The first time someone touched me without my consent, I was in middle school. I think it was in the seventh grade. I was turned to my friends who were sitting at the desk behind me when a boy grabbed my left breast out of nowhere. I was wearing a purple sweater and a training bra that barely gave any shape to my still-growing breasts. At least, I think that was the first time. It happened a lot in my middle school; it definitely happened to most of my friends.
I tried to speak out. I told our homeroom teacher and she yelled at the boys in our class in front of the girls, telling them that this was wrong. But no real disciplinary measures were taken. Most of the boys (at least in my class) engaged in non-consensual touching, and it seemed that the school didn’t want to deal with disciplining such a large number of students. Eventually, our complaints were simply met with different versions of “boys will be boys.” They were just in “that phase” when they were discovering their sexual urges and, apparently, no one was going to stop these boys from acting on them.
Two memories from middle school stand out. The first is of a few of the more “popular” boys making fun of another, less “popular,” boy — we’ll call him Filip — because he had never felt a girl’s butt. I even remember thinking it strange that he hadn’t. I had internalized the gendered logic that the boys in my class had absorbed and then recreated. What made one masculine was sexual power over feminine people. Eventually, Filip got this mark of masculinity, too. There was no adult around to tell them that this logic was harmful because, of course, this was the logic of the adult world as well.
The other memory is of me standing in the back of the classroom where we had Macedonian language and literature classes, negotiating my sexual safety with one of the aforementioned “popular” boys.
“If you let me grab your ass, I’ll leave you alone,” he assured me.
“Fine,” I reluctantly agreed. He grabbed one of my butt cheeks. But it was not the last time. I wasn’t too shocked when he broke his promise.
I have had many more experiences like these after middle school because these boys, and the boys that came before them, had grown up into young adults. Some became teenagers who cat-called. Others became young men with girlfriends they didn’t see as equals. They became uncles who said inappropriate things at the dinner table. Many of those who found themselves on top of professional hierarchies became men who were able to abuse their positions of power. And then, some became sexual predators and rapists. Some of these people are men we do not know, but some we know very well. And that makes telling these stories all the more difficult.
I didn’t write #MeToo when the campaign took off because I didn’t want to scare my parents with the reality of their daughter having experienced sexual harassment. I should have written it. I definitely should have. I think a part of me didn’t write it because it’s not fun to talk about the times when I’ve felt violated. But it is important to talk about them. So, yes, sadly, me too. And here are some of the times it has happened:
I was cat-called three times when walking to meet a friend for coffee in Skopje. It was 3pm in July, and I was wearing a dress.
I was walking home one winter break when a middle-aged man fixing his car in the middle of the night for some reason said “come on in, sweetie.” It was 2:30am, I was wearing my warm grey skirt, I was 16, and I was alone.
I was at a doctor’s appointment when one of my doctors said to the other, “doesn’t she catch your eye?” That was one of the least offensive things he said or did during our interactions — he ended up poking my butt at a later appointment. I was wearing jeans and a top. It was 1pm in a hospital.
I was at a party when an acquaintance asked if he could grab my butt so that he could rate it. I said no, but he did it anyway. He gave me an eight. He asked me to rate his butt afterwards and I touched it because I think I wanted to feel like his touching was not un-consensual when it definitely was. “I have a girlfriend, but the question is how quiet you can keep,” he said, placing himself uncomfortably close to me later at the party after I had told him that I was not interested multiple times. Eventually, he gave up. I was a junior in high school. It was July, and I was wearing a blue skirt.
I was at Alexanderplatz when a teenage boy — probably sixteen or seventeen — ran towards me and grabbed my breast. The boy’s friends pulled him away and then one of them tried to high five me as a reward for saving me from his horrible friend. I high-fived him back because I wanted them to leave. I was with two friends who were as stunned as I was. One of them froze, the other started yelling at them – both legitimate responses. It was 4am in August and I was wearing shorts.
I was in Friedrichshain when a man tried to follow me on an empty street. I had a panic attack in the tram and I texted a friend who suggested that I get pepper spray. I began to calm down by the time I got to the train station, but then another man asked me for directions. I told him where to go but instead he started following me and told me that I had beautiful eyes. He asked me if he could walk with me and I said that I just wanted to go home. He then straight up asked me if I was scared of him and I repeated that I wanted to go home. He left me alone, but I could not stop having panic attacks for most of the night. It was two months ago at 2am, and I was wearing jeans and heeled boots.
I haven’t had the worst experiences. Not by a long shot. But this isn’t a competition. This article isn’t just about the specifics of my experiences. It’s about the similarities between my experiences and the experiences of other women.[i] Because, no, this is not just about a collection of anecdotes, this is about recognizing and dismantling a system that produces these anecdotes.
That said, it is not surprising that the #MeToo movement started picking up steam through anecdotes. When we give an indistinguishable monster a human face, the issue becomes more concrete. However, the problem with associating specific individuals with a certain societal problem is that people are liable to view that problem as being person-specific. The face of sexual harassment now is no longer a nondescript male face; it is Harvey Weinstein’s face. I’ve heard men around me talk about Weinstein being a pervert. They aren’t wrong. But they talk about Weinstein as if he is the only man who has acted like this. They talk about him like their friends, brothers and fathers could not possibly be capable of similar behavior. They talk about him like the women they know have never had a Harvey in their lives. Sexual harassment and assault are being associated with powerful men who can hide behind assistants, lawyers and other powerful friends to the point that we aren’t thinking to look into our own backyards.
To battle the prevailing sexism, it is not enough to see rich actresses wearing black designer dresses at the Golden Globes speak about these issues or their powerful male counterparts get taken down. Yes, we definitely should see men like Weinstein and Trump reprimanded. However, if we focus our punishment on them alone without thinking about the systemic changes that need to happen in order to reduce (and hopefully eradicate) sexual harassment, the battle will not be won. But it is not only about disciplinary/punitive measures for sexual harassers. It is also about having conversations with our friends, families and communities about where sexist behaviors and attitudes come from and how we should go about fixing them. In her piece for Public Seminar, Jessica Delgado writes:
This is a time of soul searching for men. It is a time of risk and bravery for both women and men. It is not fun for anyone. It is painful and scary and traumatizing and re-traumatizing. It is disruptive and destructive. Friends will be lost. Families will be torn up. Communities will be fractured.
Delgado writes of the difficult but necessary conversations ahead. Despite what some people will have you believe, the hegemony is not feminist. Our societies have been built on gender roles, sexism and misogyny. We have had to fight for things from the right to work to the right to vote to the right to an abortion. Some of these fights are still ongoing. But our fights are not ones that strive solely for legal victories. For true female and human liberation, we must work on deconstructing the patriarchal structures that affect us all. Though gender is a complex concept that merits more than just an article-length explanation, a lot of us already understand that it is something that is socially constructed. Some behaviors, such as aggression, are encouraged for men but discouraged for women. Gender and gender roles are so pervasive that they affect the clothes we wear, the toys children play with, who pays on first dates, who gets to be in charge in both the private and public sphere. It is these gender roles, among many other things, that create the patriarchal value system we live under — the same system that teaches men to act in certain ways around women. When our lives are so shaped by the gendered roles we play every day, it is immensely difficult to break out of them, let alone dismantle the system that helps maintain them. However, this dismantling will not begin to happen if we consign the concept of patriarchy or the consequent sexual harassment to Hollywood. We must recognize that patriarchy and misogyny are systems that haunt every aspect of our lives. Yes, they affect and are perpetuated by our friends, family and loved ones as well as the Weinsteins of the world. This does not make these people necessarily bad or irredeemable. It just means that there is a lot of work to be done by everyone.
When talking about sexual violence, people like to point out that sometimes these gender roles are reversed and that women can also be perpetrators. Certainly there are exceptions, and certainly men can also be victims of sexual violence (usually perpetrated by other men.) This isn’t to say that male victims of sexual abuse shouldn’t use the hashtag, but it seems to me that #MeToo is primarily about acknowledging that the structures that allow for sexual violence against women by men are depressingly pervasive. It is about understanding that in sexual assault cases the majority of the perpetrators are men and the majority of the victims are women — not only because on average women are physically weaker than men, but also because we have a culture that encourages male sexual dominance and aggression and simultaneously does not believe that women could be subjected to and victims of it.
Still, not everyone affected most negatively by patriarchy will be able to speak about their experiences. No matter how limited, I still have a platform to write about my experiences. Sadly, #MeToo didn’t catch the world’s attention until famous actresses started sharing their stories. Not everyone is aware of the fact that a black woman named Tarana Burke started the original #MeToo campaign in 2007. The most silenced victims of sexual violence are those who lack social and economic power (i.e., marginalized people such as women of color, working class women, people with disabilities, queer and trans people.) During a Democracy Now! interview, Burke said:
For every R. Kelly or Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein, there’s, you know, the owner of the grocery store, the coach, the teacher, the neighbor, who are doing the same things. But we don’t pay attention until it’s a big name. And we don’t pay attention ’til it’s a big celebrity. But this work is ongoing, because this is pervasive.
Burke expresses the pervasive nature of the patriarchal values that encourage sexually abusive behavior. It is not simply a Hollywood problem; it is a societal problem. It is still good to make examples out of powerful men, but punishing them without addressing our culture of misogyny, which frequently refuses to believe victims of sexual harassment and assault, will not ensure the necessary progress that will benefit the majority of people. The four point anti-harassment action plan set forth by influential Hollywood actresses such as Eva Longoria includes a point about “a legal defense fund, backed by $13 million in donations, to help less privileged women,” which acknowledges the class dimension of this issue. Indeed, this is a very good start, but our conversation must be bigger than that.
I would like to return to the boys and girls at the beginning of this article because that is where this story truly begins and recreates itself generation after generation. It will certainly not be easy to raise children in a way that is free from patriarchy and misogyny after the parents themselves have been raised and lived within the frameworks of these systems, but it is definitely possible to raise future generations to be at the very least less sexist than the ones that came before them. Change is constantly happening, and change for the better is not impossible. My little cousin complained to me about some boys yelling at her from a distance and she labeled it catcalling. She and others from her generation already possess some of the vocabulary to name these problematic behaviors whereas I hadn’t even heard of feminism until the ninth or tenth grade. This isn’t to say that our work is done, but the discourse is changing, and that is a good thing. Perhaps our parenting styles and societal values will follow along sooner rather than later.
But this process will not be quick; it is far from easy to address these deep-seated issues. It is not enjoyable to have arguments about gender with your family members or to have male acquaintances use the word “Feminazi,” or to write about occasions when men have made you and still make you feel unsafe. To quote Delgado: “We speak even though we don’t want to.” She’s right. I know that at least I don’t want to. Writing this whole article has been incredibly uncomfortable, but here I am. Here we are.
Elena Gagovska is a student at Bard College Berlin. This essay originally appeared on the Bard College Berlin Student Blog.
[i] Men may also be victims of sexual harassment and assault, but in this article I will be focusing on people who present and are perceived as women.