In the week since sharing my account of the man who felt entitled to touch me because I agreed to attend an event with him, I have received responses from readers — most of them commiserating, grateful, sympathetic. One male friend reached out to apologise on behalf of his ilk. But the most surprising came from someone I least expected: a fellow young woman.
This was someone I regard as a friend and felt comfortable enough with to share about the incident in person. Without offering even a single word of comfort, she immediately began questioning why I had put myself in that position to begin with. Why I had given him my business card. Why I had engaged in conversation with him in the first place. Even without her voicing it outright, the subtext of her questions was that I could’ve avoided this altogether by simply not engaging from the start — that, by speaking to an unfamiliar man, I was asking for it.
That I shouldn’t be surprised because what did I expect.
I beg your pardon?
And there I was, trying to justify each of my decisions — something I shouldn’t have to do as a woman of my age who made a rational choice to interact with someone who then acted inappropriately of his own accord.
There are most definitely some readers of all genders who agree with those sentiments; heck, as little girls weren’t we told not to talk to strange men? How many of you were told as little boys not to touch people without consent?
She then brought up her own modus operandi, contrasting it to mine, and in doing so laid bare all that is wrong with how we think about sexual harassment of any degree. In insisting that girls and women move through the world defensively, we imply that boys and men simply cannot change. Note that there is a difference between cannot and will not. And while either may be the unfortunate truth, that doesn’t mean effort shouldn’t be made. Why should being on guard be the default, versus respect? There is no size to which we can minimise ourselves that will make another’s fingers less itchy.
Her insinuation that I somehow deserved to be discomfited is the very same thing that the man in question did in his lengthy text message. I am writing this through the pain of having had to justify, to a fellow woman no less, why I didn’t deserve to be touched. But I want to push beyond that to highlight why this line of questioning was problematic beyond the fact that it caused me the great discomfort of having to relive an unpleasant event. To suggest that the solution is to simply not engage with anybody unfamiliar is naive and reinforces the dangerous status quo. Women the world over, from time immemorial, have been sexually harassed, assaulted, and raped for doing little more than being female — myself included — and too often by familiar figures. I relish meeting new people, hearing what they have to say, seeing the world through their eyes even just momentarily. I am happily partnered, but will go out and enjoy experiences with others; I find there is nothing to be gained by cloistering myself simply because I’m not seeking a romantic connection. So then why should one be forced to shy away from potentially rewarding interaction simply because the other might have nefarious intentions? How about turning the attention onto those with the ill-intent instead and encouraging behaviour change?
A few weeks ago a security guard at work, an older gentleman, came up to me to compliment the outfit I was wearing. He said, “I just wanted to tell you that is a beautiful ensemble you have on” — and he looked worried as he said it. He was obviously being cautious, afraid of being misconstrued; I appreciated his treading carefully, and I’m also here to say that it does not have to cross over into fear. Sexual harassment is such a personal topic, especially to the one who experienced it, that I highly doubt many — if any — are looking to be pointing fingers wantonly and thereby expose themselves to the unkindness that often follows on the heels of such revelations.
When I was in my middle teens, a cousin and I were walking to catch the bus home when a vendor uttered very lewd comments and made kissing sounds as we passed. Another young man brushed up against us deliberately. This was the norm at that major bus station, and all over the city of Dar es Salaam for that matter, so my cousin and I held hands and kept moving briskly. That was how one got through such places. When we arrived home, we recounted our frustrations to my father who, without skipping a beat, accused us of being inappropriately dressed. Let it be known that we were wearing button-down shirts and jeans, not that that should ever matter. I looked down at my blouse, bewildered, as my dad chastised us for provoking the men. As I am older now I trust that his sentiments came from a good place, one of recognising a problem bigger than us and wanting to equip us with the tools to protect ourselves. But that sidesteps the problem — and, my goodness, surely there were better ways to convey that.
There comes a time in one’s life when silence for fear of controversy is more agonising than the alternative. I admit that I hesitated about writing these posts — or, rather, about sharing them publicly. In each instance, I could hear the voices of society: “Talking about it publicly won’t do any good”…“Why bring such negative attention to yourself?” I was cautioned by my creative partner about inadvertently branding myself an activist of sorts. (For the record: merely speaking about an issue or sharing one’s story does not an activist make; activists deserve far more credit than that.) But I have forged ahead because the goal, as I mentioned in the preceding post, is not to name but to shame. In this case it is not seeking punishment, but to provoke thought and foster a conversation that needs to be had on an ongoing basis.
Behaviour change takes time, but always begins with an internal shift. So think about your own interactions, note for yourself where you could’ve done better — whether as a man interacting with a woman, or as someone in whom one is confiding about a sensitive incident. Teach one another, hold each other accountable, and break free of accepting the norm at the expense of others’ dignity.
Skeptical but still optimistic,
~ Read the first part here. ~