Like so many women this week, I added my voice to the chorus and said “me too.”
The campaign asks women to comment on social media if they have ever experienced sexual assault or harassment. The aim is to show how prevalent the problem is. But it isn’t just prevalent, it is nearly universal. I have yet to meet a woman who couldn’t answer “Me too” (whether she chooses to answer or not is up to her and her alone.)
It starts early. Cat calls, unwanted sexual attention and comments, inappropriate touches from older men. We are conditioned from childhood to believe this is a part of being female. It can even feel flattering, before we have enough life experience to see the perversity of the comments. And then there is guilt over feeling flattered by the attention, as though it must have been okay because in the moment, we didn’t object.
It is easy to see the sea of “Me too”s and miss that each comment is an individual person with individual experiences and reactions to them. Moreover, most women had a hard time narrowing it down to one story to tell. Each of us has stories that stick out, some traumatic, but we have also experienced so many instances of “casual harassment” it would be impossible to document them all.
My “sticks out” story happened in grade 8. We were on a class skating trip, and my grade 8 teacher skated past me, smacking me on the ass as he went. A classmate of mine and I looked at each other in disbelief of what had just happened. He did it so brazenly, so casually, like it was such a normal thing to do, he didn’t even need to do it in secret. It made me question if I was making a big deal out of nothing. Later that year, he would slowly look me up and down while I gathered my things at my locker and tell me I was, “Looking good.”
Over the years, I ended up just lumping this and similar incidents all together as “creepy old men.” Something we all have to deal with. I was never raped. Did the ass-smack of a teacher three times my age really count as sexual assault? I wasn’t traumatized by any of it, just creeped out, so did it count? In addition to being conditioned to accept harassment and even assault as inevitable, women convince themselves that if they are not impacted in a major life-changing way, these events don’t really count or matter.
But they do. They add up over time, and they act as a foot in the door for men to further take advantage of us, discredit us, and disregard our voices.
So, me too. Me too from the rooftops. But that isn’t enough. It isn’t on women to prevent men from claiming rights to our bodies. We own our bodies by default, and no one gets to sexualize them without our consent. Period. We don’t need to declare this, it is an absolute truth from the moment we are born. We don’t change the script solely by telling women to speak louder. We do it by changing the way we raise boys.
Just as girls are conditioned from early on to accept unwanted attention, boys are conditioned that they can give it. “Not my son” says everyone. Yes, your son. Unless you actively counter it, your son will receive these messages because they are woven through his life experience. Not every man sexually assaults or harasses women, but they all receive the messages.
We need to stop putting the emphasis on the victims and start putting it on the perpetrators. But how?
Start by removing gender from the equation, from the very beginning. This doesn’t mean ignoring the very real differences in discrimination men and women face, it means that from birth we discuss bodily autonomy, ours and everyone else’s, regardless of gender.
We teach consent by showing respect for our children’s bodies, and insisting they do the same for others. If we are tickling our child and they say stop, stop. Even if you know they are kidding. Even if they immediately turn around and ask you to start again. If they say stop, stop immediately.
Ask them if they want affection. Ask if they want a hug, or a kiss, or to be tickled. If the answer is no, respect that. Insist on the reverse. If you are touched out and don’t want a hug right now, tell them so. “I love you, I love your hugs, but I don’t want to be touched right now.” Show them that while physical affection is a way to show love, you can reject an act of affection without rejecting the person. Teach them it’s okay if someone does not want affection from them at that time.
Call out things you see in life and on TV. If you look for it, it’s there. It looks tame. Dares to kiss someone, adolescents telling each other they will do something for the person, but only if they get a hug, two people fighting over who will “get the girl/boy” as though the person involved does not get a say for themselves. Once you start looking for it, you will be shocked how frequently it appears, even in kids shows. Call it out. Call it wrong.
Have comprehensive sex education in schools, and include consent in in the curriculum for everyone, emphasizing both the right to your own body, and the lack of rights to others bodies. Give examples of “casual harassment.” Shining the light on it helps prevent it from becoming an accepted part of daily interaction.
Don’t have one big talk with your children about consent when you think they are old enough to understand it. By then, they will have received countless messages to the contrary. Start when they are a blank slate, and fill it age-appropriate examples of respecting bodily autonomy.
We don’t tackle the problem of sexual assault and harassment simply by admonishing grown men. We need to start by instilling the right messages well before we reach that stage.