunities to speak to other men in varied settings, and thus perhaps more opportunity to move the needle on pervasive sexist attitudes.
You are also more likely to be heard than women are, and you occupy disproportionately more positions of power than women do, so use that current imbalance for good to influence change.
Act. The next time you hear a sexist comment, be that person at dinner or in a work meeting to say that it’s not okay even if it’s deeply uncomfortable.
Witnessing physical violence is even more difficult to know how to address, but gathering allies around you, and stepping in if you see an escalating physical violence situation in the making (with a view to taking it down a notch to protect the soon-to-be victim and yourself) can stop a horrible situation from unfolding.
Or, just be a friend to the person who is uncomfortable, and walk with them, talk to them, and change the dynamic.
Act in the broader context as well. For example, in the workplace, question why a woman may not be paid the same as a man. Vocalise your support for women’s choices when they are being taken away from us. Question gross sexism that occurs under the guise of tradition, art, or culture.
Understand. Sexual harassment and abuse is a pervasive fear for most women. A lot of us have spent our whole lives dealing with these matters and do not feel psychologically safe in a lot of spaces.
Not all women will want to talk about it. Not all of us will have articulated messages around it. Not all of us are going to thank you for expressing an interest in the matter, so don’t expect gratitude or a clap on the back.
Don’t use the fact that you have a daughter or a wife to tell us how your eyes have suddenly opened to inequalities – they should be open because we are all in this together as human beings worthy of dignity and equality. Understand that sexual harassment and abuse is not a separate issue, but one that falls within the systemic problem of gender inequality.
A lot of people who joined the “Me Too” campaign made the bold move to share their stories publicly. We all owe it to ourselves and each other to support them and take more responsibility to make our societies safer.