Comment: Sexual harrassment isn't 'locker room' stuff, and it's never okay

Millions of women worldwide have posted accounts of their first experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault under the hashtag #notokay.

My seventeen year old daughter recently received a slap on the arse from a man in his sixties. As a frequent public transport user she has always managed some type of defence or retort against experiences of sexual harassment she has sadly become accustomed to from strangers, but this time her usually assertive self was stunned into teary-eyed silence as the perpetrator was the father of a school friend.

As if the assault itself wasn’t enough, in conversation later with a couple of male peers about her numerous experiences, they told her to ‘get over it’ as ‘it’s just how it is’, and in the case of the arse-slapper, that ‘it’s just a generational thing, he’s actually a really great guy, probably had too many wines and would have meant no harm.’

When she took to Facebook with a general post lamenting the excuses made for perpetrators and that ‘good intentions’ don’t override someone’s right to be free from harassment, she received threats of violence and death. This is a familiar story.

At the end of the same week, footage was released of another sexist twat of that generation, US presidency candidate Donald Trump, gloating about his mistreatment of women, including that he ‘doesn’t even wait’ to non-consensually kiss them or ‘grab them by the pussy’.

 

In a call to action against rape culture under the hashtag #notokay by US author, Kelly Oxford, millions of women worldwide have posted accounts of their first experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Supported by the groundswell, I also tweeted about my own first time; ‘My best friend's father grabbed my ‘pussy'. I told his wife. She threatened me. I was eleven.’ At the time of writing, mine is just one of almost ten million, and climbing.

If you’ve never experienced sexual harassment or rape, you can only imagine the courage it takes for survivors to disclose. Even when you’ve spoken of your abuse before, each time a new wave of nausea rises from the pit of your stomach as you brace yourself against the fear.  Not just that you’re forced to recall the experience, but fear of what others may say and make you feel. The fear that you’ll have to defend yourself all over again; that you won’t be believed; that there will be excuses made; invasive questions; ridicule; that you’ll be made to feel it was your fault. That you were ‘asking for it’.

 

This fear is what abusers rely on to maintain the silence. But the solidarity in campaigns like #notokay has afforded an opportunity for survivors to speak up against this scourge of abuse that can no longer be ignored or denied. The question is - what are we going to do about it?

Sexist boys and men who feel a sense of entitlement to girls and women and their bodies are hardly likely to listen to their voices, so it’s the male friends, family, colleagues, teachers and parents of those boys and men who must step up and break through. Men cannot just shake their heads at the Trumps of the political and celebrity world, they must call out sexism and misogyny where it occurs in every setting; under their own rooves and in public.

I’ve lost count how many seemingly well-meaning people told my daughter she should have been prepared for her abuse. What a backward society that encourages us to raise girls to be on high alert around men – even those entrusted with their care - because ‘boys will be boys’. Whether you’re eight or eighty-eight, sexual harassment is not harmless, it’s no joke, and it’s definitely not okay. How much louder do we need to scream?

Catherine Manning is the CEO & Program Director for SEED Workshops delivering in-school wellbeing and respectful relationships education and parent seminars. 

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