It is extremely rare that I will copy and paste a status update making the rounds on social media. I wasn’t sure if I should post the now-viral #metoo status, letting my Facebook friends know that I too have experienced sexual harassment.
Like some women, I was hesitant mainly because my experience wasn’t “that bad.” I have never experienced non-consensual sexual contact, never been assaulted, never even been in a situation where I feared assault was imminent. I am one of those “lucky ones.” While I have travelled alone, lived alone, walked alone at night and paid no attention to my drink at a club, I have emerged unscathed. And I do not give myself any credit for that: I was as naïve and vulnerable as young girls come. It was all, sadly, luck. I was never in the wrong place with the wrong person at the wrong time. I know many women in my entourage who were not so lucky.
In sharing the #metoo status, I was thinking of one very specific incident of sexual harassment in Grade 8. I realized the reason I wondered if it “counted” was because my experience is an outlier. It was awful, but it was resolved. It didn’t haunt me or remain a secret, and the perpetrator experienced consequences for his actions. I got closure. And while it didn’t make what he did okay nor negate what I felt at the time, it sure went a hell of a long way to making things better.
My Grade 8 science lab partner tormented me every class with sexually explicit comments. He would turn to the students behind us and tell them about vulgar sexual acts I was engaging in with various boys in the woods behind our school. I was mortified, and I felt dirty and ashamed—and what he was saying didn’t have an ounce of truth. But let me be clear: even if what he was saying were true, it would not have been okay.
One day I had finally had enough. I came home from school in tears and confessed to my mother what I had been going through. It was horribly embarrassing to repeat his words to my mom. She believed me. She took action. My mom immediately phoned my school’s vice principal. She also believed me. She took action.
Very quickly, I no longer had to sit next to this boy in science class. The vice principal had me write out an account of what the boy had been saying to me. Whatever she said to him must have carried weight, because he never spoke to me again—not to call me a snitch, not to intimidate me further, not to apologize. But I did receive an apology in written form. I realize that he was obligated to write this letter as part of his punishment, but it still forced him to admit that what he had been doing was wrong. I kept that letter for a long time. I never saw that boy again after Grade 8, but I really hope that being called out at such a young age on the inappropriateness of his actions helped inform his future conduct around girls and women.
I hadn’t thought much about this incident until this whole wave of #metoo statuses started to appear on my Facebook feed. Last night I was thinking a lot about how different my experience could’ve been if the people I trusted with my story either didn’t believe me or brushed it off as “boys being boys.”
One thing is for sure: I don’t know how I could’ve tolerated spending an entire school semester forced to work alongside my tormentor. I know my teacher partnered us because I was a strong student and he was a weak student, and she’d hoped I could help him. I also know I was too polite and too much of a “good girl” to stand up to him. But what if I hadn’t been a so-called “good girl”? The students my lab partner told about my supposed sexual activity on school grounds might have believed him; we all know what happens in the high school rumour mill once you’re labelled a slut. But I was too nerdy, too pre-pubescent for anyone to believe the things he was saying about me, so in that way, I was spared further humiliation. (Also, this happened before social media. I shudder to think how things would’ve unfolded if this had occurred online.)
If I had been sexually precocious and his statements held some truth, would I have been willing to tell my mother or school administration about them? Probably not. What made it easy for me was that I was a poster child for virginity. But if I weren’t, he still would not have had the right to talk to about me the way he did. It might, however, have affected how the vice principal responded. We all know how a woman’s sexual history, how she dresses and how she acts is brought into the public arena when she is brave enough to speak out about sexual harassment or assault.
Likely because my experience denouncing my harasser resulted in a) being believed and b) him being punished, I have always felt confident that should anything happen to me in the future, I would be 100% willing to go to the police or the relevant authorities. And being the naïve optimist I was in eighth grade and still am today, I would do so believing that justice would prevail and that there would be serious consequences for the perpetrator. I can only imagine what a lifetime of the opposite experience does to a woman’s confidence.
I guess where I’m going with all of this is to say that we can all help stem the pervasion of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Women are not the only victims: men can be too, and men speaking out can face even more skepticism than their female counterparts.
So what can we do?