The hashtag had been showing up on my social media feeds lately and after hesitating for a day or two, I chose to join the legion of women, men, transgenders and gender nonconforming people who dared to speak up about the fact that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted at least once in their life… I did wonder what exactly qualified as harassment or assault. Sadly, no matter the answer, I had no doubt that it applied to me.
The first couple of times, I was actually 13! :( He was my music teacher. For some reasons, I never really thought that I was ever really traumatised by what happened. I actually think that it was not “that bad”! When I look back, I am mostly sad for the little girl who had to endure it silently while nobody listened, and upset that I was not given the tools to speak up clearly and care for myself. I guess I am also upset that there was no one to protect me or care for me but that could be a whole other story… So yes, I do blame my parents for it… Because I was raised being told that adults are always right and that I should never say no to an adult. I have very rarely spoken about it but I have in the past, usually to friends who happened to be single fathers of daughters and whom I had heard say something to the effect that they were expecting some kind of blind obedience from their child without seeing how dangerous it could be to teach anyone to blindly obey and do whatever an adult will ask.
I strongly believe that the best way to keep children safe is to teach them to listen to their inner voice and learn to respect their own boundaries, irregardless of what others might think. It is to teach them to question everything and to help them develop their own critical thinking skills in order to come up with their own understanding of life without being influenced or becoming followers. It is to teach them about courage, self-worth, self-esteem, integrity, humility, and to stand-up for what they believe even if if it means standing alone. It is about going against the grain, about learning to be comfortable with deviance and defiance, and follow what makes sense and what feels right. It is to teach them to be grounded and aligned with who they are, to set up boundaries in care of themselves, and to have the courage to say “no” when needed…
But as a parent or a caregiver, maybe more than anything, it also is about respecting those “no’s” and teaching children to expect others to do the same or be ready and willing to walk away with their head held high.
When I was about 19 years old, I was walking to class when I saw him walking in my direction. Right then and there, I had that gut feeling that I needed to get to the other side of the street. But this other voice in my head pestered that I was not going to cross the street and walk away each time something felt a bit uncomfortable. I should never have listened to that voice but right in that moment was a big lesson: I should definitely have crossed the street that day and from then on, I decided I would always follow my gut feeling, even if it meant there would be some moments of awkwardness.
And as I write these words, a part of me wonders whether I should be clearer on what happened that day and before but then I think that it might simply be a conditioned way to give others the option to judge and assess whether “that” really counts or whether maybe I did or wear something “to ask for it.” But do we really want to create some kind of scales by which we can evaluate whether that was “bad enough” to warrant the name of “sexual assault” or “sexual harassment”? Let’s just say that I stopped wearing skirts and dresses for a while after that encounter. And I might also have learned that for some men, I was something they could reach out for as they pleased, like some kind of still object in a public place; was it really my responsibility to find the strategies to manage and control somebody’s inability to be a decent human being? Sadly, I have learned to think that way and to accept it…
It happened again throughout the years… The unwelcome dick pic, the buttocks-grabbing colleague (who understood pretty quickly that he was not to repeat the gesture with me), the comments or chilling moaning on the street, etc. Interestingly enough, I lived in the US for close to 20 years but all my stories of harassment or assault took place in France. Just a coincidence I believe but still an interesting one… A couple of weeks ago, as I was walking down the street in my neighbourhood, this homeless guy was masturbating and calling out for me to turn around as I passed him by… I honestly did not know what to think of it or if there was anything I could have done or said beside looking the other way… Part of me simply thinks that it is just the way things are… And I also believe that every single woman who is past the age of 30 has experienced some kind of assault… Just because they do not speak up about it does not mean it did not happen… Because that is the world we live in and because when I hear men still tell me that depending on what we wear, we are indeed asking for it, I know that there is still so much work to be done…
We advise girls on what to do to prevent being raped… But what are we telling parents of boys to do to ensure that their child does not end up harassing, assaulting or traumatising for life another human being?
And then there are the men that are part of our lives and think it gives them the right to enter our personal space: the oncle who, as I was barely a teenager, lifted up my shirt to check if my boobs were starting to show while all the other relatives stood around laughing; the work colleague who reaches out for our thigh to feel the fabric of a dress; the friend who gently tugs on a skirt as a joke and does not understand that he crossed a line; the ex who thinks that because he got to be there once, he has some kind of free pass to go there again. In those last three situations, the men were also fathers of daughters and when they had a hard time understanding my position, I created a similar scenario where their daughters were in my shoes: they were immediately and quite obviously feeling very uncomfortable… One even thought that it was really inappropriate and unfair of me to attempt to present the situation from that angle!
But should not that be a rule to live by? However you will treat a woman or another human being is exactly how someone somewhere someday will treat your child, your significant other, your parents, your sibling and maybe even yourself… I think it is called karma! Are you really ready?