#MeToo is trending worldwide and my facebook wall is filled with comment on this campaign. It all started on Sunday 15th October when actress Alyssa Milano posted a tweet in response to the growing number of women who have now revealed they were sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein.
I have wondered whether to comment on this. However today I have seen a number of defensive comments from people, some of which I think are missing the point.
Before I changed gender I really didn’t understand the level of sexual harassment that women experienced. I was aware that it happened, but like most men thought it was just a few “bad boys” giving men a bad reputation.
Even when I started going out crossdressed and started to experience harassment, I wasn’t getting it. The first few times I got comments in the street, or whistled at, or groped in a bar, or had to make it clear that buying me a drink did not mean I was going to have sex with them, I think I was partly pleased that I was getting what I saw then as positive attention. When I shared these experiences with other women they said, “Yeah, #MeToo.”
But when it kept happening, the novelty soon wore off. Then I had a couple of very uncomfortable experiences when I realised that the men had not got the I was trans. Suddenly they turned very hostile because I had humiliated them in front of their mates. I soon discovered that a lone woman cannot walk home at night without the risk of being “chatted up”. That incidentally is a euphemism. A drunk man insisting on walking you home is not being chatted up – it is a dangerous and scary incident – and for me carried the additional risk of a beating or worse. Yeah, #MeToo.
Let me quote the definition of harassment from the Equality Act 2010
Harassment occurs when someone engages in unwanted behaviour which is related to a relevant protected characteristic and which has the purpose or effect of:
- violating a persons dignity or
- creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.
Let me clarify a couple of the terms here that I have highlighted
Unwanted means ‘unwelcome’ or ‘uninvited’. It’s not necessary for a person to say that they object to the behaviour.
Protected Characteristic means sex or gender, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, race, religion, disability. More importantly it’s not necessary for the person being harassed to have the protected characteristic – just that the behaviour is related to a relevant protected characteristic. If someone regularly makes sexist remarks for example – anyone who feels that behaviour creates and intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, can claim harassment. #MeToo
Before I changed gender, few women ever told me about their sexual harassment experiences. Partly the reason was that that they never told anyone because they felt so ashamed. The response to #MeToo is particularly encouraging because it indicates that women are increasingly confident enough to acknowledge publicly what happened.
I became more accepted as a woman, my new female friends began to share confidences with me they would never have shared with me as a man. What shocked me was the number of times they told me about sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated by men I knew and had respected. When the perpetrator is Grandpa, or uncle Fred, or your husband’s best mate, it’s hardly surprising that this remains a secret.
Some years ago, as a senior executive in an insurance company, I attended a company dinner with my then partner. Unbeknown to me, a colleague, who had drunk far too much, spent the entire dinner making uncomfortable sexual suggestions her, out of my earshot. I didn’t find out until later.
Once I knew about it, I noticed him sexually harassing other women. To my shame, I didn’t confront him then. However, the following week, I did make an official complaint. The response – “Oh, you know what John’s like. It was all a bit of fun. No one else has complained.”
When I insisted in pushing the sexual harassment complaint I was told, “I think you should go away and think seriously about this. He is a senior manager and taking this any further, will be a career limiting decision.” I made the complaint official but nothing was done about it and I began looking for new job.
But here is the problem with #MeToo. Many men support a degree of sexual harassment, even abuse as, “high spirits, boys being boys, a bit of a laugh, banter.” If a woman dresses sexily they treat that as an invitation to come on to them or at least share sexual banter with other men.
I am sure that a lot of the men I have seen and heard joining in with this “sexual harassment” actually would not act on it – and only joined in so that they were not seen as outsiders in the group. It is surprising just how strongly we are influenced by the dominant members of a group, to behaving in a way that is entirely inappropriate and out of character.
And that is the crux of the problem.
Rape and sexual abuse is endemic in Africa – with frightening cultural beliefs such as, “having sex with virgin will cure HIV.” A few years ago Kenya began a very positive campaign to cut to the incidence of rape and sexual abuse. Initially they started by teaching girls self defence and life skills to avoid dangerous situations, but this initial work had only a small impact. However, the more they listened to the girls the more they realised that teaching girls new life skills was not enough. They had to also teach the boys that rape and sexual abuse was wrong.
The ‘No Means No’ campaign was extended to include the boys and teach them to respect girls and to intervene to prevent rape and sexual abuse. The results have been astounding with a 50% reduction in rape and sexual abuse. Perhaps it’s time that we in the west started to learn from the people in Africa.
#MeToo is working because I am reading messages from men shocked to learn that women theyknow have been abused. The next step is for them to challenge inappropriate behaviour. Look again at that definition of harassment – and if you see anyone behaving in a way that fits that definition – challenge their behaviour.
Changing gender was a huge wake up call for me. I simply did not see most discrimination and harassment against women, until I began to experience it. When I challenged it, I was criticised heavily by men who had known me before I changed gender. Comments like, “just because you’ve changed gender, why do you have to become emotional and neurotic as well?”
The driver behind all human rights activity is a simple philosophy – Treat Everyone With Dignity and Respect. If you see men – or women – acting in a way that fails to do that, think #MeToo, I’ll challenge that.