Why is anyone surprised by the torrent of #MeToo women out there?
When, in the shadow of the Harvey Weinstein furor, the #MeToo hashtag started taking over my social media feeds yesterday, my first thought was #WellDuh. I’ve got a million #MeToo stories. The high school basketball star who tried to stick my hand down his pants, the college boys who thought I owed them, the editor who threatened me and called me a c-nt when I refused a date, the flashers and gropers, and catcallers. #MeToo? Of course. I don’t think I know a single woman who isn’t a “Me Too.” Even the women who say they’ve never been subjected to any harassment or discrimination probably have been. It’s the way the world works. We’ve just become so inured to it that we don’t even think of it as abuse.
My own story is a great example. About a dozen years ago, I went to a new hairdresser. It wasn’t just raining that day, it was torrential. The kind of rainy day no sane person would waste on a good blowout. So it was just in-sane me and my new hairdresser in his small Upper West Side Salon. He talked about his wife, how she was pregnant with their third child and was on bedrest. He was exhausted, he said. And sex deprived. We chuckled. And then it happened, on the pretense of checking my foils to see if my color was done, he leaned in, stuck his tongue down my throat and his hands down the front of my robe, grabbing my breasts under my bra.
Did I scream? No. Did I yell? Nope. I pulled back and said “Please don’t do that. Please don’t do that.” quietly, quickly and repeatedly. I was horrified. I was terrified. I was alone with a stranger wearing nothing but a robe on my body and foils on my head. I was shocked, paralyzed. Was it the chuckle that made him think that was OK? Was it something I did? Something I said? He tried twice more to grope me during that visit, and as soon as my color was done, I left, wet head and all, mumbling something about how the rain would ruin my hair anyway.
I was almost as shocked by what he did as I was by my (non)reaction to it. I had always thought of myself as a woman who would fight back. I was tough, I thought. But when he grabbed me I froze. I felt guilty and ashamed. I didn’t do a damn thing. This wasn’t a guy with any power over me. This wasn’t a guy with the ability to destroy my career or my reputation. He was a hairdresser. The worst that could have happened was bad highlights or uneven ends. But I said nothing. Worse, I said “please.” Please don’t assault me? Jeez.
In the years since, I’ve discovered that he does it to everyone. I’ve heard about 70 year old women he’s groped, and 20 year old girls. Once, when I asked a friend who did her hair, she said his name. Something in my face must have given me away. “What’s the matter?” she asked with a smirk. “Did he grab your tits or something?” Everybody knew. Everybody who’d been to him, it seemed, had been groped. No big deal, evidently. None of us said anything. No one went to the police. He is still in business, so it seems no one ever has.
Oh, not that I hid it away and didn’t talk about. I talked about it all the time. Right after if happened, I went home and told my husband, presenting it less as an assault and more as a “you won’t believe what happened” story. As if I were telling him that the hairdresser cut my hair while wearing a clown suit. “Isn’t that crazy?” Ha Ha Ha. In the decade plus since it happened, I can’t count the number of times I’ve trotted out the story at cocktail parties and girls’ nights out. I’ve honed the tale to perfection: I set the scene (rain, pregnant wife); I build up the suspense (he leans in); I drop the bombshell of the attack as if it were a punchline. I’ve shared the ribald tale with every hairdresser I’ve ever had. It always gets a big response from them. “NO!” they say, titillated and shocked. “Yes!” I reply, with a smug knowledge that I’ve shocked and titillated them. Instead of reporting it, I turned my story of sexual assault into an amusing little tidbit.
What the hell have I been doing?
I’ve been doing what so many women do: minimizing my experience to protect myself. By turning my attack into a pithy anecdote, I dilute its horror. I’m not a victim, I’m a funny raconteuse! In my telling, I’m simply living a “can you believe this?” moment. No harm. No foul. Only it was harmful, and demeaning, and most definitely foul. In minimizing my experience, I’ve also minimized the truth of what happened: I was attacked by a strange man, and it was terrifying. Twelve years later, I can still remember the sour taste of his disgusting tongue.
I understand how Harvey Weinstein, and Donald Trump, and Roger Ailes, and Bill Cosby, and Bill Clinton, and Bill O’Reilly, (and maybe don’t name your kid Bill) got away with harassing — and in some cases raping — women for so long. If it was hard for me to call out my hairdresser, I can’t imagine how hard it must be to call out the most powerful man in your industry…or in the world.
There are as many reasons these men got away with it as there are incidents of assault. But one of the saddest is this: women in our society are so used to being treated poorly (and decent men so used to seeing that they’re treated poorly) that it barely seems worth a mention when it happens. It’s so bad that when, with the onset of old-age (which is to say, in our youth obsessed culture, at around the age of 45), it ends, we almost miss it. Think about that: women are so used to being demeaned by catcalls and once-overed at the deli counter that it feels somehow wrong to be able to walk by a group of loitering men on the street and not be shouted at, or told to smile. How sad is it that?
Do men get abused and harassed too? Of course they do. And they’re free to tell their #MeToo stories as well. But it’s not the norm for them. It’s not embedded into the culture. (White) Men didn’t have to fight for the right to own property, to vote, to eat alone at a restaurant. Men aren’t still fighting for control over their own bodies. Men aren’t so used to abuse that it’s the norm. They aren’t so used to abuse that it doesn’t occur to them to think of it as abuse, or to turn it into cocktail party banter. No one should be. Not men, not women, not transgender people. No human being should be so used to abuse that they either enact it or accept it.
So yeah, #MeToo. Because “WellDuh” just perpetuates the acceptance of “that’s how the world is.” #MeToo says I’m owning it. It’s not normal. #MeToo says I’m acknowledging it for what it was. Abuse. Assault. Harassment. Rape. #MeToo says I’m not going to take it anymore, or excuse it, or laugh about it, or bandy it about for the amusement of others. #MeToo #MeToo #MeToo.