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I have noticed in the last couple of weeks or so a new campaign on Facebook going around called ‘Me Too’.
It involves simply changing your status to ‘Me too’ if you are a woman who has ever experienced sexual harassment of some kind. The idea is to highlight the enormity of the problem – to communicate the extent of the pervasive demeaning behaviour of some men within the community.
It has been interesting and distasteful to read the testimonies of my friends, and their various experiences ranging from casual rudeness, or uncomfortable inappropriate ‘flirting’, to horrendous violence and life-changing confrontational situations. And that’s just the women who chose to speak out, because doubtless there will be those who still feel unable to share, or whose experiences are ongoing and so close to home that their future “safety” would be threatened by such public disclosure.
It’s obviously important to acknowledge that this kind of unacceptable behaviour is by no means limited to ‘men towards women’, and that the subtext is NOT that all men are arses and women are dainty victims – an argument I have seen igniting on many threads. It’s hard to know how much to share with friends and acquaintances and strangers, because we are conditioned to believe that sexual experiences are private and even taboo.
But we are talking about living in a culture where this happens on a daily basis to SO MANY people - to the point where it is normalised and viewed as an unpleasant but incontrovertible fact of life. Being able to discuss these outrages publicly, as you would a robbery, a road rage incident, a racist attack or fraud, for example, would be a large step forward for everyone.
So… Here goes… Me too.
I’ve been subject to countless catcalls, leery shouts from white vans, bizarre marriage proposals from complete strangers (who want a Ting Tong Macadamdam of their very own), inappropriate flirting, and Russian fingers on the dance floor… but I’m not even interested in telling you about those frequent and pathetic minor irritations.
I had an experience which makes me seethe with rage, thinking about it now – and the rage is not just directed at the perpetrator, but at the adults in a position of responsibility who did not protect me, or practise the most rudimentary elements of child safe-guarding.
When I was in the first year of secondary school I was asked by a visiting musician (let’s call him Mr D – not his initial, because I have integrity, even if he didn’t) who required a young singer – preferably with an ‘exotic’ appearance – for a show he was directing in a prestigious venue near my home town.
Apparently, I was exactly what he was looking for.
Mr D dropped around to my house, to meet and charm my parents, explain the rehearsal schedule, and impress us with his brilliant piano playing. Rehearsals began, and I found myself quite enjoying the process, despite my usual aversion to the lime light.
Weirdly, a couple of times at school, I was asked by several different teachers how the rehearsals were going – one teacher gazed at me with a speculative intensity that made me a little uncomfortable. But I told them it was going well and forgot about it.
And it did go well. Until one weekend.
Mr D offered to pick me up from my house, and take me to the rehearsal venue to save my mother a 20 minute journey into town. However, when we arrived at the venue, there was no one around at all – it was completely empty. He laughed self-deprecatingly and said his watch was an hour fast… but as we were early, would I do him a favour?
He brought out a handful of jumbled leotards and explained that he was trying to sort out the costumes for a dance group but he hadn’t been able to get them to try on their leotards. I was about the same size as the girls, so would I try them all on, one by one, so he could discard the outsize items?
Immediately I felt my skin crawling down my back. This was definitely not right. I shook my head shyly and said I didn’t want to do that.
He gave another jovial laugh, but his eyes held a steely glint as if to say, “Don’t be a silly girl. I am the teacher and you must do as I say. Did you forget that?”
Then he actually said, “Oh, don’t be shy! There’s no one around. I’ll put you in that classroom over there where no one will be able to see you changing. Go on! It really would be so helpful to me!”
In the end, the conditioning to obey was simply too strong. I mutely took the handful of leotards and went into the classroom. I looked carefully around to see if there were any windows shared with other rooms, but it really did seem completely deserted. I stood in a corner where I felt the least exposed and looked at the leotards with a slight sneer of disgust. I was almost as revolted at the thought of touching other people’s leotards as I was at the thought of taking my clothes off in this apparently empty classroom. It only took 5 minutes or so, but I felt utterly soiled by the time I had my own clothes back on.
Mr D thanked me casually, took the leotards back and never referred to it again. The other children and actors started arriving for the rehearsal and things seemed to go back to normal.
But in my little world, something had gone bad. I had an amorphous, black tumour of self-loathing, fear, guilt and poisoned innocence festering in my belly. I couldn’t tell anyone about it because I knew I would castigated for being so stupid and gullible. I knew no one would understand how persuasive he could be. I knew that I was a quiet 11 year old girl with no authority, power or proof of his misdeeds whatsoever. I told myself that it could have been worse. That I hadn’t actually been TOUCHED or physically hurt in any way… So I swallowed it down and went on with life, even though I was certain that I had somehow been violated.
The show went well and, despite everything, it was a very memorable and thrilling occasion. I had the standard after-show blues for a few days, and then life went back to normal.
Several months later, I overheard Mr D’s name mentioned at school in a conversation between 3 or 4 girls much older than me. My head whipped around and, uncharacteristically boldly (for me), I asked them how they knew him.
“He was a teacher here – music and drama. Dirty bastard…” she added as an afterthought.
“What happened? Why doesn’t he work here anymore?” I asked, my mouth dry; my heart already knowing the answer.
“He hid a camera in the girls’ changing rooms and then asked some girls to try on some leotards, and secretly took pictures of them. Disgusting pervert.”
My body felt cold and hot, and every inch of my skin was prickling.
“Was he fired?” I asked.
The girl shook her head and shrugged. “Nah… He was just asked to leave quietly, without making a fuss.”
They knew, I thought dully as I walked away. Those teachers who asked me how things were going…they knew. And that’s why they asked – to check Mr D wasn’t up to his old tricks.
But no one prevented him from working with children. No one warned my parents not to leave me alone with him. Nobody took responsibility for what happened, because – heavens above! – no one wanted a fuss. What could possibly be worse in 1980s Britain than making a f***ing FUSS?? How would it be FAIR if poor Mr D was haunted by his insignificant earlier mistakes forever?? Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance? A third, a fourth? Even if every failed opportunity has a litter of female casualties in its wake…?
I took my 11 year old shame, betrayal and impotent rage, and buried it in an unmarked grave – because I felt I had no options. The system designed to support me and keep me safe had failed on every level – why would I trust ANYONE with what I knew? I realise that this man’s actions are more suitably categorised under Paedophilia – not ‘mere’ sexual harassment, but I wanted to illustrate the head-in-the-sand, scandal-averse, androcentric society I lived in when I was a little girl. A society where it was MORE important to safeguard the future career of a young talented teacher, and therefore gloss over his ‘misdemeanours’, than protect young, vulnerable female students from his calculated predation.
Has our society changed? I hope so.
If nothing else, I hope that we understand that ANYONE can be a predator, and ANYONE can be on the receiving end. I hope we understand that there are certain ways we should treat people – not specifically because someone is a man or woman or child – but simply because it is decent and respectful. I hope we understand that we are all responsible for our own actions – that observing disgraceful behaviour at home or whilst growing up doesn’t give you a free pass to be an asshole.
As a society, I hope we have progressed from Victorian times, where a woman who made an allegation of this kind would more likely have been imprisoned herself "for her own safety", or incarcerated in a lunatic asylum for her hysterical megrims.
So, more than anything, I hope that victims of ‘Me Too’ – regardless of age or gender – feel able to communicate with others, to deflect the transgressions back to the perpetrators, and refuse to absorb the poisonous negativity or shame generated by this kind of offense.