This morning, I flicked through social media, as I typically do before I begin my workday. Usually I flip through a slew of engagement announcements, political posts, or photos of some vague acquaintances from high school getting wrecked at bottomless boozy brunch in Brooklyn, before getting bored and swapping my Facebook stalkings for work emails.
Today was different though, and like many of you, Facebook was full of friends posting two simple words – “me too.”
Over the last 24 hours, #MeToo has become a battle cry for the (largely) female population. Women from all corners of the earth are using #MeToo as a way to speak out about their experiences. Apart from hushed murmurs to our friends behind closed doors, rarely have we had a venue deemed appropriate to speak out about our collective experiences.
Sexual violence aside, there are so many other “me too” experiences that I know most women share. They’re the hushed realities that come as part and parcel of being the owner of a vagina. It’s the every day motions we go through to promote our own safety. It’s the lengths we go to in order to shake it off, pretend it’s all well and good, or to be cool so we don’t kick up a fuss. It’s an unspoken language, a common experience shared by the vast majority of women. It’s a language that doesn’t manifest in words, but in shared experiences that impact the ways we move through the world.
Have you ever shaken it off, because you were “only” grabbed at a club? Me too.
Have you ever been called a “bitch” or worse because you rejected someone’s advances? Me too.
Have you ever walked home in the dark, keys looped between your fingers, ready to nail someone in the face if they approach you? Me too.
Do you have an inbox full of hundreds of unread messages from men wanting to be “friends” and “meet up?” Me too.
Have you ever awkwardly laughed off a sexual assault, pretending it wasn’t painful or terrifying? Me too.
Have you ever been afraid to speak up because no one would listen, or you knew that no one would be held accountable? Me too.
Have you ever buried it so deep that saying it out loud is terrifying? Me too.
Have you ever walked fast, then jogged, and then sprinted to get away from someone following you? Me too.
Have you ever gone on a blind date and given his information to a friend in case you “get murdered?” Me too.
Have you ever been afraid to look a man in the eye because you were afraid of giving him the wrong signal? Me too.
Have you ever worried about the way you dress at a job interview, because you’re concerned your hair will fall too long, or your skirt will hug your body too tightly, or your shirt will cut too low and you’ll look unprofessional? Me too.
Have you ever left the place you were because someone wouldn’t leave you alone? Me too.
Have you ever signaled to your friend that you “need to go to the bathroom” so you can get away from a man who can’t follow you there? Me too.
Have you ever been polite to a man who was being aggressive with you, because you were fearful of being physically harmed? Me too.
These shared experiences are the narratives that shape the way women live their lives. The ways in which we interact with others, the ways in which we have a heightened sense of alarm when we’re within certain environments are all influenced by these experiences.
If we can channel this understanding into empathy, we can lead to action. It may seem like this viral trend has led to a broad assumption that all men are bad. Not all men are a part of the problem, but every single man is a part of the solution. The scale of the problem is that we don’t know the scale of the problem – and it will take more than a #MeToo trend on Facebook to get our experiences heard.
Men have vast power to influence the future of our world, if they can harness our experiences and help to amplify them – and not from a “as a father of daughters…” standpoint, or even necessarily a “I know a women who was sexually assaulted” standpoint, but from a vantage point of “I acknowledge the experiences that women deal with on a day-to-day basis and I want to do everything I can to minimize that for them.” In this way, we can begin to chip away at the systems that lead to sexual violence in the first place. Thus we can move away from being a “1 in 3” statistic, and move to “over half of the population” that has a dominant narrative that impacts the way we live our lives.
Men can also be attentive bystanders. By using our #MeToo experiences to develop a cognitive awareness for men that is similar to ours, we can help to develop smart bystanders – ones who know how to identify when there’s a potential problem, and help put barriers in place to combat it.
Being an attentive bystander doesn’t mean being a mansplainer. Most men will never fully understand the experience of a woman on the day-to-day, and we don’t need our experiences explained to us. Impactful attentive bystanders are good listeners, and who can ask the women in their lives where they can be of impact.
It’s imperative to remember that our #MeToo experiences are just the tip of the iceberg. It is also the silenced stories of millions of women without internet access, who have experienced horrors far greater than I can even fathom. Every woman’s story and narrative is important, and varies depending on our cultural contexts. I’m not discounting the impact of stories – but we need a cultural shift, which can only be done with a consensus of understanding.
Alyssa Chassman is the Founder/Executive Director of The IDHouse. The IDHouse works to engage young people in international development work - ranging from gender equality to education for all to clean water. She can be found on Twitter @AlyssaChassman.