Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on October 23, 2017.
If you are even somewhat present in social media, you have likely come across the hashtag campaign #MeToo, spurred by the recent accusations of sexual harassment and assault against famous movie producer Harvey Weinstein. A lot of women came forward to tell their own stories of encountering the media mogul and, headline after headline, the ugliness kept flowing. It has also spilled in Canada, with the recent sexual allegations against the Just for Laughs founder, Gilbert Rozon.
These are not cases of entertainment industry sensationalism; sexual harassment happens around us and victims are most often left to address it alone, ashamed, and fearful of speaking up. The campaign drew many of us into the conversation about sexual harassment, and the trauma it inflicts. Trouble is, life is one fast flowing river and the momentum becomes yesterday’s news, though the impact was real and palpable at the time. Blame it on information overload, but let’s not leave it at that.
Exiting this one story too soon carries serious consequences. The story of sexual harassment is one that surfaces occasionally and when it does it triggers painful memories for those who suffered through it. It is fair to remark that sexual harassment does not only happen to women, though three times as many women are affected compared to the number of men.
Male-dominated professions are often the environment where these stories surface, but that is not the only place where they happen. While the argument about whether a woman can do a man’s job is what many bring forth as an explanation for the unwanted attention women get in certain workplaces, assessing one’s abilities should be based on whether they can perform the said task or not, rather than become grounds for sexual harassment.
If we care not to look sideways when a story of sexual harassment happens, we have the chance to rewrite and redesign societal norms that have been endorsing victim-blaming while often allowing the aggressor to find escape routes from prosecution, allowing the dust of forgetfulness to settle for mostly everyone except for those who suffered through it. To be fair, we have come a long way already, but we have a good length to go still until everyone, female or male, can be safe from sexual harassment no matter their job or life circumstances.
Another side of this ugly reality of everyday life is the presence of bystanders. Often conditioned by fear of losing a job, or angering a powerful person, bystanders add one more layer of wrongness to the process, their lack of proper and rightful action ultimately taking away the victim’s right to justice and further access to resources that can prevent long-term trauma.
The heartbreaking story of Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old girl from Port Coquitlam who committed suicide five years ago on October 10, after being severely and relentlessly sexually harassed online is still haunting me and many others. Immediately prior to her death, and many times before that, she tried to speak up and make her pain visible to others. Unfortunately, that did not happen soon enough, though many were aware of her story.
This is a pervasive and shameful societal sin, if you will, the isolation of the victim through the silence of by-standers or, even worse, the blaming of the victim by joining the chorus that mercilessly sings the most wrong tune of all: ‘She must’ve done something to provoke it…’
Most of us can admit that we know enough to do better as a society. Where do we start getting rid of all this dark and painful ugliness? As with many other things, one way to go is to start our children right, by education them about what the whole bullying process (sexual harassment is after all a sick manifestation of power over someone) and everyone involved: the bully, the bullied and those who see but choose to remain silent, or worse, side with the aggressor. Healthy boundaries are everyone’s right to have and everyone’s duty to respect.
Teaching our children to respect the opposite sex takes more than just words though. We ought to model what we preach, standing up when needed, carrying a continuous dialogue that helps keep the issue in the open rather than making it a dark secret hidden in some corner. Let’s not forget that our children hear more than we care to admit these days, disturbing stories of sexual harassment included. It makes sense that parents explain these terms and further explain what respectful behaviour is about.
Educating children can take us to a better future, but what about now? There are a few things to address, and sooner than later: the widespread presence of pornography (secretly accepted by many, yet rarely talked about honestly and with the intention of preventing sexual abuse which the industry often portrays as entertaining,) the need to provide women and men with a safe place to relate of any sexual misconduct that makes them feel threatened in any way at their workplace or any other walk of life, and the great power to do good we all have by refusing to be bystanders.
It’s a big subject and, granted, an uncomfortable one for many, but it is one worth tackling, because now we know enough to not allow it to happen anymore. Because the trauma it leaves behind is often lifelong and even claiming people’s lives, unfortunately. It’s a matter of better choices and honour. We’re capable of both. A hashtag such as #MeToo should not only be an indication of a widespread issue of sexual harassment and abuse, but should be made into a collective promise of doing better as a society.