Like so many women and men, I have been following the exposure and revelations of the systematic sexual harassment Harvey Weinstein has inflicted on so many women over the last decades. The revelations – even though highly disturbing – did not surprise me. I was aware of the ‘casting couch’ phenomenon, and the power that people in positions of authority can exert over their inferiors, whether it be university and school, or business. Luckily I have never been in a position where I was subjected to such behaviour. I am not an actor – and I am not pretty, so I am not in the target group.
Or am I? I was watching the BBC Newsnight interview with Emma Thompson (see above) the other day, At 3:17 in the video she says “Speak to any woman over the age of 15 and they will all have a story to tell you.” That stopped me in my tracks. Yes. This is not an isolated problem to affect female actors who are looking for a break, young women hoping to make a career, or attractive women walking down the street. Because even *I*, not an actor, never particularly career-minded, and not even blessed (or cursed?) with a pretty face, have been subjected to harassment in my life. And if we want to put a stop to this unacceptable behaviour, we all need to call it out, by the sheer force of our numbers. (I am, of course, including men in this, too – who also can experience sexual harassment.) If there is to come anything constructive out of the Weinstein affair, then it has to be ending the culture of silence and acceptance of sexual harassment. And that only starts by acknowledging that we all have experience of it – and therefore an obligation to call it out and to end it for good. Because I do not want my teenage daughter to grow up with the experiences that I had. None of them as traumatic as what some of Weinstein’s victims went through, but certainly symptomatic of the sexual power that men are exerting over women.
Sexual harassment has certainly followed me through my ages, has always been part of my life as a female, from a very early age, despite having grown up in a “developed” Western industrial society. It is practically ingrained in me and every woman of my age, or younger and older, that *some* experience with men overstepping their boundaries is to be expected. And that we simply have to get on with it, not make a big deal out of it, but ignore it and just go on. We don’t talk about, we just accept it, we even find excuses for inexcusable behaviour. We don’t want to be victims, so we shake it off and ignore it. But it is up to all of us to stop this. Because we all have the stories. We do – whether we are plain or pretty, rich or poor, tall or short, black or white, celebrity or unknown, lithe or heavy, even young or old. It happens because we are women, and it doesn’t depend on our looks. It happens because it is still considered acceptable by our societies at large that women’s personal spaces can be invaded, that they can be felt up, propositioned, subjected to inappropriate jokes, forced into dates/kisses/sex, belittled on the basis of their gender. It happens because we are women and it is not isolated to the entertainment business. And I am sick and tired of accepting it, excusing it, blaming myself for it, and effectively enabling it by keeping silent about it. None of my experiences are particularly aggravating, but they are symptomatic. I am sharing my stories not to imply that what Weinstein’s victims experienced was normal, or to present myself as a victim. I am not asking for sympathy. They are meant as an invitation to anyone else to also speak out and point out that this is – sadly – everyday behaviour. Things will only change if we define from our experiences what sexual harassment constitutes, if we call it out and break the silence. Here are my stories.
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I am proud. I have been given a piano by my grandfather, and after learning to play the recorder with a group of girls, I am advancing to piano lessons on my own with the recorder teacher, Herr Runau. He is a youngish man, maybe around 30 years old, married, and with kids of his own. The piano lessons are every Thursday afternoon in the music room of the school next to my primary school. It’s slightly eerie in the empty school corridors, but I am super excited about learning to play the piano. We spend a few months with scales and finger exercises. I am enjoying it, I practice at home, much to the delight of my parents. My piano teacher sits beside me at the piano. He shows me how to play. He moves his chair closer to me in order to reach the keys. He’s very tall and lanky. One day, as he is reaching across me to play a note, his upper arm brushes across my chest. I move out of the way. The next week, it happens again. And the week after. I notice that he is angling his arm – he could stretch in order to *not* touch my chest, but he doesn’t. I am confused. Something about this is off. It doesn’t seem right. Why is he not avoiding the touch, just like everyone else would avoid touching someone if they could? I try to move out of the way, but I can’t lean back any further, the arm is following me. I feel ashamed – I am obviously always in the way. I am also not good at playing the piano because I never practice, and going to the lessons is a chore. I never tell my parents that my piano teacher deliberately feels up my chest with his arm. I am ten.
Going to driving school is a rite of passage. I take lessons in the local driving school with the owner who has also taught my friend. She is a pretty girl, a year older than me, and she warns me “Alf is a bit touch-y, he comes close”. Personally, I am not too worried because obviously, T___, with her big brown eyes, long dark hair and pretty, heart-shaped face naturally attracts more attention than me, who is plain with blonde short hair. The driving lessons take an hour, and there is usually only one driving student in the car with Alf. It takes all my concentration to get the multi-tasking between watching the traffic, steering, accelerating, changing gears and braking right. Alf is in his mid-50s, a small, agile man, an entertaining, actually a good teacher. When he perceives stress in his student, he puts his left hand on her knee, patting her calmly. Or he pinches me on the inside of my thigh when I have made a mistake. It’s all in good humour. He also tests the concentration of his (female) students by giving them a little peck on their cheek while they are driving. It’s slightly perturbing, certainly distracting, but he does it to *all* of his (predominantly) female students, so it’s just fun… It never occurs to me to mention it to my father who is working for the local traffic department.
For my graduation from school at age 19, my parents are taking me to Rome. It is June, the weather is gorgeous, and we are exploring Rome by foot and public transport. I am still a relatively protected only child, not particularly feminine, no boyfriend in sight. To suit the hot weather on this day I am wearing Bermuda shorts and a short blouse. In order to get from our hotel to the Forum Romanum, we are taking the bus. The route is busy and the bus is full; the passengers standing in close proximity, packed like sardines. Since we have no seats and the bus is driving in vigorous mediterranean style, I am hanging on to the over-head handles. Suddenly I can clearly feel the hand of the little old man who is standing near me, between my legs, his thumb brushing over my mound. I turn my head and catch his eyes as he is pulling his hand away. He holds my gaze, and *I* feel the shame. In split seconds I consider my options. I don’t speak Italian, if I call him out, I won’t make myself understood. And my parents will hate to cause any disturbance. I am also worried that I may have just misunderstood something. Maybe it was just an accident. I say nothing, just move out of the way as far as I can. I don’t mention this to my parents, either, because I feel embarrassed that this has happened to me.
A busy Saturday night in Dublin, my husband and I decide to go for a walk. At the bottom of Grafton Street we decide to split up and make a race who arrives at the destination first. I continue walking towards College Green on my own. Just as I am nearing the corner opposite Trinity College, I see a big group of young men – younger than me, probably students, inebriated and merry – walking towards me. As I am passing them, one of them turns around and gives me a mighty slap on my bum. I can feel my cheeks burning. And I don’t only mean my arse cheeks – I am also stunned and shaken that I, a woman in her mid-to-late thirties, have caused any kind of attention that would bring on such an encroachment of my personal sphere. When I tell my husband, he just shrugs. The guys have long wandered up Grafton Street, anyway.
The advantage of middle-age is, that you don’t really care so much about what other people might think of you. So I am more bemused than uncomfortable to be standing in the basement of a bar in Dublin, waiting for a heavy metal band to play. It’s not my scene at all, but I have agreed to take photographs of a friend who fronts the band. The place is packed, the audience is predominantly male, predominantly in their early 30s. Since my friend is not playing yet, I slink into the background and lean against the wall beside the bar. Ok, I stand out like a sore thumb. Woman in her 40s, alone, not really into the music that is currently playing. I know that a near group of “lads” – young men, probably in the early 30s, well into several pints of Guinness – have noticed me. They have glanced at me and laughed; the music is too loud to hear their comments. I’m old enough to not care. I look at my phone and ignore them when suddenly two of them break away from their group, kind of dancing to the music, towards me. I try to get out of the way, but one of them turns around and *supposedly* as a joke rubs his arse against my crotch. With the wall behind me I can’t escape, but instead of rigorously pushing him away, or kicking him, I just slip away to the side, say an ironic “ha ha, very funny” that is drowned out by the pumping music, and feel humiliated. No one around me says anything, not even the bar’s security guy who is standing at the bar a meter away from me and must have seen what was happening. But he actually gets up and places himself closer to me, maybe to discourage the lads from doing something like that again.
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These are simple stories, mild stories. Nothing sensational, none of this is as bad as being forced into sexual acts, or being cornered as Weinstein has done. I haven’t lost a job because of my experiences, and I have not been exposed to anything that has long-term traumatised me. I am not afraid of men, and I don’t consider myself a victim. But for the first time I am putting it into proper perspective, acknowledging that in those little scenes that I have tucked away in a far-far corner of my memory, there is always someone encroaching on me as a female, and doing so without my consent, without my invitation, no matter how young or old, or plain, or conscious of the situation I am. And I am glad that I have got them off my chest. Will I be able to stand my ground if this should happen again? I don’t know. I hope so, because I think writing this down has made me more aware of how commonplace this behaviour is. And that it is not alright.
I am in awe of the women who have dared to speak out against a powerful man and who have not only kicked off this overdue public debate, but also a change. I stand in solidarity with anyone who has suffered any kind of sexual harassment.
And I invite you to share your stories, too, get them off your chest as I have. I have never talked about this, but I am going to sit down with my daughter tonight, tell her about my experiences, and ask her to not be silent when sexual harassment happens to her or is observed by her.
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You may comment here on the blog, or do link me to your blog posts, if you decide to write your stories. And please consider tweeting #MeToo on Twitter.
— Kelly 🤦🏻♀️ (@kellyduck) October 15, 2017