My husband and I were walking toward a restaurant to meet friends recently when we witnessed what was, for me, a devastatingly familiar situation. A young woman crossed the street in front of us, heading the same direction. She was alone. A truck full of young men proceeded to scream out the window at her, yelling various obscenities and sexual innuendos. She did what I’ve done so many times, like millions of women do every day: She ignored them and kept walking.
My husband was surprised and disgusted. “I can’t believe they just did that,” he said.
“It happens to women every day,” I told him. “Mostly we’ve just learned to ignore it.”
A friend was visiting another city with her husband. As they headed to their destination, a group of men told her the various ways they’d like to have sex with her.
Me Too was founded 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke, who began the movement to help women of color who experienced sexual assault. Last month, #MeToo became a trending topic on many people’s social media feeds, thanks to the recent sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood figures. Stories like this have poured out – slowly at first, then faster, often held back for years. The details are different, but the mental calculus and fear are the same.
I’m floored by the number of women sharing the #MeToo status. For years I felt alone in my situation, not realizing a majority of those around me have felt the pain of sexual assault and harassment. As a victim of childhood assault, I thought I was the only one. Outside my immediate family, it was not discussed. Even as I grew older and realized that wasn’t true, I still felt like an island in a sea of well-adjusted people.
Learning to live in a culture like ours often feels like preparing for a battle only some realize exists. We learn exit strategies for bad dates, learn code words to tell a bartender if we’re afraid, we carry pepper spray, get a dog. When the worst happens, often we don’t tell anyone. I know for every story told, many more exist – stories too painful to share on social media or even to acknowledge to ourselves.
Perhaps #MeToo is the result of 5 million women marching in January this year saying they’d had enough. We’re done being silent; done laughing it off; done pretending it hasn’t happened. Yet something is still broken – today people are in power all over the world who laugh at this pain and ride it to the very top of status and wealth. There is still work to be done.
If you want to make a difference, start small. It’s not always safe to confront someone; if you’re the woman alone facing a group of men, for example. Sometimes ignoring a drunk stream of obscenities is the best choice in a set of bad options. Other times, we could step in, but we hang back.
You know what I’m talking about: that feeling when we hear or see something wrong, and we know we should act but we don’t. We’re tired and that conversation is a hill we don’t want to die on. It’s just a joke. Your friend is really a good person. It won’t happen again. But it does. Something needs to change.
Start small. Stop pretending you can do nothing. Take back the power you have.
Elizabeth Backstrom is a progressive evangelical Christian and contributor to http://spokanefavs.com/.