I’m not usually one to jump on the bandwagon as far as social media awareness campaigns are concerned. All those posts on Facebook or Twitter asking me to update my profile picture to show solidarity with a cause, or share or retweet something to raise awareness – usually I just roll my eyes and keep on scrolling.
Because firstly, I hate being told what to like, share or retweet – the whole point of social media is for everybody to share what matters to them, not what somebody else decides should matter. And I really hate the underlying implication of so many of these campaigns – that if you don’t update your profile picture, or you don’t share or retweet, then you’re a cruel, selfish individual who clearly doesn’t care about the issue at hand.
And secondly, what’s the point? 2 million people updating their Facebook profile picture to show solidarity with the latest city affected by a terrorist attack, or to raise awareness for breast cancer, at the end of the day makes absolutely no difference to the underlying causes.
So why, then, did I find myself compelled to add my own “Me Too” post to the hundreds of thousands already on Twitter and Facebook?
For those unaware of what “Me Too” refers to – it is a response to the actress Alyssa Milano’s suggestion, that if every woman who has found herself subjected to sexual harassment or sexual assault were to post “Me Too” it would give a sense of the scale of the problem. And while Milano’s post was prompted by the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal, the women posting “Me too” in response are not talking just about Weinstein-style abuses of power – they are talking about the wider issue of sexual assault and harassment, in an attempt to highlight just how many women have experienced such issues in their lifetime.
For two short words, they proved surprisingly difficult to post. I typed the words into Facebook, hovered over the “Post” button, then deleted them. Then I typed them again, deleted them again, closed down Facebook. Reopened Facebook, typed the words again, deleted them again. Stared long and hard at my post settings, which are currently set to “Public”. If I’m going to post these two words, add my voice to this campaign, do I really want this post to be public? Maybe I should change it to Friends only? But surely the whole point of the campaign is that it’s meant to be public?
Besides, when I say “Me too” what am I saying? I’m not known for cryptic posts – I tend to make my thoughts and feelings as clear as can be – so how will my friends interpret those two little words? Will they think I’m saying I’ve been raped? (I’m not). Or will they think I’m complaining about having been cat-called in the street, or about a bloke being a bit too gropey on the dancefloor? Well yes, of course those things have happened to me but no, I personally wouldn’t class those as abusive (though I accept some women would, and some of those posting “Me Too” are referring to that sort of behaviour).
What I am talking about, is having my repeated “No” fall on deaf ears. About an encounter that I definitely did not want, and made it clear I did not want, but ended up allowing through fear that to resist further would result in him becoming angry and hurting me. A friend that I mentioned it to afterwards told me it was rape. I couldn’t allow myself to think of it that way. I still don’t. I have always seen rape as an act of violence – this was not that. And of course I blamed myself. Had I somehow led him on? Was it my fault for inviting him in? For not resisting more forcefully?
No – this was not rape. There was absolutely no way I would ever report it. Far easier to just chalk it up as a bad experience and move on.
But that wasn’t the only incident I was thinking of when I wrote “Me too”. It was certainly the worst, and thankfully the only one of its kind, but there was also a time many years ago, when I was waitressing, and a drunk customer put his hand up the back of my skirt as I stood at the table behind him attempting to take their order. I told my manager, who went straight over to the guy and told him that if he ever did something like that again he would call the police. One of the waiters was told to take over serving both tables and nothing further was said about it. To be honest, at the time I was more shocked than offended – it was just such a brazen thing to do. But I never wore that skirt to work again. Not that it was particularly short – the hemline was just above my knee – but its loose shape had made it very easy for him to stick his hand up the back.
Scrolling through all the “Me too” tweets on Twitter, many of which specify exactly the offence the tweeter is referring to, it’s clear that the two words “Me too” encompass an entire spectrum of assault, abuse and harassment. From catcalling, to groping, to men who don’t take no for an answer, to bosses, clients or colleagues who make inappropriate suggestive comments in what should be a professional environment, or who offer a professional leg up in return for a leg-over, the catalogue of inappropriate and offensive behaviours that women (and some men) find themselves subject to is quite alarming.
Which is, in itself, problematic – it’s all very well hundreds of thousands of women saying “Me too” but they’re not all talking about the same thing. There is a vast difference between being cat-called, and being raped or sexually assaulted. So if everybody is using the same two words to describe such a vast array of experiences, how does that bring us any closer to understanding the scale of the problem? And even if we were to get a full picture of the types of abuse that women experience throughout their lives, how does that bring us any closer to preventing such abuse?
The thing that is very important to point out, is that despite the huge number of women speaking out, the majority of men are perfectly decent and wouldn’t dream of harassing or assaulting a woman. And despite the hyperbolic language used by some commentators, most women do not face abuse on a day-to-day basis. The two encounters I’ve recounted above stick in my mind for the very reason that they are so out of the ordinary.
But the number of women objecting to, or pouring scorn on, those posting “Me Too” is also worth talking about. Accusations of attention-seeking and bandwagons, invariably accompany causes such as this – which in turn makes it harder for every woman who has a “Me Too” story in mind, to actually type those two words. Is her story worthy of a “Me Too”, she will ask herself? If it wasn’t rape, should she just keep quiet, for fear that she may be accused of attention-seeking, or worse, of capitalising on the misery of those who have been raped or sexually assaulted?
My decision to finally post those two words was certainly not through any need for attention. But it was in response to seeing friends posting the words – if they could be brave enough to speak up, then why couldn’t I? In the fight for sexual equality, women are often our own worst enemies – our reluctance to talk openly about the experiences we have had, is what causes women, and particularly younger women, to feel that maybe it is something they have done wrong, that has caused the man to behave as he has. Both of the experiences I mentioned above happened many years ago, when I was much younger and much less experienced in the ways of men – for a number of years after the first encounter, I would blurt out “I’m not going to sleep with you” to any man who got a bit too flirtatious, so determined was I not to allow any mixed signals to lead to a repeat experience. Which stopped many a potential romance in its tracks, so effective was it in killing the conversation.
The problem with all of this is that there are so many grey areas. No always means no, but while one woman may object to a man putting his hand on her butt during a slow-dance, another woman may welcome it. A woman who gets repeatedly cat-called will see it as abusive, while one who has just come out of the hairdresser and gets wolf-whistled as she walks past a building site, may find an extra spring in her step, and a smile on her face at the implication that she looks as good as she feels. We can’t legislate for every encounter between men and women – nor would we wish to. But by being a bit more willing to speak up about behaviour that is unacceptable – that is threatening, or demeaning – I would hope that we can gradually bring about an end to the culture of silence that enables bullies to get away with their behaviour. So yes, #MeToo.