The first time I remember being groped, I had my crotch grabbed by a laughing older boy. I was five.
Later, an older neighbor boy exposed himself to me when we were playing hide and seek. I turned away. He then stuck his hands down my pants. When I backed away, he told me I “needed protection” that could only be gained by sleeping with him. I was 11.
At a crowded water park in a country where I did not speak the language, an older teen came up behind me on the stairs to a water slide and stuck his hand inside my swimsuit and fondled me. I yelled, in English, “Stop that” but there was nowhere to go to while he and his friends stood there and laughed at me. I was 12 and humiliated.
A married 35-year old school bus driver grabbed my butt and stroked my hand on my way out of the bus, asking for “personal English lessons” while his wife was at work. I was 14.
As a BYU student, I headed home on the bus to spend the summer at my family’s home in Michigan. A large man sat next to me and talked to me about how I reminded him of his daughter. I dozed off and when I woke up, it was dark outside and my neighbor was touching my thigh. He also had his pants unzipped and was fondling himself. I was horrified and fled to the back of the bus, leaving one of my shoes behind. I was 17.
Those were not the last times.
My experience is not unusual. In fact, it seems commonplace as sexual harassment and assault swirl in, around and through women’s lives. And that is a travesty.
This weekend, social media was taken over by the hashtag #MeToo. Following the news about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused by more than three dozen women of harassment or abuse including rape, actress Alyssa Milano sent a tweet that has taken the Internet by storm.
She tweeted: “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” she wrote.
Milano said that her hope was that people would get the idea of “just how many people have been affected by this in the world, in our lifetimes, in this country.” She probably had no idea what was going to happen. The hashtag went viral, with almost a million tweets in 48 hours. On Facebook, more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions came in less than 24 hours and as of Tuesday evening, Facebook said almost half of all users have had friends who posted “me too.”
To their credit, there have been many who have spoken up in support of the many women — and men — who have been sexually assaulted or harassed. Hashtags like #IBelieveYou and #IHearYou popped up and good, healthy conversations have begun.
Yet in spite of overwhelming evidence, there are still far too many who don’t believe women when they are assaulted and harassed. They accuse them of “playing the victim card” or assert that they “got what they deserved” or poo-poo it as normal behavior.
When I posted #MeToo on my social media feed, I also talked about the muting that happens, the complete dismissal and telling women (and men) that what they experienced did not happen. That’s called gas lighting. And it’s everywhere. The very first comment on my social media post, I kid you not, was this: “Have you really or are you just jumping on the bandwagon to add your voice?”
Certainly my experience pales in comparison to the horrors others have experienced. I wasn’t trafficked, tortured or raped. I wasn’t beaten, bruised or told I deserved it because of what I was wearing. In fact, I myself have down-played the things I experienced because I was told, therefore believed (when I was younger), that they were “no big deal.” Rather than acknowledging and calling out inappropriate behavior, over and over and over, it’s the victims who are silenced and shamed and blamed. Just look at rapist Brock Turner who barely got a slap on the wrist and a three-month prison sentence because more time would have had a ”severe impact” on his life.
I clearly remember the first time I cried from anger. I was a nursing student in the psych rotation and assigned to the state mental hospital. We sat in on a group therapy session with sex offenders and I listened to grown men blame the young girls they had raped. Those 8-year olds were just so seductive they couldn’t help themselves. By the time the session was done, I was shaking and crying in helpless anger.
I am no longer helpless, nor am I silent. As this weekend has proved, nor are millions of others. The attention a hashtag has brought to this disgusting scourge in encouraging.
But the #MeToo viral phenomenon must not stop with a hashtag. It must include action, from all of us. Of course not all men are part of the problem — but every single man can be part of the solution, and so can every single woman. If we are to change the culture that allowed Weinstein to get away with sexual assault, then we need some really honest conversations about that culture, followed by concrete action. We can’t be outraged by Weinstein’s behavior but continue to pay for “entertainment” that showcases and celebrates that behavior.
We can’t be offended by Hugh Hefner’s exploitation and degradation of women and also be consumers of pornography. We can’t be outraged when our daughters are objectified, harassed and assaulted but be ok with hazing, vulgar locker room talk and behavior, dismissing it with a boys-will-be-boys shrug of the shoulders.
And we can’t point to “liberal Hollywood” as the problem when we turn a blind eye to the sophomoric, crude, crotch-grabbing man currently residing in the White House.
Dr. Maya Angelou said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” The #MeToo movement has been a good first step in showing the depth and breadth of the problem. Now that we “know better,” we must do better.
Here are some concrete steps we can all take: One: Hear and believe the people in your lives. Stop making excuses for why it’s “not that bad.” Two: Speak up when you see or hear inappropriate behaviors taking place. Three: Teach our children from the youngest age that they can say no to any touch from anyone and that includes kisses, hugs and sitting on laps of relatives. Four: Stop glorifying those perpetuating these behaviors because they are rich, famous, or are in positions of power.
Let’s do better.
Holly Richardson, a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune, has been told more times than she can count to, “Sit down, shut up and stop rocking the boat.” But she has no intention of doing so as long as the boat still needs rocking.