The recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo campaign on social media has had me thinking about experiences I had shut away, ideally never to be revisited. Things that happened to me as a child, before I was ever aware of feminism or sexual harassment or sexual assault; things that happened to me as an adult, after I became aware first-hand of what sexual assault was and what feminism was, yet still not equating either with what I had experienced. Sexual assault happened to me in my early days at high school, on more than one occasion and by more than one perpetrator, but that’s between me and my counsellor, not for this blog. This is about something that happened to me when I was older, in my early twenties, when I was a trainee health professional. This last week I have been reading stories about what many women have been through, what men have done to women, how seemingly small acts of harassment can have huge and catastrophic effects, yet it is really only now, today, that I can see that this was me too. I am realising now that I did not over-react just because this time there was no obviously sexual violation, I can see now that his behaviour was entirely wrong, that my reaction to his behaviour was entirely normal, and that the reaction from those who I told was unacceptable and failed me. Yet for a long time I felt guilty that I had spoken about it, that I had spoken to a senior member of staff about it, and that they had contacted the HR department. I felt bad that he was told to apologise to me. I felt embarrassed at making a fuss. I felt like I had blown it all out of proportion, that I should have just kept quiet, that I should have put up with it because, you know, he didn’t rape me, so really it’s not so bad. And after a while, I put it in the little box of Things I Shouldn’t Have Done in my brain and never thought about it again.
But now, I’m feeling really angry and I wish, I wish, I had felt this angry thirteen years ago. I wish I had told him straight to his face that he was being inappropriate, that his stroking my hair and my back and my arms and his lewd and disgusting sexual remarks were all making me uncomfortable and embarrassed, and that under no circumstances was it ever ok to send all the department staff home and keep a student (me) back after the shift had ended to finish a clinic list that needed only one member of staff (him) to do. That staying in the room that evening and watching my every move while I dealt with those last few patients by myself was not only unhelpful and unproductive but it made me feel extremely vulnerable and scared.
And I so wish that when I had taken all my doubts and discomforts about this man to my boss and she had arranged a meeting with HR and the HR rep had told me that I was to take this down an informal route and to absolutely not carry out a formal complaint that would potentially lead to a tribunal, I wish that I had vented this anger and told her that I absolutely would be taking this down a formal route and it was the least this man could expect given his vile behaviour.
Why would this human resources rep so strongly want to discourage me from seeking a formal complaint? Why, when she had listened to me and agreed that his behaviour was indeed sexually inappropriate, would she not want me to take it further? Why would she think that a verbal apology was enough? This is what I’ve been thinking about and this is what is really making me rage today. Of course she wouldn’t want a formal complaint to be made because it would then be public knowledge. People would hear about it. Other staff in the department would know there was a tribunal, staff in other departments in the hospital would get to know, and you know what happen then? What happens then is what has happened in Hollywood to the victims of Harvey Weinstein – they find their strength, they find their voice, they realise they are not alone, that they are not the problem here, that he is the problem, that this behaviour is the problem, and they speak out. And that is what so many men are afraid of. What would have happened if other women had seen there was a sexual harassment allegation brought against this member of staff and they had spoken out against him too? What if other women who had been harassed or assaulted by other men in the hospital then also spoke out? What if someone made an allegation against a consultant, a senior and well respected, clever doctor with years of experience? What would happen to the hospital, to the business, to its reputation, to its finances? Imagine the scandal! So no, dear, you’re not making a complaint today, just run along and keep your head down and your voice quiet, accept a lame and insincere apology and carry on as you were.
The problem here is the system, it’s the way that these men are protected because they are powerful, wealthy, or successful, and because any bad publicity could harm the business. The problem is that the systems are set up to protect the business, not those who work in it, and definitely not the women making complaints. In our society, rape culture is so far entrenched we just don’t even notice it. Men and boys are protected by money, success and largely by societal norms (‘boys will be boys’, ‘he pulls your hair because he likes you’). Victims of sexual assault and abuse should be protected by the law, but it’s often not the case. Very few rape allegations actually go to trial – in fact only 15% of rape victims report it to the police, and only 5.7% of rape cases result in a conviction (statistics taken from Rape Crisis). It’s little wonder that so many cases of sexual harassment in the workplace go unreported (4 out of 5 cases, according to the TUC report published last year) when the reaction is to just accept the behaviour as banter, if you’re told to not rock the boat, to consider the reputation of the company, his reputation, the repercussions on his family and his colleagues, to simply say nothing and make it easy for everyone. Everyone but the victim, that is.
Things need to change. Firstly, these vile men need to change. They need to realise that their lack of self control, their need for power and control over women, their sexual desires, do not override women’s body autonomy. They need to understand that behaviour that looks at home in a Carry On film or a Benny Hill sketch is not ’banter’ or ‘harmless fun’, for the woman on the receiving end it is degrading, humiliating and terrifying. They have to understand that sexual harassment isn’t a joke or political correctness gone mad, it’s a violation of body autonomy, of dignity and of safety.
But alongside this, we need to change as a society. We need to stop making it OK for men to sexually harass and assault women, safe in the knowledge there will be no repercussions. We need to listen more and judge less (‘What was she wearing?’ ‘Had she been drinking?’ ‘She’s making these claims just to make a bit of money’), we need to actually believe women who find the courage to come forward with allegations of sexual or physical assault, of bullying or harassment, and we need there to be actual consequences for these awful human beings doing these awful things. We need to worry less about reputations and the monetary cost of challenging harmful behaviour and worry more about the psychological and emotional cost to these people, these colleagues, friends, members of our families and of our communities, of not challenging it. We all need to stop victim blaming and shaming – honestly, they do enough of that themselves – and start challenging and holding these monsters to account for their actions. It’s time to change.