‘Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves’
– Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate
Oh my gosh, what an age we’re living through! I don’t think a day goes by without another revelation; another claim of sexual impropriety, another senior figure who has quit or been fired or is facing accusations of harassment. And there are so many people revealing their stories. It’s completely incredible and, thanks to all of these stories, it feels like the conversation about sexual harassment has changed, which is really exciting.
But I didn’t join in. In fact, my husband asked me a few weeks ago why I’d not joined the #MeToo tweets – did I have nothing to say or was I uncomfortable talking about it? The truth was that I’m not really sure why I didn’t speak up. In a way, I felt that my experience of sexual harassment, because I definitely have experienced it, wasn’t bad enough for me to join those brave people speaking out. I felt that my own limited experiences would somehow dilute the voices that needed to be heard and talking about what even I considered to be insignificant would add fuel to the backlash fire, so I kept quiet.
Except the more I thought about it, and the more other people’s stories were revealed, the more I realised that I was wrong to feel that way. As Jo Brand so eloquently put it when explaining to the all male Have I Got News For You panel, each act may be insignificant and not a ‘high crime,’ but over time they do wear us down. They do affect us. They shape us and change how we behave, and a lot of men don’t realise that. Particularly men of an older generation.
This is particularly why I’ve chosen to add my voice to the multitudes talking about this new revolution – because of those older generations of men who are now so shocked to discover that behaviour they often genuinely thought was acceptable is now a risk to their job or says terrible things about their character. Their shock says so much about both the long standing issues with sexual harassment and why the recent admissions do feel so much like a revolution.
The idea that much sexual harassment was once acceptable is one that I frequently see at work. In hospitals, the majority of my patients are elderly and many of them are confused or suffer with dementia. They are living their past lives out loud now with no appreciation that time has moved on and attitudes have changed. Racism, sexism, xenophobia; all casually stated without malice because it was every day. Well, usually.
But what interests me now is that, in my experience, some of these attitudes are somehow more acceptable than others. When an elderly patient thanks me for speaking good English because they cannot bear ‘those foreigners’ or when they express gratitude at finally being seen by a white doctor, I won’t hesitate to tell them that my colleagues are just as qualified as me and that their words are wrong and outdated. When the nurses have trouble with racist patients, these patients are educated by the senior nurses and their demands to be treated by other staff members are often ignored because they’re unreasonable, unless their delirium renders them aggressive and impossible to reason with. Racism, which some would claim was also previously ‘acceptable,’ is not tolerated.
Sexual harassment, however, has never been treated with such a hard line. Repeat offenders may end up being educated in a similar manner but most are just ignored. I’ve been unnecessarily complimented on my appearance during clinical consultations. I’ve been asked out on dates or told ‘if only [the patient] were 50 years younger,’ as if being 80 was the only reason that I wasn’t falling at their feet. I’ve had unwanted hands on my knees and men gripping hold of my hand and pulling it to their lips to kiss. Once after I’d performed a rectal examination, a patient told me how much he’d enjoyed it and that I’d ‘make a good wife.’ And I can’t even imagine what the nurses experience – I’ve heard enough enthusiastic requests for bed-baths to know that it must be worse!
But I always did nothing. I stepped further back; I laughed along with their joke; I politely declined their offers and expressed unconvincing regret that it wasn’t meant to be. I told the rectal exam man that what he’d said was inappropriate, but didn’t take it any further when he just laughed. Why would I? It’s all harmless, isn’t it? They’re only trying to be friendly and they’re only saying nice things. It’s not really threatening, is it?
Now, viewing these experiences without the normalising filter that previously muffled their significance, I’m annoyed with myself that I never did anything more. Jo Brand was right – it is wearing and it does change us. Why didn’t I educate these men on how times have moved on in the same way that I would other outdated behaviours that are no longer tolerated? I’m annoyed that I essentially complied with the Patriarchy and the status quo, and just let these men make me feel uncomfortable at work. I didn’t blame them; I forgave them because it ‘wasn’t their fault’ or ‘they don’t know any better.’
Because, clearly, they should have known better and, if they really didn’t know, we should have been telling them so for decades now. So although I remain angry at their ignorance, I do feel some sympathy for the shock that so many men are experiencing and this is why I am so happy about the sea change now taking place. Those men who are loudly proclaiming that this is a witch hunt just don’t understand why they are only now being ‘victimised’ when they have been treating women this way forever, and I am so glad that this might now change.
What they don’t seem to realise is that women have always hated it, always felt uncomfortable or demeaned or belittled or threatened by men who overstep the mark. Michael Fallon’s claim that this was acceptable ‘ten or fifteen years ago’ is genuinely laughable as even in the Mad Men era of men slapping their secretaries’ arses in a ‘playful’ manner or referring to colleagues as ‘girls,’ this behaviour didn’t go unnoticed. Women have always changed their behaviour and warned each other and avoided being alone with handsy colleagues. We’ve just never said anything out loud because those men were generally in a position of power and speaking out came with an unacceptable risk. Why risk our career or job? Why risk our safety? As just one example, look at the treatment of the women who spoke out about Bill Cosby just a few years ago. Who believed them? How were they treated in the press? Look at how the women currently sharing their stories are being received. When it comes down to he-said-she-said, historically who is believed by default?
But I truly believe that the world has changed and I’m really hopeful that it has changed forever. This doesn’t feel like a flash in the pan were a few people will be hung out to dry but the majority can just keep quiet and carry on getting away with it. Enough people are implicated, enough voices have been heard. What was once thought to be ‘acceptable’ is now rightfully and widely seen as the harassment that it really is. The impetus is now with us all to call out this inappropriate harassment, to educate those who were genuinely (although perhaps unbelievably) ignorant and show those who were willingly pushing the boundaries of acceptability that there are consequences to these actions.
And I’m going to start at work. I am going to point out what isn’t appropriate, no matter how small or insignificant it may be. It’s a whole new world after all.