We're still conditioned to question our experiences of sexual harassment

We’re still conditioned to question our experiences of sexual harassment

In the past year, the media has chronicled many high-profile women’s experience of sexual harassment. And alongside their accounts of harassment, their stories have often featured sexual harassment’s ever-present sidekick: the victim’s tendency to turn over the events in her mind and second guess her experience and response. Did that really happen? Was it really that bad? Should I have handled it differently?

In talking about their experiences, these women have helped remind us that, like the gender pay gap, sexual harassment is not a holdover of 1970’s feminism: cue images of Dolly Parton’s character in the iconic film 9 to 5 being chased around the desk by her boss.

Scenes like this and others are, sadly, still very much a feature of women’s lives. Nowadays, chopping off a female colleague’s pony tail seems to be all the rage. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, 1 in 5 women experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

First, we had Taylor Swift’s mother, Andrea, take to the stand at her daughter’s civil suit and testify that Taylor’s instinct to continue smiling through ever-more gritted teeth as a DJ groped her during a photo op had weighed heavily on her mind. “[Taylor] couldn’t believe that after the incident, she thanked him for being there,” Andrea said. “She said ‘Thank you.’ It was destroying her.”

Then, in her recently published memoir about the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton described the discomfort she felt as Donald Trump “loomed” behind her during the second presidential debate and her struggle to find the correct response. Should she have told him to “back off creep” instead of maintaining her cool?

Clinton wrote that she “overlearned the lesson of staying calm, biting my tongue, digging my fingernails into clenched fist, smiling all the while, determined to present a composed face to the world.”

Like these women, Dolly Parton’s character in 9 to 5 also plays out an alternative fantasy in her mind, in which she turns the tables on her harasser, rounds him up and ties him down like cattle in a rodeo.

As Jill Filipovic wrote in an excellent column for the New York Times, “This second- guessing of oneself and playing out alternative narratives in one’s head is a dominant soundtrack of woman’s lives.”

For me, this internal, and now external, monologue, is an unfortunate kind of internalised victim blaming. The victims of sexual harassment are stuck in what they coulda, woulda, shoulda done differently to prevent the harassment from happening in the first place or stop it in its tracks.

But however tempting the image may be, we can’t all be Dolly Parton outfitted in rodeo gear taking down one harasser at a time. And we really shouldn’t have to be.

It adds insult to injury to see victims of sexual harassment beating themselves up by turning over events in their mind. The responsibility sits with the perpetrator, who chooses to act a certain way – and with our broader society that enables and condones their behaviour (as was so brilliantly articulated by Jane Gilmore in a column for Fairfax recently).

So I started thinking, when will we raise a generation of girls for whom this second-guessing is not the “dominant narrative of their lives”. Will the next generation not only live comparatively free of sexual harassment, but if it does occur, will they avoid this unfortunate tendency to turn over events and feel personal responsibility for stopping the harassment?

A first pass at some of the recent research looking at girl’s experience of sexual harassment made for uncomfortable reading. Young women are clearly experiencing sexual harassment at alarming rates, and younger than many would like to believe.

Two years ago, the US Girl Scouts published a survey indicating 1 in 10 girls are catcalled before their  11th birthday. That’s right, fourth graders getting wolf-whistled and worse.

Here in Australia, last year Our Watch and Plan International Australia published an Everyday Sexism Report, which looked at the experiences of young women ages 16-19. It found that 1 in 4 young women did not think their teachers would act if sexist name calling was taking place at their school.

And just last week in the UK, the Children’s Society published a Good Childhood Report, noting a widening “gender gap in misery”, with girls mental health declining while boys’ has remained the same. The culprit: girls are frightened and fear for their personal safety. For example, they talk about being scared by men blowing kisses at them in the street.

None of this gave me much hope for the future. But then came a green shoot. I realized that the very fact research of this kind exists, which lays bare the full extent of girls’ experiences and its very specific gendered drivers, is a massive step forward. The message to young girls today is increasingly clear. We believe that this is happening to you, you are not alone.

Together, they go beyond the generic “girl power” message I grew up with in the 1990’s, which preached to young girls that the world was their oyster but remained willfully blind to the challenges girls face and did very little to tackle them.

Collectively, the work of the Girl Scouts, Plan, Our Watch, the Children’s Society and others point to a serious problem that “someone” should do something about. And that “someone” is not necessarily the young woman experiencing the harassment.

Others with the power and influence to change things are taking an increasingly active role in raising this issue up the agenda and doing something about it. Young victims shouldn’t feel they have to shoulder this epidemic of sexual harassment on their own, and I hope many no longer feel they do. This should help combat the internal monologue of second guessing before it takes hold.

Girls, hang up your lasso. Someone’s called the cavalry.


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