“I don’t think most men see how truly universal this problem is, and a lot of them would be surprised to find out how many of their female friends have a story where they felt extremely uncomfortable and disrespected.”
When I was 21, at a summer festival in Lisbon, I was seeing a concert when I felt someone grabbing my ass. A full hand grab, which paralyzed me. I looked around immediately after it, but no one seemed to have noticed what just happened, nor looked guilty enough for me to accuse him.
After three minutes it happened again, same grab, same certainty. This time I didn’t react, and less than a minute later, someone redid it. However, on that moment I was waiting for it, and grabbed the disrespectful hand by the wrist. Feeling a rush of adrenaline for the humiliation I was about to drop upon this person, I looked behind with full confidence.
Weirdly, it was not even a full person whose hand I had just grabbed. It was a kid, a 13, 14-year-old-looking boy. He looked petrified, completely blushed and (I imagine) expecting the biggest slap of his life. I, on the other hand, stood there for some seconds, not really knowing what to say, but not letting go of his wrist.
As you might imagine, as it always happens in such situations that catch you off-guard, what I said afterwards was not a well-structured speech on women’s rights, but an intensely poetic “You touch me again and I will punch you in the face.”
With all the attention the Harvey Weistein case is having across the media lately, with so many known women speaking up for what he has done to them in the past, an interesting trend has emerged in social media, under the hashtag MeToo. Women describe a situation where they were targets of sexual harassment, and encourage other women to open up and share a story as well. The purpose is that everyone understands how wide-spread and common sexual harassment actually is.
I have read several stories, from women in different life paths, who share this reality of knowing how sexual harassment feels like. Some decided to use the hashtag alone, not sharing, but indicating they have also been through some sort of disrespectful situation.
Although the magnitude of attention this campaign is getting surprises me, the reality behind it doesn’t. Being catcalled in the street (particularly when alone at night) is terrifying, as it is having your ass groped in a crowded bus (or in a concert), or having to push away a guy to whom you’ve said a meaningful “no” at a bar. It’s terrifying, but it’s painfully familiar, as we all know what this feels like, in one degree or another.
In one way, I feel guilty and a part of the problem, for silencing it. If every time something like this happens, someone reported it properly – to the authorities, or just to the general public – we would stop seeing this kind of behaviour happening so often, as these people would think twice before repeating it, fearful of the humiliation.
I will not deny the great deal of complexity of this issue. I am not addressing here the origins of the problem, nor how I think it could be permanently solved, for example. I’m not a policy maker, nor do I feel this is something which can be solved in the next ten years. It would take generations to undo the societal kind of thinking that leads to these behaviours. Nevertheless, I am sharing my story. And so should you.
Firstly, because I don’t think most men see how truly universal this problem is, and a lot of them would be surprised to find out how many of their female friends have a story where they felt extremely uncomfortable and disrespected.
Secondly, because the silencing norm must disappear. I like to believe that most people from our generation wouldn’t stand still when confronted with these behaviours. Nonetheless, that 13 or 14-year-old was not alone at that concert. He was with two older men about my age, who quickly apologised for him, asked me to calm down, and left the venue. Still, when he was grabbing my ass in front of them, they didn’t think of stopping him, although they were standing right beside him.
Lastly, we cannot correct people in their personal spheres, but publicly we can make sure such behaviour is both not tolerated, and exposed. As university students, developing citizens, I believe this is also our role. I hope I’ve inspired you to act upon it next time you witness something like this. Ask loud and clear if someone needs help. Share what you’ve been through.