As someone who has for all accounts, never struggled to put my feelings into print, I’ve been battling with what to say during this outpouring of support for women in the midst of so much appalling abusive and sexually driven behavior. It’s not because I don’t stand in solidarity with every female that has been so bold as to even type the two words and/or share their stories of mistreatment. And it isn’t even because it hasn’t happened to me, because of course I’ve been cat called, touched in a way I didn’t approve of, or felt uncomfortable around someone in a position of power over me. But isn’t that the problem right there? That it’s so easy for me to access multiple accounts of behavior driven by a physical force that I can’t pinpoint one that stands out above the rest?
I think- and I’ve discussed this with people I trust on multiple accounts- that a major contributor to this problem is the concept of forced affection. It’s a pretentious sounding term that is often met with confusion, and that is where we start. Forced affection, in the quickest way I can describe it, is the method of conditioning, typically from a young age, that your body is not something that belongs to you, or something you have control over. It isn’t specific to men or women, and it usually happens at a very young age. It’s rarely even done consciously. We laugh at photos of young children falling apart on the lap of a mall Santa Claus or Easter Bunny, and we all have vivid memories of a parent encouraging us to hug or kiss a relative we may not know all that well for the sake of being not being “rude”. Affection becomes something we are made to give not by choice, but by circumstance, for politeness, for status quo.
I believe, in part, that this is why I struggle to identify with where I stand and my position in the macro sense of sexual harassment. For as long as I can remember, I’ve tensed at the thought of hugs, of handholding, of finding an embrace, even with someone I truly care about. I don’t know why, I don’t know when it started, and I don’t feel that it is something I should have to articulate again and again.
There have been multiple occasions where I had to ask fellow coworkers not to touch me when talking to me, and some incidents have actually been met with the question of whether or not I was sexually abused. While I battle with the notion that this is an inappropriate questions to ask, I think it’s missing the larger point. If, let’s say, I had been sexually abused, isn’t is possible that years of forced affection and uncomfortable situations for the sake of others may have skewed my view of what is abuse and what isn’t? Of course I can acknowledge that someone yelling something obscene at me from their car window, or a high school boy sticking his hand up my cheer skirt is wrong, but where do the lines begin to blur?
As we are realizing now more than ever, our words and our actions have serious consequences. It doesn’t take long for a misplaced joke to go viral, for a lapse in judgement to cost someone their job and their reputation. Every time we say ‘fag’, or ‘slut’ or the like, we are normalizing some form of shame, abuse, or hate. Much is the same with the way we touch others, the way we make people feel like they’re “weird” for preferring not to be touched, even innocently. This isn’t an attempt to blame my parents for wanting me to hug my grandparents, or saying that someone who was unaware of the slightest indicators of sexual harassment are the ultimate problem. Because, we all are, in some way, part of the problem.
I thoroughly enjoyed objectifying the half-naked men in the popular Australian all-male strip show, but I grimace at the thought of a man commenting on my appearance even if I’m in a tank top. I see and I know, now more clearly than ever, that women are changing the world. Standing together, lifting each other up, and using our voices not just to speak for ourselves- but for others, is so inherently in opposition to what our gender has done for years. It’s incredible and it’s beautiful and it’s so inspiring.
I guess all I’m looking for in this post is to remind all of us- women, men, gay, straight, trans, POC, that all of our words and actions matter. What are you using your voice to do? What kind of statement do we want to make, and more so, what do we want to see change?
I don’t really think that my stories of sexual harassment and abuse are ones that I want to share, not right now. I’ve seen the effects that my vocal disdain for men and women alike telling me to smile has had on those older than me, people who have shrugged off the idea that it could be taken as harassment for years.
It’s not just the big moments in our lives that matter, but the little ones too. The times an unwanted hand was placed on my shoulder, when a comment was made about my clothes, my makeup, my body type. These situations have not only been conducted by men.
If this piece was in anyway taken as me not agreeing, wholeheartedly and believing in the “me too” movement, I encourage you to reread, and I promise you that is not the case. We have to start somewhere, and I’m happy we’re starting with women whose voices have been silenced for far too long. I’m simply suggesting that oftentimes, those who have been quiet, may have also been confused. Realizing what is and what is not ok when it comes to all of our bodies starts with the notion that it’s ok to say what you do and don’t want, even if you may not know why just yet.
It’s our job not only to be vocal, but to listen, have patience and respect for those who are finding their voices in a scary world, and strive to make our time here together a little less shitty.
Ya feel me?