Tuesday 17 September 2019

Surely I'm not a victim. But then again...

Elizabeth Day did not think she had ever been sexually harassed. But then #metoo made her look at the past through a new lens

'Later, in the workplace, there were always the male colleagues who wanted more than friendship, but I never felt threatened by them.' (stock photo)
'Later, in the workplace, there were always the male colleagues who wanted more than friendship, but I never felt threatened by them.' (stock photo)

Elizabeth Day

It was a depressing week for women. Another one. The #metoo campaign on social media, whereby female users shared their stories of sexual harassment, caught my attention for the sheer weight of responses.

Well, I thought confidently, I've never been a victim of sexual harassment. I'm one of the lucky ones. But then I started reading strangers' stories - of lewd bosses making unwanted advances; of groping incidents on public transport; of feeling threatened by groups of men catcalling in the street - and I realised that I'd experienced all of that. Obviously I had. Wasn't that simply part and parcel of being a woman?

It's an age thing, I think. I'm 38 and part of the sandwich generation of feminists. We consider ourselves lucky to be standing on the shoulders of those pioneering women who fought the big legal battles against gender discrimination: for suffrage, for equal pay (ha!) and for workplace recognition.

But we've also had to accept existing in an imperfectly sexist world. We've been raised with the societal assumption that "boys will be boys" and that a bit of inappropriate behaviour on their part is par for the course. "Trying it on" was the phrase, as if sexual aggression were simply a matter of experimenting with a new look or hairstyle.

Scrolling through the #metoo experiences, I re-examined my own past. There was the man who had unzipped his trousers, pulled down his underpants and started masturbating against my leg on a crammed underground train in Mexico City.

It was Mexico City, I thought at the time. It was rush hour. I was invading a predominantly male space. What did I expect? Over the years, it became little more than a humorous anecdote in the retelling.

Later, in the workplace, there were always the male colleagues who wanted more than friendship, but I never felt threatened by them. If anything, I felt guilty about saying no and worried about the ramifications of denting their ego.

There was the well-known TV personality who spoke to me across the table about precisely what he wanted to do with my nipples and later lunged at me in a lift. Yes, I felt uncomfortable, but I immediately analysed my own behaviour and wondered if I had unwittingly done anything to encourage it.

There was the ex who, in the heat of an argument, pushed me up against the bedroom wall, put his hands around my neck and raised his hand as if to hit me. Yes, it was frightening. But if anything, I felt shame that I might have provoked him. I only told one person at the time - a much older woman, who assured me these things were normal. And in any case, I told myself, he didn't actually hit me, did he?

So, I never thought I'd been sexually harassed. But when I compared my experiences to those being shared on social media by a new generation of women who are speaking out, I realised I had. It was an issue of categorisation. In the end, I typed #metoo into Twitter.

I wasn't the only one who underwent this shift in attitude. The majority of my friends of similar age felt the same. The language used to be different, even if the actions were the same. We needed younger women to tell us it was wrong; to give us the framework in which to define it.

There's no doubt the crisis in male sexual aggression needs addressing. But I also think there's a crisis in womanhood which stems from a fundamental lack of self-worth. I've lost count of the number of accomplished women of my acquaintance who do not believe in themselves on some profound level.

Where does this come from? I think it's to do with women believing they are born with a sell-by date. If, like me, you are in your late 30s or older, the chances are you were raised in a culture where motherhood was pre-eminent and where the male gaze had defined the world we live in for centuries.

There were only certain roles we were deemed suitable for - wife, mother, sexpot or kindly spinster aunt with a gaggle of godchildren. Although times are now changing, there is still a feeling that if you don't belong to one of those categories, you are somehow strange; an unfathomable outlier.

It's not just my age group. Teenage girls are growing up in an age of constant comparison, scrolling through Instagram feeds and feeling somehow not enough. There is an epidemic of self-harm in schools: a British Medical Journal study published last week found that there was a 68pc increase in self-harm among 13- to 16-year-old girls between 2011 and 2014.

How do we tackle this? We tell girls not that they are pretty, but that they are strong. We don't compliment them on their clothes, but on their minds. We raise them to believe they do not have to get married or have children to be complete. We teach them that being female is not synonymous with shame.

And when it comes to sexual assault, we call it by its proper name.

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