On Monday we all saw our news feeds flooded with posts of #MeToo. Some women (and men) were courageous and shared their stories. Others practiced their courage differently, by being supportive but not sharing their stories. The message was clear: women consistently face sexual harassment and assault and it starts early.
The truth is as women we hear stories of what we should do and about our place in the world from our birth. Our families of origin and our individual cultures also play a role. When my mother gave me advice on various things -- be it dress or behavior -- it was not to slut shame or victim blame but to protect. Sadly, some women perpetuate the problem by asserting that women are just as much to blame for assault. You see, as women we navigate the world aware of the realities of our obstacles but many times also as change agents working to create new norms and culture. It is important to note that boys and men also face sexual harassment and assault. And we know that transgender women face tremendous violence because of their identity. Here I will focus primarily, however, on females victimized by males.
I vividly recall what I learned from my cousins (I call them my brothers) once boys started paying attention to me as a sexual being. My brother Skipper escorted me places and made it clear to any boys who came around that he was watching. We had many talks about boys and intentions. He also gave me a lot of advice and asked me to be careful. I learned to use my knee. My brother Alusine actually pulled me aside and showed me self-defense tactics. "If you remember nothing else, grab the balls and yank hard." (Forgive the language.) I am thankful for the men in my life in addition to my mother and the female cousins and relatives who surrounded me in community and offered learning.
As I reflect on my experiences of girlhood and womanhood I observe a few things:
1. Like many things in life survival can alter how we approach the data and experience. Incidents that should rightfully be called what they are can get shelved away as the time you "handled" the situation.
2. Even though we are not at fault for what happened, we shelter the information for fear of criticism and shaming. No one wants to hear the dreaded, "What did you do?", "What were you wearing?", or "You must have invited it." We see this dynamic even when rape is used as a weapon of war, children are brutalized and the victims are ostracized. The shame is not and should not be carried by women and girls.
3. Like my brothers who were protective, my father who is vocal on girls’ rights and education and who confronted colleagues who attempted to sexually coerce students, men must engage in substituting #MeToo for "not on my watch”. We need more men speaking up, speaking out, raising boys differently, and interrupting this behavior when it happens.
4. It is right to expect men and boys to behave differently. We can discuss what women should do to protect themselves and what parents should do to protect their girls but how about we hold men and boys accountable for their behavior? This is not a question of #NotAllMen are perps but rather #AllMen can use their power because #YesAllWomen are vulnerable to gender based violence.
5. We can do more in the workplace. The stories of touching and sexual harassment in the workplace are disheartening. And we can do better. Enforce the laws, train leaders to interrupt, empower all to be part of the solution and address gender bias and issues head on. We must all deal with organizational cultures that allow behavior like this to exist.
The truth is each of us — all of us — must evaluate our role in a world that allows our newsfeed to be filled with #MeToo. Where and how do we silence victims? How do we perpetuate an idea of strength that causes women and girls to re-write their stories into one of "handling" it instead of acknowledging something bad happened? As if our actions in escaping, minimizing, or surviving despite the harassment or assault is the proper focus. How and where do we blame parents as if they somehow are God-like in their ability to bubble proof their children's lives? (I acknowledge that there are times parents are negligent but this is not always true) How can we better support those with #MeToo experiences and break the cycle? What are we teaching our children about consent?
As we tackle gender bias in the workplace, it would be disingenuous to think we can separate this issue from work and life, or work and home, or work and "out there." The underlying views of females, the perversion of power, misuse of power contribute to sexual assault and harassment in our places of worship, our community groups, our families and extended networks. And yes, this is true even at work. This is a work issue because people have experienced sexual harassment and assault at work, but also because the underlying views of women and distortion of power that allow this kind of aggression outside the workplace do not disappear at work. We do not walk into work and become transformed beings, leaving our biases, predilections, and view points outside the door to be picked up on the way out. These premises and beliefs about the place and worth of women and the rights and use of power of males invade how we interact with one another at work; how we interpret the communication, dress and behavior of women; whether men are encouraged to mentor and sponsor women and develop relationships across sex and gender; how we judge women who are ambitious and assertive, and more.
The work then is to have honest conversations in our homes and work places about gender issues and rights. We have Walking-Wounded-Superwomen in our midst. They show up to work with confidence, potential, brilliance and scars. I applaud their courage and resilience. And most of all, I yearn for a redefinition of manhood that makes sexual harassment and sexual assault an exception and not something way too many women have experienced. As women we focus on protecting ourselves and being vigilant; we must be resilient when despite our best intentions we are harassed and assaulted. But this isn’t our load to carry and it isn't ours to fix alone. Men can interrupt inappropriate behavior, refuse to laugh at disgusting jokes, correct problematic behavior, call for help or report problematic behavior, stand alongside women (and men) who are targeted and redefine manhood, masculinity and power. Men can be vocal critics and evaluate how their own behavior or silence fuels this problem. We need men to stand up and be part of re-writing the rule book. We need real men to stand up.