Recognizing the reality of sexual harassment


Mahika Hari

Just a few days ago, I read yet another case of a woman being sexually assaulted. This time, it was in her sleep by the man sitting next to her on the plane. What astonished and terrified me is the lack of surprise I felt when hearing about this, demonstrating how the culture of sexual harassment no longer fazes me.

Actress Alyssa Milano had no idea what she initiated when she encouraged anyone who suffered sexual harassment or assault to come forward by replying “Me too,” a term originally coined by black activist Tarana Burke, to her tweet. Rapidly becoming a viral hashtag on Twitter, a wave of confrontations and awareness, powered by voices of millions of survivors, #MeToo has uncovered dozens of acclaimed icons and household names.

#MeToo is a simple handle, but it has become a widely recognized social media movement, a global catharsis predominantly led by and for survivors. Flooding over 85 different countries, the movement has taken down Britain’s Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, inspired French women to chant “Balance ton porc” (“Expose your pig”) on the streets, and spread through Spanish-speaking countries as #YoTambién (Me Too).

The #MeToo movement has created a turning point in our society, making it acceptable, perhaps for the first time, for victims of sexual harassment and assault to speak out openly. It has also been a turning point for me.

In the past, having dealt with and ignored catcalling and leering, I felt brave but did not understand the significance of those seemingly harmless interactions. I just silently accepted it and moved on, thinking it was not a big deal, as it happened to everyone. I realize that I have lived in a sheltered cocoon of naivete my entire life, tucked away from most of the viciousness in the world. And as a result, I’d grown to blindly trust everyone around me, a problem I’m now aware of.

When my parents would warn me about the dangers of sexual assault, I quickly brushed it off. Uninformed and in denial, I convinced myself this only happened to others. However, the #MeToo movement revealed to me that it can happen to anyone. According to the Huffington Post, every 98 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. That person is a woman 90% of the time, and she is 18-24 years old in every 1 in 3 of those cases. As graduation quickly approaches, leaving my bubble is a frightening thought. While I’m not ready to face this harsh reality, I don’t want my every step to be controlled by fear.

I am amazed by the number of women who have spoken up, but I am also stunned by the overwhelming silence of men. I see the next step as getting men directly involved in the movement, rather than just labeling them as the problem, the enemy. I believe we have to appreciate the ones who want to help but don’t know how.
While it’s hard for a man to imagine the fear of being followed in the dark or having to be mindful of not choosing something too short or too tight to wear, I know men can still play an integral role in these conversations. Not every man is to blame for the presence of sexual abuse, but every man needs to open his eyes to the horrors occurring and use his place in society to make a positive impact.

So, what can men actually do? First, putting a stop to the degrading locker room banter they witness or are a part of would be a good start. Second, remaining silent makes us accomplices, and so, we must address sexual abuse as it happens. I don’t think it’s too difficult to discern harassment from day-to-day behavior; a hug is friendly, but an unwanted grope is assault, just as a compliment is kind, but a catcall is harassment.

Building on the momentum of the #MeToo movement and turning the goal from raising awareness to taking action, the Time’s Up movement was launched on January 1st. Not solely based upon sharing a #MeToo, it lightens the burden on the survivors. Further, sexual abuse knows no boundaries; it affects all races, genders, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses, and ages.
We all need to work together to build a safer world for ourselves and the future generations, a world in which there are more #IBelieveYous, a response begun by advocates, and fewer #MeToos. If I ever have a daughter, I’ll raise her to be much more aware than I was. But I don’t want her to have the slightest chance of missing out on opportunities because she’s afraid, quitting her job because of an inappropriate boss, or growing cold and resenting men.

But then I think back to that woman on the plane, and the many others before her. I know I’m going to be traveling by air myself one day, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid. That fear might very well be enough to stop me from taking a red-eye or sleeping on the plane, both privileges I am entitled to. Because if I put myself in the shoes of the women who have suffered sexual assault and harassment, I’m not sure I’d be tough enough to handle it. I don’t know that I wouldn’t let the unshakeable shame get the best of me, that I wouldn’t retreat into my shell for the rest of my life. Would I join those who suffer in silence?

In the words of Oprah, “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” We must continue to equip ourselves to combat any situation until we get closer to squashing the perpetrators and the institution of sexual abuse is, hopefully, one day, history.

At our Fifth Grade Graduation, we sang the song “Our Time.” I clearly remember the part: “We’re the movers and we’re the shapers. We’re the names in tomorrow’s papers. Up to us now to show ‘em.” From these movements, we can learn to stand up for ourselves and for others and to never let our voices be silenced, whether in the context of sexual harassment or any other injustice we face. We shouldn’t just be waiting for change — we should be initiating it. Time’s up!