This week the hashtag #metoo has taken over social media as sexual abuse allegations swarm in Hollywood. I’ve even seen a few men post their apologies to women for anything they may have done to make women uncomfortable in the past. I think all this is good. It’s important to shed light on an enormous problem and to open up dialogues about it.
But I started thinking, most men probably have no idea the magnitude of unwanted sexual encounters most women – every woman – has had during the entirety of their lives. A simple “me too” cannot relay this.
It starts when you are a young girl, 11, 12 or 13 years old. You start to wear a bra for the first time, and the boys in school notice and snap your bra straps and make comments about your changing body. Some boys will even make jokes about your period and sex.
Then you get a little older and start dating boys. My first unwanted sexual encounter came when I was 14 years old and I was with a friend who liked an older boy. We went to his house and she went off with him to make out, and I was left with his 20 year old roommate who proceeded to pressure me into oral sex. I had never even seen a hard penis before that day, but I put it in my mouth and gagged and cried the whole time.
After that I was scared of boys, more specifically of their penises, so I didn’t date anyone for almost a year. My first real boyfriend was who I lost my virginity to, and that was actually a nice (if short) experience. However, once I had finally given in and had sex with him, that is pretty much all he wanted from me and we broke up shortly after that. I became pretty promiscuous after that, and my first few years of high school I slept with boys without regard; to fit in, to feel better about myself (which, in fact, the opposite always happened), or simply because I just couldn’t say “no” – but never because I cared about them, or because they cared about me. For a long time, I thought sex was the only thing of value I had to offer a man. I thought sex was all they wanted.
While pressuring or forcing a woman into a sexual situation is the most obvious form of abuse and harassment, most sexual harassment experienced by women is more subtle and happens more frequently. Comments are the most subtle, because they are often disguised as a compliment. I couldn’t count the number of times a man has said “Nice legs” to me. That may seem harmless, it may even seem like a nice thing to say. It’s not. A comment like that instantly objectifies me and places me into an unwanted, public discussion with a stranger about my body. As if my legs are there to be displayed for other peoples pleasure, judgement and comment. Saying “Nice legs” is just like saying “Nice tits” or “Nice ass” – objectifying any part of my body is wrong, whether it’s my boobs, my butt, or my legs.
Another sideways assault comes when a man says to a female, “A pretty girl like you should smile.” Why? Why should all the pretty girls be happy all the time? Are they here simply to be put on display for others, and if they show anything but happiness that displeases their audience? And what about the girls who aren’t so pretty? I wonder if the same men who say that have ever gone up to a plain looking woman and told her to smile, or if they have ever said it to just a sad looking person, male or female. Or do they reserve their desire for others’ happiness to only good-looking women?
Other comments that objectify and sexualize women are things like “You should wear that much make-up more often” or “You should wear more V-neck shirts” or “You should wear your hair down more” – all of these things have been said to me multiple times in professional work settings. I’ve never heard one of my bosses tell a male employee “You should smile more, Bob, you’re so handsome” or “Pete those pants really fit you nice, you should wear them more often” or “Hey Dan, you should wear your black V-neck sweater to the meeting with those clients next week.” We don’t hear things like that said to men in a workplace. Why? Because it’s inappropriate to objectify and judge a man based on his appearance rather than his intelligence, merit and skill when he’s at work. But we do just that to women.
There are more overt ways in which men harass women, like the bewilderingly popular, and usually unsolicited, “dick pic.” Why? Why, men, do you send women pictures of your penis? You would get arrested if you whipped out your penis at the mall to show it to a woman, but it’s totally ok to digitally visually assault us. The “dick pic” is one step short of just groping a woman, which also happens to most women many times in our lives. Whether it’s the awkward, hormone driven teenager who “accidentally” brushes against you in the hallway at school and touches your breasts or your butt, or the adult male co-worker who squeezes your shoulders when he stands behind you at you at your desk and slapped your ass that one time at the Christmas party, unwanted hands touch the bodies of most women many, many times throughout their lives.
It starts with little boys making comments and jokes at the expense of girls, and moves to bra-snapping and butt-slapping in the hallways of school, accompanied by more graphic and humiliating comments and jokes. Most girls I know have been pressured into a sexual situation during their teenage years, myself included. Sometimes it’s at a party and you can’t really say no, but you never really do say yes…the next day you are left feeling ashamed and like it’s all your fault for going to the party/drinking too much/wearing that outfit/talking to that boy, etc. Sometimes it’s your boyfriend or your friend or someone you trust, and you do say no, but they do it anyway.
All of the recent news has made me reflect on my own sexual history, and as I sat and thought about my life’s events in chronological order it was astounding at how many unwanted sexual encounters I have experienced, whether they were physical or verbal. It also made me think about how so many women have experienced so much worse. While I have been pressured into sex and have been taken advantage of while drunk, I have never been forcibly raped like so many women I know have. To give men an idea of the volume of harassment women deal with I made the list below. This list is a general average for the average female in America (calculated with math I did based on my personal experiences and the experiences of women I know), and all things on this list are unwanted encounters by the female. It should be noted that all of this starts when girls are still in elementary school and continues well into adulthood.
By the time she’s 40, the average female in America has:
- had her bra straps snapped 200 times
- heard 850 comments about her breasts
- heard 500 comments about her legs
- heard 1,100 comments about her butt
- heard 5,000 derogatory comments/jokes about women/their body parts/menstruation/sex
- been called a slut 300 times (most of this happens before the girl has even lost her virginity)
- been told to smile 2,000 times
- been told how to dress, do her hair/make-up 200 times (by male peers and superiors)
- been “accidentally” groped 100 times
- been deliberately groped 20 times
- been pressured into oral sex 10 times
- been pressured into intercourse 15 times
- had intercourse while unable to give consent at all 10 times
- been forced into intercourse at least once
- been pressured by at least one male employer/authority figure into sexual situations
While I think opening up this dialogue on a large scale is important and I applaud the people coming forward, especially the men who seem to be realizing the role they have played, I do hope some real change comes. Viral social media trends are great, but they fade as quickly as they start, and sexual harassment and abuse is a real, lasting problem.
The solution has to come from how we raise our children. How we teach our children to treat each other, and more importantly, by being examples in how we treat them. How many little boys are told not to cry, or that they throw/run/catch “like a girl” or that they are a “pussy” for not doing this or that, etc. How we talk to our boys is just as important as how we talk to our girls. If we teach boys through language that to be “like a girl” is a bad thing, how can we expect them to grow up and respect women?