The inevitable #MeToo post

Harvey Weinstein’s had a whole week of ‘treatment’ and has ‘taken it seriously’ so I guess all that nastiness is over with then, which will be a huge relief to all the sexual harassers and rapists who have been complaining that they may have to change. 

I won’t be holding my breath. If anything the last couple of weeks have highlighted just how entrenched sexism is in our society, how much entitlement men feel over women’s bodies, how deeply attached to their hatred of women some men are. Harvey Weinstein had clauses written into his contract to protect him from the consequences of sexually assaulting women. So long as he reimbursed any costs to The Weinstein Company, he could masturbate at woman all he liked. They didn’t care if he raped women in the workplace, they just didn’t want it to cost them anything. 

I didn’t want to write a #MeToo post, although of course #MeToo because almost all of us have, but as the days have passed and I’ve read what’s been written and listened to what’s being said, I’ve realised the silence is part of the problem. So here we are. Me too. 

When #MeToo started, like every woman on social media, I started thinking about my own history with sexual harassment and assault.  I was trying to remember my earliest experiences, but it’s hard. There have been so many, and the earliest ones were so long ago. In the same way your memory doesn’t retain the thousands of rude people you encounter in life, just a few extreme cases, sexual harassment and minor assaults are so common that we forget the specifics after awhile. 

Which is in no way to suggest sexual harassment is ever inconsequential: no matter how on your guard you are the shock can floor you. The sheer effort involved in being on your guard against assaults is a consequence. Walking further so you can park somewhere safer. Thinking about that when looking for a park. Walking with your keys between your fingers….you get the point. There is a scale, and the ones on the low end blur together in your memory over time not because they were not awful at the time, but because there are too many. 

Looking back, it is shocking to me how quickly I went from first becoming aware that men can be a threat to accepting that sexual harassment was ‘just part of being a woman’, and that I must be constantly on alert against harassment escalating into assault or rape…because if it does escalate, it will be my fault. 

I don’t want to talk about how it feels to be a victim, I want to talk about how we stop it. 

As a manager, I’ve handled and been witness to the handling of a number of complaints of bullying and harassment over the years, some of them sexual (and let’s be clear, sexual harassment is a form of bullying). In most cases the pattern has been similar: a relatively junior member of staff is targeted by a relatively senior member of staff. The junior complains, but is told they must make their complaint formally for the organisation to act. Fearful of retribution, the junior decides not to complain and no action is taken against the harasser. Depending on the circumstances, the harasser’s supervisor may not even be informed that a complaint was made. The harasser is free to move on to the next victim. In most cases, the victim leaves the organisation as soon as they can. On the rare occasion someone makes a formal complaint, the perpetrator makes a counter-complaint and the victim gets treated like a perp too. 

In one notable instance, the harasser was a peer to other junior staff members. 3 young women complained about women complained about one young man to their manager. Concerned no action was taken, one young woman reported to another staff member, and was giving a written reprimand for doing so by her manager (a woman, lest you think men are all of the problem). The other staff member took it further though, and two more women came forward with complaints. The young man’s employment was cancelled, but all 5 women were made to sign confidentiality agreements, and the manager who gave the written reprimand was left in charge of them. Most of them quit. 

The culture of secrecy that surrounds harassment is enabling the perpetrators. All companies have a code of conduct that says ‘don’t harass and rape co-workers’ but very few act against the perpetrators unless they are formally charged outside the institution. Just like The Weinstein Company enabled Harvey by allowing him to buy himself out of that code, large organisations enable harassers by giving them shelter from the consequences of their actions. Their victims – sometimes deeply traumatised – are forced to find other employment but nothing happens to the perpetrators. 

There are always people who know who they are. Just as with Weinstein, people warn each other off the bullies and the harassers. Just as with Weinstein, they are careful to target powerless people, and to behave themselves around people who might act, or have more power than them. I can appreciate it’s a dicey area but people in organisations know who behaves badly, and that’s where I hope change will come as a result of the current focus on the issue. I think now it’s only a matter of time before victims sue organisations who have failed to act against known harassers. The young people I work with feel strongly that they are entitled to safety in the workplace (hallelujah!) and the current tidal wave of high profile accusations seems to be emboldening others to speak out. I hope it will soon be untenable for management to say “the victim didn’t make a formal complaint so we couldn’t/wouldn’t act”. I hope it won’t be good enough for organisations to have codes of conduct they only enforce when they’re forced to by police action. 

It’s nice to have hope. 

There’s a story doing the rounds: a lecturer divides the board in two and asks the men in the class what they do every day to avoid rape. After a silence, a couple of them joke about ‘not getting sent to prison’. The lecturers asks the women the same question and soon their side of the board is filled. Walk with my keys between my fingers, avoid the dark end of the car park even though it means walking further, never walking alone, never running with headphones on, never leaving your drink unattended, checking on each other etc etc etc. Women live much of their lives with the threat of rape and assault as a constant background to everything they do, but perpetrators are allowed to carry on victimising people because of a culture of silence that shames the victims, not the perpetrators. We need to make that change. 

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