If you’re a fish swimming in a polluted sea, how long does it take you to realise that mucky water isn’t normal?
The ongoing outrage in the media over sexual harassment and abuse allegations has a wearying inevitability. Powerful man subjects powerless younger women to sexual abuse. Because he can.
The people expressing shock are mostly men. Women know this stuff happens, to all of us. We’ve been brought up to police our appearance, our conversation, our lives, to avoid it. Some older, successful women are now suggesting that young women should just “man up” and “give as good as they get”. Because it’s just the way things are, and a bit of flirtatious horseplay never did them any harm.
Well, it did me harm. I don’t want any younger women to have to put up with this, ever again.
Without much enthusiasm, here are some of my experiences. Not with film people or politicians, or anything glamorous. This is with that most trusted group in our society, the medical profession.
1: I’m in my early 20s. Every time I go to the GP, including the time I had a head injury, he says he needs to show me how to examine my breasts. It takes time for the penny to drop: this isn’t for my benefit; it’s for his. I only realise when I talk to my mother, in her 50s, the age women are most likely to get breast cancer. He’s never offered to examine her. I’m still unsure, though. I change GP. Years later, I hear he’s been reported to the GMC for inappropriate sexual conduct. He gets off. He’s still a GP at the same practice.
2: I’m a journalist in my late 20s. One of my contacts at the magazine I work for – an NHS consultant – puts his hand on my knee in the pub, where a group of us have gone after a meeting. I wriggle away. He puts it back. I mention it later to another female journalist at my magazine. Oh God, she says. He always does that to female reporters. Just avoid him.
3: I’m a journalist in my 30s, at an awards event for doctors. One of them – another consultant – is drunk, and sitting on the stairs, where I’m standing. He puts his hand on my leg, moves it up my skirt. I pull his hand away and move to another room. I’m furious, humiliated and shocked. But it’s a fun evening, and everyone is drinking and being jolly, and I don’t want to spoil things or be difficult. I go home and tell my colleagues the next day. We agree to warn the other reporters about him, before next year’s awards.
I wonder how those men behave towards their female medical students, secretaries, nurses and junior colleagues. Actually, I don’t wonder; I’m pretty sure I know. They felt entitled to touch my body; they’ll feel entitled to touch other women too.
I’m in my 40s now, and thank God, that sort of thing doesn’t happen to me now. I’m too old to be targeted. It happens to my younger colleagues, friends and relatives instead, and that knowledge makes me sick.
I’m exhausted at the thought of what needs to happen to eradicate these experiences, so young girls and women in future don’t have to deal with them. The Everyday Sexism Project documents tens of thousands of them, from demeaning comments to serious assault. The scale of the problem is enormous, and stretches across every industry, every profession and trade.
Guidelines and protocols and complaints procedures are a necessary step, of course. But there’s only one thing that will stop a man who thinks he can get away with sexual assault: making sure he doesn’t get away with it.
Women can’t do this alone. You say: “Not all men.” Alright, then, all you men who agree that sexual harassment and assault are Bad Things. Here’s how you can show you mean it:
- Listen to us, without interrupting.
- Believe us, without asking if we’d been drinking, or if we’re sure it wasn’t a misunderstanding.
- Call out the men who do it, joke about it, boast about it, think they can get away with it. Show them that they can’t. And for God’s sake, stop electing them President of the United States.