I’m super mad. It’s the beginning of the year and I want to smash 100 French women in the face. 100 French women, artists, writers, celebrities, public figures, who published a collective article in “Le Monde” to question the #MeToo campaign and support “men’s freedom to annoy women”.
I’ve never paid much attention or given credit to what’s happening in show business. It’s mainly bullshit. However, the scandal about Harvey Weinstein is crucial because it unveils more than what this sexual predator in particular did to his victims. It unveils what millions of women have to endure every day, on different scales and in different ways, through their whole lives. All of sudden, the suffering and exasperation of anonymous victims is put in the spotlight by celebrities starting to speak up or publicly raising awareness. And out of nowhere, a handful of angry women who haven’t understood what it’s all about, have engaged in fighting the wrong battle, stealing the attention, and trying to challenge that incredible movement of change that is spreading.
Surprisingly, it is only now that people – and by people I mostly mean men – start to be aware of how endemic and common sexual violence to women is. It is only now that society starts to realize that “anecdotal and meaningless behaviors” that are collectively tolerated such as street harassment, sexual comments, wolf-whistling, etc., are not only indecent, but also traumatic and damaging. It is only now that we understand that we can’t put reprehensible sexual assaults such as rape on the one hand, trivial sexist incidents on the other hand, and see nothing in-between when there’s actually so much. And sadly, it is only now that women start feeling confident enough, with the support of social media, to flood the Internet with testimonies and, for once, be taken seriously.
This very little brain compartment of ours called “survival mode”, in which we put bad memories and go on with our lives, is opening up. The time for minimizing sexual abuse and joking about it, is coming to an end. Starting with the #MeToo campaign.
And yes, me too. All this time, I didn’t really consider that my experiences were significant enough to be called “sexual abuse” or “harassment” because I associated these terms with traumatic and violent acts such as sexual assaults. But my experiences were actually significant, they were indeed abuse and/or harassment, and they’re still painful memories. Even though I stored them in a little corner of my head and forget about them most of the time, they occasionally resurface in a very unpleasant way.
The subway “rubbers”: a rite of passage
“A woman can make sure her paycheck is the same as a man without having to feel traumatized by a rubber in the subway.” That’s a quote from the collective article. And if you don’t see any connection between the paycheck and the rubber, stop looking for it because there’s none. It’s just a poor rhetorical trick. Let me get this straight and explain what a “rubber” is through the eyes of someone who actually experienced it (because I doubt Catherine Deneuve often uses public transports).
That’s still how most people more or less see it: something that female commuters always experience at least once in their life. In Paris, it is a known fact that the rubbers visit the subway trains at peak hours. Everyone knows. I knew about it before it happened to me, and yet there was nothing I could do to avoid it. Picture it: it’s peak hour on a crazy hot summer day, the train is packed, I’m trying very hard to handle being in close contact with other passengers who are all sweating and smelling, and it’s a miracle that I haven’t fainted yet! Then I feel something suspicious against me. For a few seconds I’m wondering if it is what I think it is. It doesn’t stop. Yes, it’s definitely what I think it is… I’m disgusted. I can’t move because I’ve got no room for that, and it would feel extremely awkward and humiliating to say something out loud. I can’t even see who’s doing it and, before I know it, the next stop is here, people move, and the rubber leaves to his next victim without being busted. It happened 20 years ago, I still think about it every time I’m in the subway or in a crowded environment, and I can remember very vividly every detail of what probably didn’t take more than 30 seconds. The description above is very neat. I spared you the hard truth. The truth is, a stranger rubbed his erected penis against the butt of a 19-year-old girl who was too shocked and embarrassed to react, and who still feels guilty that she didn’t make it stop. I talked about it afterwards with friends, but there’s no way I could have reported it to my parents or the police. After all, what happened to me was just a drop in the ocean of what happens daily to many other female commuters. And when it happens to teenagers or children – who may have never heard of this practice – who knows how psychologically damaging it can be for them? It’s not because the rubbers are well-known that they should be commonly accepted or that what they do isn’t traumatizing, shocking or reprehensible. It has nothing to do with how strong or assertive you’ll become as an adult when you negotiate your salary with your employer. What kind of stupid shortcut is it?
Sexual harassment: when men think “no” means “yes”
Twice. It happened twice that one of my colleagues, in two different companies, harassed me.
Harasser No. 1 made friends with me first. We hanged out a couple of times with other colleagues. One evening, as I promised my colleagues I would cook for them and invited the whole department for dinner, the guy managed to convince every one of them to cancel at the very last minute under false (professional) pretenses. I guess he told them he was interested in me and our colleagues didn’t see the harm in canceling. It was too late to postpone the dinner, so the guy was the only guest who showed up, and he seized his chance right after dinner and tried to kiss me. I said “Thanks, but no” and I was very clear about it. Many times afterwards he invited me out. I said no every single time and started to avoid him. Then the harasser became a stalker: even though it was not his route, he suddenly met me every morning in the train. I had a flexible working schedule so I decided to take a later train. He did it too. Then I got an earlier train. He did it too. And he kept asking me out again and again and again, up to a point that I threatened him to denounce his conduct to the HR Director. He pretended to not understand my reaction, but he stopped and left the country a few weeks later for a new job. In the end, the whole thing lasted for months. It impacted my daily life, I was constantly on my guards at work, paid attention to everything that I said to him and to our colleagues to make sure nothing was ambiguous, and my overall wellbeing was undermined.
And it happened again a couple of years later in another company. I’m usually a friendly person at work. I have lunch out with my colleagues almost every day, sometimes with several of them at the same time, sometimes with only one. Which is what happened with Harasser No. 2, who obviously thought that a one-to-one lunch with a female colleague was a clear sign she wanted him. I was single at the beginning (and he was not), but I met my current boyfriend shortly after I joined the company, which is more or less when the guy started to behave differently. There were many inappropriate jokes and questions about my private life (that I didn’t answer). Then he started to be unpleasant to me at work, especially when there was an audience. He even stopped talking to me after a while even though we were supposed to occasionally communicate professionally. I didn’t make the connection immediately, but I also received friend requests on Facebook from people I didn’t know with creepy messages, including one message saying I had a secret admirer who was in love with me. I learned later that he created the fake profiles and sent the requests. Things got worse and worse, but what “saved” me is that the guy also had behavior problems with a couple of other people, including his manager. He was fired on the spot after another incident (stalking his boss during the weekends), but not before saying that he and I were having an affair (which, of course, was absolutely not true). I was forced to talk about it at work to stop the rumors and clear my name. From the day the situation with him started to deteriorate until many months after the guy was fired, I was worried about my own safety. The guy sued the company and I was told I might be asked to testify in court. I felt so scared that I even checked my tires before taking the wheel, and made sure no one was following me when driving or walking the streets. I removed my phone number from the books, etc. Thank God nothing happened after he left, but that was a somewhat traumatic experience that also lasted for a few months.
Voyeurism: with tiny holes come great pleasures
Two years ago, my boyfriend and I hired a freelance renovator to redo the roof of the shed in our back garden. Our bathroom is on the ground floor in an extension, close to the shed, and the bathroom window has a frosted film to block the view from the outside (except for a very tiny little stripe along the wooden frame). I noticed that when I was in the bathroom in the morning (meaning naked before/after a shower), the renovator was always smoking a cigarette by the window. But since it’s frosted, I didn’t pay much attention to it. Until one day, I realized that the renovator was actually watching me through that teeny tiny unfrosted stripe! I think my heart almost exploded out of shock. I first thought “No, it’s not possible, I made a mistake, he’s not watching”. My brain was telling me that it was me, not him. But the way he was positioned, hiding behind the wall with just his head and eyes behind that clear narrow stripe of glass, didn’t leave much room to doubt. My boyfriend was still asleep. I got dressed as quickly as possible, rushed to the bedroom, and explained to him what just happened. And again, as I was telling him, I thought that he wouldn’t believe me and would say I was just misinterpreting. But he did believe me. The problem was we had no proof. The guy was not caught in the act because I didn’t immediately confront him when I saw him. So the next days, we tried to catch him, with my boyfriend hiding behind the curtains on the first floor, checking if the renovator would try again to watch as I was in the bathroom. Of course, it never happened again, probably because he noticed that I caught him. He might have seen my face close to his when I stood by the window. He might have seen how quickly I hid to get dressed and ran to my boyfriend. So none of us said anything. Over the next few days, I just stayed on my guards until the roof job was finished, and that was it. But I felt so bad afterwards thinking of that guy who enjoyed himself probably for days before I noticed. I felt that my privacy – my body – had been violated and shown to someone that was not allowed to see it.
But besides the fear and shame, the worst part that came with all these situations was guilt. I felt guilty that maybe I unconsciously made these guys think I was interested in them. That maybe I said or did something equivocal. I felt guilty that I was too naive; that I should have seen it coming; that I didn’t reject them soon enough or that I wasn’t clear enough when I did; that I didn’t use the right words or made the right moves; I felt guilty that I should have reported them sooner. As inconsistent as it sounds, I felt guilty about everything: my own behavior of course, but also *their* behavior. I know it was not my fault in any way, but my memory hasn’t accepted it yet and I still wonder what I did wrong to have experienced harassment several times. Or that maybe I was the one overreacting or seeing things that were not happening.
There was no physical violence. No assaults. What happened to me is pretty common, so common even that most people can’t imagine that this kind of men could be charged or prosecuted. But that’s because we reached that point and forgot about our rights and dignity that we should no longer accept comments such as “Look at the way she dresses/acts, she’s asking for it”. We can no longer accept being told “hat happens”, “It’s normal”, “There’s nothing we can do about it”, “It’s no big deal” just because sexual abuse and harassment are not always physical and as violent as rape. They are traumatic experiences anyway, and tolerating them only encourages the perpetrators to continue and maybe escalate towards something even more dangerous. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from men who believe they have full power over women, from misogynistic pigs, from boys giving up to peer pressure, or from nice guys who don’t fully realize they’re occasionally acting like douchebags by making “minor and harmless” disrespectful comments. Sexual violence against women is kept alive because of two loopholes in our society: miseducation and impunity. Miseducation relies on every individual, every parent, every school, every company, and every organization to be fixed. Impunity relies on the law, and on the credit and consideration given to the victims.
I don’t believe we can erase hate and sexual abuse towards women, but we can reduce it by teaching our boys how to behave and listen. We can teach our girls how to be strong, stand up for their rights and have faith in the legal system. We can institutionalize the abuse and make it a punishable crime, even for minor acts. We can do so many things, but people have to be aware first. And I very much hope the #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc campaigns will help achieve this, and open the eyes of both the women who think nothing can be done, and the men who think they are beyond reproach, just acting natural.
So Catherine Deneuve and friends, go fuck off. If you know nothing about real life, if you live in a luxury bubble that made you lose any common sense, if you’ve never experienced what it’s like to me muted by men, by society, by shame or by guilt, good for you. But don’t speak up for the women or the men that you’re not, and keep living your fake dream.