This Harvey Weinstein scandal has set my social media ‘verse on fire. All the online papers I subscribe to are full of quotes from celebrities condemning Weinstein’s behavior, actors lamenting their gain when others were suffering, while some are even calling it a witch hunt.
My favorite thus far has been a blog post from KatyKatiKate, furious that the men around her are “so shocked.” But the post that accessed me the most, emotionally, was from an acquaintance on Facebook under the trending hashtag #MeToo. She described an experience of sexual harassment and how she went on to call her harasser out; an older, white man in a position of relative power (surprise!). It made me think about my own experience. One I only realized I could call sexual harassment in the last two years. I’m 32.
When I was 14, my class went on a WWI reenactment outing. My high school is in one of the most beautiful areas in South Africa, mountainous, green, and we had undeveloped land all around the school property. Our history teacher decided it would give us some perspective to trek out in the “bush,” dig trenches and battle each other with pine cones. It was tasteless in hindsight, since we had a lot of fun and in no way projected ourselves into the abject misery that trench warfare must have been.
Once we were done, we spent the night on the property of one of my classmates’, conveniently located near the school. There was an empty house in which we rolled out our sleeping bags and camped out. Our teacher chose a room in the back of the house to sleep in and we didn’t see him again until the morning.
It was unusual that we were left so unchaperoned. Usually class outings that involved overnight stays had strictly divided girl and boy sleep zones. This felt fun and illicit and we were all a little high on it.
When I was tired, I rolled out my sleeping bag in a corner of what would one day be the living room, next to two already sleeping figures. While I was falling asleep, I was half aware of someone else settling down near me.
I woke sometime later in the dark and realized someone was touching my breasts.
I pushed away the hand in shock and horror, and looked over to see that it was Nick. Nick and I had no particular relationship. We weren’t really friends, we never chatted and we didn’t see each other socially. We were just class mates. Despite this social distance, which to my mind put us so far apart, here he was touching my breasts while I slept.
I shout-whispered, “Nick what are doing?!” but he didn’t reply; in fact, he feigned sleep. Having just retracted his hands from a position that must have required some masterful maneuvering, the arsehole pretended to be sleeping.
I rolled over, shifted a little closer to Nadeem who was asleep on my other side, and went back to sleep. A little while later, Nick was at it again, and his approach on my waking up was the same – quick jerk back to sleeping position. This time I shook him “awake.”
“Nick, what the fuck are you doing?!”
He pretended to be drowsy and asked, “What’s up?” WHAT’S UP!? Struggling to find the words to tell HIM, rapey little fucker, what he had just been doing to ME, was ridiculous and twistedly embarrassing for me. His reaction was (shocker) something along the lines of “Oh, I must have been doing it in my sleep.”
What could I do? I settled down to sleep again. As far as I know, that was the end of it.
In the morning, we walked over to the school grounds in drips and drabs. There was no particular order to the day. Another insight with retrospect is that this teacher was not the best or particularly responsible. I had found and clung to a guy who is still one of my best friends. I remember the relief and safety I felt just being around him, walking in the morning sun on the dirt road down to our school. I told him what had a happened. I don’t remember his reaction. It was probably something like, “What a fucking creep!”
What could he say? A boy of 14. But it felt good to tell him. It felt good that I could tell him. He is always listening!
Going home that day, I didn’t feel inclined to tell anyone else. Not my mother, with whom I was open about everything, not my teachers, and none of my friends. I felt gross, I felt somehow implicated in what he had done.
Why hadn’t I kneed him in the gonads? Why hadn’t I gotten up and moved somewhere else? Why hadn’t I shouted and woken everyone up and told them all what he had done? I don’t know. But I do now.
There was no vocabulary for violations like that, in this grey area of assault.
Not for me, not then. Rape happened. Sure. South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world and did then too. We had Charlize Theron on TV leaning into the camera in earnest, in a provocative advert telling us all “Real Men Don’t Rape”. And while it was a huge leap then just to say the words on public television, it still missed the mark.
Rape was something that a lone criminal did with a knife to your throat in a dark alley. Rape was not what happened on dates or when a girl has had a little too much to drink, or was wearing the wrong thing. Sexual harassment was when your boss put his hand up your skirt; it was not unwanted remarks on your outfit or appearance, not just an atmosphere. Misogyny was not being interrupted by men while speaking or being regarded a bitch when you are just trying to get your job done.
And for me, a school girl in the year 2000, sexual harassment was not some boy copping a feel in the night when I should probably have chosen a better spot to sleep or better people to sleep around.
I didn’t think about my incident again. I put it out of my mind. Nick was expelled for very different reasons not long after that, and I never saw him again. I honestly didn’t think about it again until a year or two ago, around the time the Bill Cosby scandal was highly publicized.
I started to think about all the women (and men) I know and have known who have been sexually abused or assaulted. I actually made a list and it shocked me! Friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues.
This is what they mean when they talk about rape culture, I thought.
This knowledge that I had had but never strung together as a coherent narrative, never looked at under one term because I didn’t have the construct, the vocabulary or the space to talk about it. This is what allows this behavior to go unpunished, unchecked, and allows it to be perpetuated.
And suddenly I thought back to Sick Nick and his roving night time hands, and a shiver went through me. I hadn’t thought about it in 16 years and suddenly I did and I had a name for it. The thought that then went through my mind was, what if I had been alone, looked for an empty room to sleep in that night, to get away from the noise or the illicit smoking and he’d found me asleep by myself? I feel lucky to have been able to push this relatively minor incident out of mind and moved on to a happy sexual life with wonderful boys and men after that.
But other girls and women have not been so lucky. Other boys and men have not been so wonderful.
In the last few years, the conversation around sexual harassment has changed dramatically. There are more spaces to discuss these topics, people use their platforms to speak out about them, and the proliferation of discussion has given names to things that happen in the grey area between consent and penetrative rape. (See Season 1, Episode 7 of Master of None on Netflix.)
The focus has pulled out to view not just the incidents, but the culture of entitlement around them that allows violations to happen. It has shifted somewhat from the victim/survivor to the perpetrator and those who are complicit in their crime; and, most importantly, it has tried to strip some of the shame away from speaking out.
In short, the discussion has kick-started a kind of tool-kit and support group that I didn’t have growing up. One I am so glad I have access to now and can pass on to my daughter and son, one I wish my mother and her generation had had access to, one that might have saved them a lot of anguish and empowered me earlier.
Some part of me thought better of writing this.
These words have been said, their arguments have been made many times now by people much more adept at this than me. But honestly, can it be said enough? There is still so much to be done. Rape is not just a random brutal act by a stranger in the dark. Rape culture is real and too often this conversation is one only had by women. Men, above all, should be listening!
In the wake of this Weinstein unveiling-of-a-beast, so many men have been quick to distance themselves from his actions, so quick to reassure the women around them that they would have put a stop to it had they known, etc. Like KatyKatiKate says, “STOP THAT!” Stop trying to be a good guy hero. I’m sure we can all agree rape and putting pressure on women to have sex with you, massage you, etc., is pretty damn gross.
We don’t need more consensus on that. What we do need is for men to see how they are similar to Weinstein, to see how entitlement works, to see how they are part of a system.
How often do you feel entitled to a woman’s time and energy?
How often do you interrupt a woman?
How often do you overlook the work done by a woman?
How often do you remark on her appearance?
How often does a woman’s appearance dominate the way you interact with her?
How often do you dismiss another man’s behavior as simply boys-will-be-boys?
These things matter. These things make a difference.
I struggle with these things in my daily life. I have a co-worker who is far more receptive to work we need to do together on days I have put more effort into my make-up and outfit. I have had bosses who have made inappropriate comments on my appearance and female friends who tell me I should be flattered. I struggle to make it clear to my husband that he is not entitled to my time and energy. I struggle raising a girl and trying to make sure she can live out her naturally generous spirit while also knowing that she’s not obliged to give of herself by virtue of being a girl. I struggle raising a boy and hoping that he will understand that he is not entitled to women, their niceness or their acquiescence.
I struggle with myself and often wish I had spoken out instead of staying quiet, not just about creepy Nick but about everyday sexism, because it’s all part of the same problem.
But I’m glad this conversation is happening, I’m glad I know people who are constructively participating in being open, while I also appreciate that how a survivor deals with their trauma is up to them and no one should have to be re-traumatized by being made to speak out.
I’m glad I know this because these things are being written about, talked about, lived! I hope the retribution Weinstein and the Nicks of this world now have to face that they didn’t ten or fifteen years ago, will reeducate a whole generation of girls and boys about what a violation is.
Helena is a born and raised South African, and has been living in Leipzig since 2009. She studied Literature and Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, and then got a degree in publishing at the HTWK Leipzig. She now runs the Verlag für alternatives Energierecht, and lives here in Leipzig with her husband and two children.