Please note: this article contains descriptions and details of sexual harassment, assault, and rape.
Over the weekend, I was at a party. As I stood outside a little Shoreditch pub with a group of guys I vaguely knew, someone brought up Harvey Weinstein. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks, you know that that despicable man is now synonymous with years upon years of assaulting and harassing women in Hollywood.
“Yeah, and did you hear that Terry Crews said that he was sexually assaulted, too?” one of the guys said.
“Yeah right,” someone piped in. “There’s no way a guy that big would get groped. I mean, if you were that big you would just knock the guy out.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “First of all, he was at a party, and the person who did it was a person in a position of power. Terry Crews said it himself: he was scared of being ostracised…”
I didn’t even get to finish my sentence; I would have pointed out the further implications of the fact that he’s a black man, and how if he had indeed knocked the guy out, extremely skewed headlines would have ensued (as Crews himself said: “‘240 lbs. Black Man stomps out Hollywood Honcho’ would be the headline the next day”). I didn’t get to say that sometimes – as it’s happened to me – the person being assaulted freezes, and cannot speak or move, let alone fight the person off. I didn’t get to say that him coming forward means a lot to a lot of people, because it proves that it really can happen to anyone, regardless of gender or size or influence or race. I didn’t get to finish my sentence, though, because I was cut off.
“I totally would have knocked the bloke out,” another guy said, and they all laughed.
“Forget Hollywood,” I said. “What about what’s happening right at home, right here in Bethnal Green?”
I have lived in Bethnal Green, an area in East London, for almost four years now. A few weeks ago, a seventeen-year-old girl – separated from her friends, and possibly drugged – was sexually assaulted not once, not twice, but three times on the very streets that I walk every single day. The story makes me sick; I cannot imagine the emotional trauma this poor girl is facing. I feel beyond disgusted that these men did this to her, these vile predators that walk amongst us, right here in my neighbourhood.
“Three times in one night,” one of the guys said, shaking his head. “That’s some bad luck.”
“That’s not bad luck,” I said. “That’s a patriarchal system that has emboldened these men to the point where they think they’re entitled to rape a woman without worrying about any consequences. This is why people say we are living in a rape culture… because we are.”
“I don’t know,” the guy to the right of me chuckled. “If you ask me, it sounds like a pretty good Friday night.”
There’s a status that’s going around on social media right now – the hashtag #metoo. All day, I have seen people of all backgrounds posting this on Facebook and Twitter – me too. Me too, we’re saying, I have also been sexually harassed and/or assaulted. We’re not looking for sympathy – we’re looking to prove just how insidious this problem is, just how common it is. It truly can happen to anyone, and, if my social media feeds prove anything, they’re proving just how many people it has happened to. And yeah, it’s fucked up that we – the people who have been harassed and abused – are the ones standing up, and not the harassers and abusers, that we are the ones who must prove that there are so many of us (as if there was ever any doubt). Personally, for me to say #metoo, it feels like a relief to get it off my chest, to talk about it, and to hope that it makes someone else out there feel less alone.
I’ll admit it – I have laughed at jokes or comments that make light of rape and sexual harassment in the past (and I do believe that you can make a clever rape joke – the key is to punch up, not down). I have said things myself that, thinking of them now, make me cringe. But it’s so much easier, isn’t it? It’s so much easier to just laugh, even when the joke is at your own expense. It’s so much easier to chuckle, or to just be quiet. That’s what we’ve been taught for centuries. That’s why sexual assault survivors don’t come forward.
That’s why, when I finally got the guts to tell a friend about what happened to me one night some years ago after a house party – when a person I thought was my friend climbed on top of me in the middle of the night, pulled aside my pyjama shorts, and forced himself inside me – all she could say was, “Ugh, he’s such a creep,” before she changed the subject. We don’t know how to deal with rape as a society. It is one of the most violent and horrendous things that can happen to a person, and it is everywhere… but still we don’t really know how to talk about it, even if it’s happened to us personally. And if we don’t really know how to talk about it, we certainly shouldn’t joke about it.
Years ago, in the face of such an inappropriate and repulsive rape joke as the “sounds like a good night” comment, maybe I would have just clutched my beer, grimaced, and changed the subject. Maybe I would have gently slapped the guy on the arm to say “stop that”. Maybe I would have been scared to be seen as “the uncool girl” or “the uptight one” just because I speak out against rape jokes and sexism and racism and homophobia.
But that day – and every day going forward – I choose to speak up, and/or I walk away. It’s my way of saying that I’m not going to be involved in a conversation that condones it. I’m not going to be friends with people that make light of it in inappropriate or cruel ways. And while I could have stood there on that Shoreditch street, arguing why joking about a child that was raped three separate times in one evening is really, really fucked up (as if that even needs to be argued) I knew that, in all likelihood, these drunk douchebros would react like so many people have reacted when I’ve spoken up in the past. Sometimes I don’t have the words or the energy to explain myself to people who clearly don’t want to listen, but still I know I have to try.
“Chill out,” they’d say. “It’s just a joke.”
“You’re overreacting,” they’d say. “You need to calm down.”
“I’m not actually sexist,” they’d say. “Loosen up a little.”
“Oh god, it’s called humour,” they’d say. “C’mon, I thought you were cool.”
I said something anyway. “That’s not funny,” I said, my face showing my disgust.
“Oh c’mon, it’s just a joke,” the ‘joker’ said, laughing, looking to his friends for support. And in that moment I realised that walking away from him – that showing that I didn’t want to be near him – was more powerful than trying to debate with him in his drunk state. I turned and walked away.
“Lighten up!” he called out to me.
No, mate. I won’t lighten up about your rape joke.
I won’t lighten up because there are seventeen-year-old girls getting raped outside my flat, and it is incredibly messed up that you would think that is a laughing matter.
I won’t lighten up because every single woman I’ve spoken to about it – and many men I know, too – have been sexually harassed and assaulted, often by people they know, often by people in a position of power.
I won’t lighten up because, fourteen years ago, I worked for Miramax and worked for Harvey Weinstein (indirectly, but still). Even then, amongst us young female interns and assistants, rumours swirled. This has been going on for far too long, and too many people were involved in its cover-up.
I won’t lighten up because sexual assault survivors are still bullied into not reporting their assault, to the point of taking their own lives. Because barely any rapists are ever incarcerated or even brought to trial; because it is a crime that is made possible because of silence and fear, and I don’t want to be silent anymore. Because you can sexually assault people and still become rich and famous and popular and hell, even the president of a country.
I won’t lighten up because I still have to steel myself every single time I walk home alone at night: no headphones, keys in hand, totally aware of my surroundings at all times, taking the longer route because it’s more well-lit.
I won’t lighten up because I have been sexually harassed by more people than I could possibly count, including colleagues, friends, strangers, and fellow travellers. This includes inappropriate comments, groping, and flashing.
I won’t lighten up because for all the times I’m asked, over and over and over again, if travelling the world solo is dangerous, I want to respond that I’ve had far scarier and upsetting things happen to me right here, right in my own neighbourhood, sometimes right in my own home. At four times in my life, men – strangers – have masturbated in front of me. One was in the car next to me, one was in a subway car when I was alone with him, one was on a beach, and one was in a hostel. Two of those incidents occurred right at home in Canada.
I won’t lighten up because when I told the last person I went on a date with that I was only comfortable kissing, he still took his penis out of his trousers and tried to force my head toward it. I won’t lighten up because I’ve grown sadly accustomed to men acting disappointed if I didn’t want to have sex, or take our make-out session further, or have sex without a condom, or send them a naked picture or video – as if a whimpering, whiny, manipulative 34-year-old who’s complaining about blue balls is really going to turn me on. I won’t lighten up because these are supposed to be the “good guys”, the ones who would never harass or abuse or rape, and yet they still won’t take no as no.
I won’t lighten up because I am tired, and angry, and frustrated, and sad. I could write ten thousand more words about this subject. Twenty thousand. A hundred thousand. So many of us could. Too many of us could.
So nah, dude, I’m not going to lighten up. I’m not going to be complicit. I’m going to speak up, I’m going to stand up, and if nothing else, I’m going to walk away from you.
I’m angry, and I want more of us to get angry. I want more of us to speak out against this kind of normalising behaviour, men and women alike. Not all sexual assault survivors are comfortable speaking out about their own experiences – I only recently started to speak out about my own – but perhaps we can start to, bit by bit, break down our collective acceptance of this behaviour, even if it just means standing up and walking away from the conversation, showing that you won’t be part of it. As this article states, “We are fighting not one guy [Weinstein] here, but a system that can only be challenged by collective rage, not individual shame.”
Is there a way to inject such a serious subject with humour? Yes. But unless you understand how to, probably best just to shut up.
Sexual Assault Survivors Are Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place (such a necessary read)
I’m a Coward (because I’ve thought some of these same things. Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I say this? Why didn’t I stand up for myself or for someone else?)
Literally, Why Can’t I Say #MeToo? (SUCH a good article, and this is exactly how I felt a few years ago. That happened to me wasn’t “bad enough”. So messed up that we are conditioned to think that way)
How to Make a Rape Joke (written by the fabulous Lindy West, I would note that this was written in 2012 – I would definitely omit Louis CK from the list at the bottom).
If Rape Jokes Are Funny It’s Because They’re Targeting Rape Culture (a look at the few times a rape joke is appropriate)
Ladies, Take Back Your Power (written by my dear friend Kristin, this is about healing through travelling. A very important read)
I Was Harassed at Work For Three Years and Didn’t Realise It (written by the brilliant Katie Gard)
Here’s The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read Aloud to Her Attacker (because this woman – and all other survivors, if they so choose – deserves to have her voice heard, and her story told. I read this letter often)
9 Ways to Be Accountable When You’ve Been Abusive (because I believe that some people do truly want to change)
The Allegations Against Harvey Weinstein (this is just the tip of the iceberg on amazing content that Lainey has been putting out as this situation unfolds. I have been reading Lainey Gossip for over a decade and she routinely puts out well-written, intelligent, culturally aware articles – please read the rest of her articles about this situation)
Tig Notaro Says Harvey Weinsteins are “Everywhere” (“Your heroes, people you work with, family members – you have to believe people who have come forward.” I made the mistake of reading the Facebook comments on some of the articles about some of the women who have come forward about sexual assault in the past two weeks, and it was heartbreaking. Seems it’s trendy to be a victim, some wrote. Yeah right, just looking for her 15 minutes of fame, wrote others. We need to believe the people coming forward and sharing their stories.)
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer (this book was one of the toughest books I’ve ever read in my life)
Another example of a funny rape joke… because it is clever, and it is making fun of the rapists, not the victims. I’m not the biggest fan of Amy Schumer but this sketch is a great commentary on rape culture.
What do you think? Are you angry, too? What would you say or do in this situation?