THE BLOG

We Need More Men Condemning The Sexual Assault Of Women

The #MeToo campaign on social media has become a rallying cry for women who have been sexually violated.

01/11/2017 16:44 SAST | Updated 02/11/2017 14:15 SAST
Bertrand Guay/ AFP/ Getty Images
French activist Jean-Baptiste Redde, aka Voltuan, holds a placard as protesters take part in a gathering against gender-based and sexual violence in Paris on October 29, 2017.

The revelations about harassing men in positions of authority have not abated; on the contrary, more influential men were accused of sexual harassment and assault, including another Hollywood heavy-weight, James Toback, who is said to have subjected women to the vilest and most degrading sexual advances. Even in South Africa, a high profile sports administrator was accused of rape as well as failing to act when allegations of sexual misconduct were made against an employee.

The #MeToo campaign on social media has become a rallying cry for women who have been sexually violated. Woman have, through their social media accounts, accused men of the entire gamut of unwanted sexual behaviour, from inappropriate sexual comments that affect a woman's ability to function and her peace of mind, to sexual assault and rape that violate women's bodies and their emotional well-being.

Harassment constitutes unwelcome sexual advances which the victim is unable to resist. Sexual harassment involves aggressive pressure or intimidation that may be recurring or a once-off event. These types of experiences leave women traumatised and engulfed with fear during the event, as well as fear of retaliation afterwards.

Once the allegations of sexual harassment in Hollywood became public, a call was made to tweet #MeToo, in order to highlight how pervasive sexual harassment really is. When the first flood of #MeToo disclosures happened, I was concerned that people were asked to share the fact that they too had been violated. The call disregarded the fact that sexual violation results in deep-seated trauma.

The feelings and thoughts associated with such trauma must be processed, and if not, they go underground. The risk of making a call to disclose a traumatising event on social media is that it is like ripping the scab off a wound for those who had experienced trauma but did not process it. Once people have shared what happened, they have to deal with the thoughts and feelings that surface because of the revelation they made. This is not a problem for actresses and people of means who can afford therapy sessions in which they can process and work through those feelings, but my concern was about those who cannot afford therapy.

It was a relief to learn that the originator of the "me too" campaign ten years ago, Tarana Burke, a woman who has worked with sexual assault survivors for years, is now involved in the #MeToo campaign. Ms Burke appreciates that processing trauma is more than a hashtag: it is about doing the work. In an interview with CBS News, Ms Burke announced that her organisation would be holding a series of webinars aimed at helping those who disclosed that they too had been sexually violated process the information that they disclosed.

Using the power of empathy to stomp out shame is powerful, because through empathy we can connect with the pain of others.

Through her "empowerment through empathy" approach, Burke has developed a strategy in which survivors who are ready to speak about their experiences share these, and encourage other survivors to continue on the journey of healing from traumatic sexual experiences. Through her webinars, Burke hopes to reach not only those ready to talk, but especially those who still have to process their experiences and embark on their journey of healing. Burke emphasises the work that must be done beyond the hashtag, and she views empathy as playing a pivotal role: empathy, among survivors who can say "me too", as well as using the power of empathy to stomp out shame.

Using the power of empathy to stomp out shame is powerful, because through empathy we can connect with the pain of others. Shame is a word that implies guilt, embarrassment, even disgrace. It is not right that these are the feelings that courageous women who survived the most horrendous experiences say they have.

Shame entails an element of what others think of one; thus the onus is on us, as a society, to reassure those who were subjected to sexually traumatic experiences that shame is a useless emotion, especially for survivors. We must ensure that survivors are aware, that as a society our scorn is directed at the sexually deviant men who caused women trauma and who must feel ashamed of their behaviour.

I must admit, I found the flood of revelations very challenging. The #MeToo campaign brought to light that a great many people have been humiliated and degraded, causing them unspeakable hurt and pain.

In one sense, it might have been easier to say "me too", because then one would be part of a group of courageous and strong people. But to do that would be disingenuous, because harassment reflects the experience of the ones subjected to it. It is about the humiliation, the fear and the shame experienced by those subjected to unwanted sexual overtures. Thus, I know that one unsolicited advance from a powerful stalwart (now dead) when I was a young comrade, in which there was no fear or intimidation -- just an eye roll and the thought that the guy must be nuts -- does not rise to the level of harassment.

There is a risk that the #MeToo campaign will fizzle out, and even though most of us feel helpless, we cannot just move along as if nothing happened. It is imperative that we make victims feel supported while making this world a hostile place for perpetrators, in that we call out inappropriate sexual behaviour.

If all those men who are respectful of women join the millions of voices and say, "Just stop, already!" then we will be able to call unwanted sexual advances and assaults a relic of the past, soon.

After reading about how pervasive sexual assaults are, I was tempted to think that all men are sexual bullies and that all men are disrespectful of women. However, this would be dishonest, because there are good men in my family, and because there were more times than I care to remember when men could have disrespected me by making unwanted sexual advances or by invading my intimate personal space, did not do so.

I remember times of having closed-door meetings in which there were power imbalances, or times when hours were spent listening to music or chatting or partying, even times spending the nights on a couch, yet I was not made to feel uncomfortable by unwanted sexual propositions. In short, there were many times when my judgment was less than perfect, yet I was blessed to be in the presence of men who respected women.

The tragedy is that the #MeToo campaign has shown the pervasive nature of the sexual violation, and this brings all men into disrepute. It is so easy to forget that men who respect women make up the majority of the men in the world. I believe that if all those men who are respectful of women join the millions of voices and say, "Just stop, already!" then we will be able to call unwanted sexual advances and assaults a relic of the past, soon.

#MeToo has highlighted the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault, and we cannot remain inactive. We must celebrate survivors as courageous and brave people. We must commit to speaking up and shouting out whenever a position of power is abused to humiliate another.

We must teach young people to respect themselves; if we can teach our youth the value of communicating and listening, about consent and the power of the word "no", then maybe we'll create a world where we all value one another, so that sex or sexual acts are not used as a weapon of power in order to demean and degrade.

Postscript:

Reading about the allegations women made against the Hollywood harassers was both nauseating and distressing, for it seems that Weinstein and Toback allegedly had the propensity to masturbate in front of women they hardly knew. Did no-one ever tell these men that self-gratification in front of a woman with whom they are not romantically involved is just an absolute no-no?

Allow me to give them a lesson on sexual etiquette 101: it is absolutely never okay to wank in front of a woman you hardly know; or even if you do know the woman, but she does not care about you; or even if she does care about you as a person, but is not interested in you romantically. If she would rather be in a dentist's chair having a root canal done without any anaesthetic than be with you, then really, don't do it.