(In my discussion I am centring on the primary dynamic of men as the perpetrators and women as the victims, but please understand that such roles aren’t confined to one gender)
Many men were surprised at the extent of the problem, that so many women could say “me too”. Me too, to experiences of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. We women weren’t. Many women posted that they would think every woman could write #metoo. We know, because we tell each other our stories quietly, in pieces, in confidence. Every woman could post “me too” but might not. Might feel shame, might in doing so open wounds they are can’t afford to right now, might suffer a myriad of consequences. Some women, knowing the horrific abuse and violence experienced by other women, felt awkward about putting their #metoo, when it was “only” sexual harassment, or “only” some groping. We also wondered why the men didn’t know. But then we remembered how difficult it is to speak up, how difficult it is to be believed, how so very commonplace it is in our lives that we often say nothing.
Here it is, stretched out on the canvas of social media for us all to see. It is all women. It isn’t the other women out there, the ones who aren’t careful enough, or don’t behave well, or choose the wrong kind of friends. We can’t avoid it. There is no way for us to completely protect ourselves. It happens with our friends, it happens in daylight, it happens at our workplaces and schools, it happens when we are trying to go about our lives as we dare to travel to work, study, appointments, social events, to do errands. It happens, horrifically, in our homes (here I would direct you to the helpful collection of articles on domestic violence on this site).
I’m wary of saying this, of being misunderstood, but it needs to be said. It is all men. I mean that firstly in the sense that we have learnt there is no category of man we can trust. We have learnt that some men in roles of trust cannot, in fact, be trusted. Doctors, teachers, bosses, pastors, family friends, our friends, parents, husbands. Christian men. It makes me sad to say that, but that is our experience. We like to think that we can assess whether a man is worthy of trust, whether he is safe. But we mistrust our own judgment, because we know experience proves this to sometimes be wrong.
I also mean it is all men in the sense that it is so very hard for men not to be complicit. Because there are so many ways to be so. Sexism helps create an environment in which harassment and sexual assault occur. Many men can’t believe it of their male friends. We understand. We found it hard to believe too, until it happened. Men sometimes can’t believe it, so they think there must be something wrong about the women to whom it happens. Men are sometimes worried about their relationships, or their careers, so they do nothing, or do too little. And let’s be heartbreakingly honest here: women can be complicit too, in enabling this system. We are also part of this damaged world.
Men can underestimate the magnitude of the problem because women are understandably often reluctant to share. To talk about it can peel off the layers of protection we women need just to go about our days. To talk about it puts us at risk, as we fear judgment, we fear reprisal by those more powerful than us. We fear that we will be seen as troublemakers. Often too, we appreciate that when it comes to the subtler versions, men can be unaware of the full impact of what they are doing. That they too, are caught in a harmful system. We struggle with how to work for change in a way that will be constructive. You see, we women don’t have all the answers either. That is something women and men need to work on together. What we do need, is to be heard.
There should be no compulsion for women to speak. It is bad enough to have to experience it – sometimes to speak makes us too vulnerable, or at risk of negative consequences. But when women do choose to speak, we need you to listen. We need you to respect the immense courage it takes. We will also need you to speak, and to use the power you have to advocate for us. But first, listen to us – our experiences, our suggestions, our emotions, our thoughts. It will be hard. But in this listening there is love.
I want to speak now as one woman who said #metoo, though one privileged with the burden of many other women’s stories. Here is what you need to understand.
Every day, I think about the need to get safe behind a locked door before darkness falls. If a man is with me, or enough women, maybe I might feel safe out in the dark. Usually though, my experience is of needing to be locked away for my own safety every night. This frustrates me, but this necessity consumes me each day. When for many reasons, I find myself alone either in the dark, or in a lonely place, every moment is one of fear, and I have strategies in place, though I don’t like to dwell on how inadequate they seem.
If a man is unknown to me, I worry about being alone with him. Although if I play the odds, it is likely he is safe, the consequences if he is not safe seem too high a cost. And so, I’m aware of the men around me – on the street, in the elevator, in transport, in rooms with closed doors. I might try to avoid some situations. Or I might this time choose to play the odds, with an eye to all the subtle cues that tell me this is entering a danger zone.
And I realise with chagrin, that my behaviour is that of prey. I keep away from the predator; I watch the predator. I do not challenge the predator; he is stronger than me. I de-escalate, I act submissively. I contemplate terrible choices about what I will sacrifice so that I may prevent a worse injury.
Why do I feel like prey? Because – and this is where sexual harassment comes in – everything around me tells me that this is what I am. It is my sexuality that makes me both prized and vulnerable. There are constant messages that I am a sexual object to be possessed, not a person with full dignity. A person made in the image of God (Gen 1:27).
This is one reason why the Billy Graham Rule is so destructive and impotent. For in a world in which strange men are threats, I need safe men. I need to know that a man is able to control his sexual urges. If the good men I know can’t be expected to control themselves on a short car trip, what hope have I? I need to know I can be something other than prey. I need to know that my relationship with a man can be predicated on something other than sexuality. That car trip might also be what keeps me out of danger walking on a dark street. Even better, that car trip might be a time when we dream together for the kingdom of God. I look at Jesus, who though he was human and tested in every way like us, met with women alone. Jesus saw us in all our personhood: the unvalued Samaritan woman, the curious Mary, the generous perfume giver (John 4:1-41, Luke 10:38-42, Mark 14:1-9). I look forward to the time to come when the wolf will live with the lamb (Isa 11:6) – that is when the categories of predator and prey will be abolished, and damaging power structures overthrown. When a woman will walk through streets that are made golden by her lack of fear (Rev 21:21).
In the meantime, I need the power imbalances to be recognised. Women are on average physically smaller than men. We are frequently below them in official power structures. Outside of official hierarchies, men often have more influence than we do, through their connection to other men and greater access to opportunities. Thus, unwelcome sexual advances towards us by those with greater power than us mean we fear for our careers, our livelihoods, our places within our communities, our bodily autonomy, and ultimately our lives.
There are many answers, and the internet is abounding with them at the moment. Please, go and read. But here are the 3 main answers, to my mind:
Listen humbly to women’s experiences and analysis of them
Teach all to give honour to the full and equal personhood of women
Act on the basis of a recognition of power imbalance, its injustices and dangers.
Let’s change the hashtag from #metoo to #istandwithher.
Megan is a daughter, friend, mother, pastor, teacher, twin and wife. She is currently doing a PhD in theology.