Metoo and every-day harassment
For the past two weeks, the news have been full of headlines and breaking news about Harvey Weinstein and his outrageous 30-year history of sexual harassment. Outrageous is what he did but to be honest, outrage is not what I feel about it. It is more like a sort of weariness, a "Come on, really??? Of course this happens everywhere and all the time, don't you act as you don't know that!".
What certainly does cause me to feel outrage though is how this "scandal" shows once more to what extent women's voices are questioned and silenced. The tone of the media-coverage changed when more and more women came forward to testify against Weinstein but in the beginning it was full of conjunctives and "alleged" and "claimed" and "supposedly". The pictures that were used showed women in sexy poses, wearing bikinis and heavy make-up, implying Look at that slutty outfit! No wonder she got harassed....
I also feel very upset about the fact that all of Hollywood got shaken up by this scandal and many actresses expressed their disgust and anger, whereas the Guardian had to contact 20 prominent male actors to get any kind of statement on the matter. That initially, none of those 20 was willing to speak out against Harvey and sexual violence in general. And that when a few finally did issue a statement, their words were extremely lame and cowardish. Their main message: "There were rumors but I never believed this was really happening because I never experienced any unprofessional behavior!". Really? Did you not? Strange because apparently it was an open secret. Not even that. Everyone just knew. Strange also that you as a male never experienced any inappropriate behavior towards you!" When it became more and more clear that everyone knew, the tone changed more to something like "Yes, it is awful and I feel horrible for not having done anything. But he was so powerful and got everyone with his power and money and fame. So what should I have done, really?". Many prominent women were deeply upset that the majority of men chose to remain silent despite the fact that "[m]any of these guys are very well known in liberal circles and they support a very progressive approach to equality and women." Well, what can I say? Judge a person by their actions, not their words... I think this little comic strip sums the problem of liberal-male "allies" up in a spot-on and hilarious way.
There is a myriad of cases of sexual harassment exerted by powerful males over less powerful females in every imaginable and unimaginable part of society. We read about them all the time. We hear about them all the time. But where is the outrage?
In a brilliant article for the Guardian, Zoe Williams notices that '[w]hen one of these scandals breaks, there is always something a bit tinny about the outrage. It doesn’t have deep roots into the ground soil, where we all find this behaviour abhorrent. It’s more like an explosion of confected shock, a flash riot of dismay at the thing we all knew happened a lot, a short-lived if intense conversation that purports to be about women’s rights but is just as much about lurid detail.' This deeply resonates with how I feel about this "scandal". Why do I keep on putting the word scandal in quotation marks? According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a scandal is "an action or event that causes a public feeling of shock and strong moral disapproval". So the case of Harvey Weinstein is a textbook example. But I think Zoe Williams puts into words what deeply bothers me about the Weinstein "scandal". There is a myriad of cases of sexual harassment exerted by powerful males over less powerful females in every imaginable and unimaginable part of society. We read about them all the time. We hear about them all the time. But where is the outrage? The fat old film mogul and the beautiful aspiring models and actresses simply make an amazing story. All the juicy details, all that Hollywood glamour and glitter. A Hollywood-style fall from grace. Literally.
I pondered about this while cycling home from Swedish class the other day. I hardly noticed the strong headwind that blew light drizzle and scattered yellow-brown leaves into my face. How come, I wondered, that people seem absolutely incredulous and outraged by the fact that something like this could actually happen, when it happens everywhere around them? Some days ago, actress Alyssa Milano twittered a call directed at women around the world who have experienced harassment or assault (the campaign was then wrongly attributed to her although she merely used the slogan from a black awareness movement created years ago by Tarana Burke). Every time I have opened my Facebook account since then, there have been new #metoo's in my news feed. And I am not surprised. What would actually surprise me: if any woman said she'd never been victim of harassment in her life. Rebecca Solnit writes about #metoo: 'Seriously, every woman I know has been impacted by rape, assault, harassment and the extraordinary measures we all take to avoid, survive, limit their imposition, so this ME TOO thing only proves what any decent person already knows to her horror but not her surprise.'
Harassment is part of women's every-day life. It is something that seems so common, so normal, that we oftentimes do not even notice it anymore. Mostly it's not "a big thing": Someone "accidentally" touches my butt on a crowded train. I get cat-called by a group of boys. A stranger keeps leering at me on the bus. Someone follows me around for a while. A car drives next to me while one or several men lean out of the window and whistle, make sexual comments, and explicit hand/mouth gestures. All these uncomfortable and scary incidents have taught me to take precautions: I wear baggy clothes when I go out for a night walk and try to walk as "manly" as possible. I make sure I am not alone on the tram at night. I look around when I walk in the dark and hear steps behind me. I pretend I am talking on the phone when someone is bothering me. I try to avoid eye contact with certain males. I always have an escape/defense strategy when I catch a ride, or when I find myself alone with a male stranger in a secluded space. If I have to get home on my own after a party, I take off the lipstick before I leave and make sure to wear a big coat or something. And so on. That's the normal stuff. Much less in Sweden than in Germany and nearly any other place I've been, I must say. But even here, I have experienced uncomfortable situations, such as at the restaurant where I have been working during the summer. It was not spectacular, it was not dangerous, it was simply normal. So normal that I never even mentioned it when I talked about work.
It felt like I was partner in an involuntary trade: I did not object to his behavior and in exchange got smiles, help, and patience instead of aggression and condescension, and intimidation.
One of the chefs at that place was an elderly guy. He was short, something between sturdy and fat, and very very grumpy. Not in a charming way but in a rude way. He was also quick-tempered and it seemed like he hated new, inexperienced staff members and foreigners in general (he immigrated to Sweden himself many years ago). His English was not very good and his Swedish really hard to understand. He knew I spoke very little Swedish but refused to make any effort and instead kept on mumbling and muttering even if it was clear that I hardly understood a word of what he was saying. He treated me as if I was extremely stupid and he succeeded – I always ended up feeling extremely stupid and so I started to avoid him (as much as this is possible when you have to walk into the kitchen every other minute). And because I was constantly afraid and tensed in his presence, I made more mistakes which gave him more reasons to make me feel really stupid. And so on. So far so good. Age old story, male chefs behaving like dicks towards female waitresses.
I had worked at the restaurant for two weeks or so, when his behavior suddenly changed. Up to that point, he had been unfriendly, rude, and condescending towards me. Then one evening, I completely messed up the order of a 10-person family who celebrated the birthday of the grandmother or something. It was extremely embarrassing and I started to panic because they were really angry about the bad service – with good reason. The worst thing was that I could not even make it right or apologize adequately because my Swedish was so poor. I expected that he would freak out but instead, he calmed me down and then went straight up to the guests. He was great. He explained the situation to the group, apologized, made them laugh with some jokes, and they all got desserts and coffee on the house. Everyone was happy again. I felt extremely grateful and decided that I had been wrong about him. He did not even make a big deal out of it. He just smiled and winked at me on his way back into to kitchen.
After that incident, he started to be very friendly towards me. Not in a charming way though. In a slimy, flirtatious, touchy way. He complimented me constantly. He started to put his hand on my hip, stroke my arm, or 'accidentally' brush his body against mine when he passed me (it was a really narrow kitchen which did not exactly help), and oftentimes would perv on my body without even trying to hide his horny stares. When he talked to me, he would step extremely close until his face was only a few inches from mine, and give me what I think he thought was a seductive smile while looking deep into my eyes. When I asked him for certain things, like leaving out an ingredient due to a guest’s allergy, prioritizing an order, or explaining me where to find particular kitchen tools, he would always try to trade it for… yeah, for what actually? His suggestive smirk was quite obvious. “Sure I’ll do that for you, beautiful, but what do I get in return…?”. *wink wink* Of course he was joking but it still made me feel really uncomfortable. And also it was clear that he would basically jump on me as soon as I gave the slightest indication that I liked his advances. When I shared my experiences with some of my colleagues, I learned that he was doing the same thing to others but apparently, no one had ever complained officially.
Of course “nothing happened”. But did it really not? Is that not simply our culture, framing harassment as something normal and acceptable? What exactly did not happen? What would have had to happen to deserve being called “something happened”?
I want to be the woman who takes no shit and immediately speaks up. I wish I had told that chef to stop treating me like that, I wish I had talked to my boss because I am quite sure that he would have taken appropriate action. But instead I tried to suppress the feeling of disgust and actually felt sort of thankful for the fact that at least he did not treat me like a dumb and inferior human being anymore. How twisted is that?! I feared that if I spoke up, he would not only go back to his old behavior but give me hell every single shift - and I really did not feel lie I could put up with that. It felt like I was partner in an involuntary trade: I did not object to his behavior and in exchange got smiles, help, and patience instead of aggression and molestation. And yet, writing this post causes me to feel a lot of guilt for describing his personality and behavior with such harsh words. I actually would not want him to feel bad if he read this.
If you take the courage to report sexual harassment at work, it is very likely YOU who faces negative personal and professional consequences, not the perpetrator.
In her Guardian article, Williams quotes Laura Bates who researches the topic of sexual harassment at work: 'Over two-thirds of young women are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace now, today. Eighty per cent of them felt unable to report it, but three-quarters of the ones who did said that nothing changed afterwards, and 16% said that the situation got worse.' You read about Uber, about American Apparel, Fox News, and still they are treated as scandals, as extreme cases and single events, instead of being seen as a pattern, an indicator of a prevailing and deeply-rooted mysogyny. The more powerful the man, the less likely the women are to be heard. When you’re a star, they let you do it. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.
Powerful males deliberately choose women with lower status and less power because they know that this ensures that they can get away with it. Williams explains that the higher your own professional or cultural capital, the less likely it is that you are sexually harassed. So it probably is no coincidence that many actresses who nowadays are world-famous were harassed by Weinstein when they were young, aspiring women at the beginning of their career.
When it comes to cultural capital, I am miles ahead of the touchy chef. However, I was new, I did not speak the language, I never had a job in this country before, all of which made me even more insecure about myself than I already am. So the power balance was obviously in his favor. Me: young, female, foreigner, first job in Sweden, poor language skills, waitress. He: old, male, long-time employee and Sweden resident, chef. Still, he was not my boss, in the end he did not have much to say at that place, and I do not have any ambitions in the restaurant business that he could have helped me to pursue. And there were always other people around us, so that I never had to be scared that “something” would actually “happen” (here we go again) - unlike all the young actresses who were harassed by one the most powerful men of Hollywood in his hotel room. I did not complain about touchy-chefy, which I now regret because I had nothing to lose (I never really cared much about that job). In most other cases, however, women surely do have something to lose; they put not only their current jobs but their entire career at risk (let alone their dignity, self-worth, and courage). Studies have shown that it is not just unfounded worry - many people who file harassment complaints do in fact face negative consequences. '“They become troublemakers — nobody wants to hire them or work with them anymore”' says Jennifer Berdahl, who researches on the topic, in a New-York-Times article. Thus, the most common response is 'to avoid the [harasser], play down what happened or ignore the behavior'. That is something one has to let sink in for a moment: If you take the courage to report sexual harassment at work, it is very likely YOU who faces negative personal and professional consequences, not the perpetrator.
Since the "scandal" around Harvey Weinstein broke, more and more women have stepped forward to give account of their own experiences of sexual violence. Other powerful men in the film business have been accused and it becomes increasingly clear that the industry is basically built upon ugly sexist structures. Which comes as no surprise, really, considering the fact that there is a plethora of excellent young women aspiring to become actresses, whereas the vast majority of powerful and influential figures in the business are male. The dynamics amongst women have been really amazing, I think. What started as a few prominent individuals sharing their stories of sexual violence has trickled down via social media to us. To you, reading this, to me, writing this, to all the women who have shared their stories by posting #metoo, to all the (well, some) men who show solidarity by posting hashtags like #howIwillchange, or #Ibelieveyou and -more importantly- by engaging in the long-overdue male conversation about rape culture, mysogynism, and their own quiet (or not-so-quiet) complicity. I think everything that is happening right now is really important. Sometimes I focus too much on the male side of this though. So much of our work (and frustration) consists of convincing men that our experiences are real, that our pain is valid, that our anger is justified. So I feel really excited and thankful seeing men engaging in this debate and reflecting on their own contribution to the problem (even though it's horrifying that many of them seem to realize only now that they have been using, harassing, or assaulting women all along, as some correctly point out). But, to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: "Racism should never have happened and so you don't get a cookie for reducing it." And the same goes for sexism. I think the cookie should go to the women who have the courage to speak out. Not only the ones exposing Harvey Weinstein as a rapist but every single woman who shares her experience of #metoo, with or without explanation. But equally to the women who do not speak out because they do not want to share their traumatic experiences with everyone, or because they feel ashamed (like me), or because they believe their experiences are not seen as valid or credible (like me), or because they don't believe in the use of the campaign.
Let's hope that this campaign is not a media-fueled straw fire and hat the conversation will not fizzle out once the media have dropped the topic. I hope that people will continue to engage in these important discussions, that sexual violence does not only make it into the headlines when famous white females are involved, that women feel encouraged to speak out, both against the perpetrators and about their experiences, that men feel encouraged to stop, confront, and report other men. I hope for a growing awareness and acknowledgement that cat calling, the gender pay gap, touchy chefs, rape, and femicide are located on the same spectrum, I hope that concepts like rape culture and mysogynism leave leftist feminist circles and enter the public discourse.
And in the end, of course, I hope that all of this won't be necessary anymore.
By the way, the touchy chef was dismissed without notice shortly later - after yelling like a lunatic at our Eritrean kitchen assistant.