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“How the #MeToo movement gave us the power to speak out on sexual harassment”

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Emilie Pine
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After keeping quiet for years about suffering sexual harassment from senior colleagues, one writer explains how the #MeToo movement has given her the courage to speak out against the men who abused their power over her

I’m a pretty loud person. I get asked to make announcements at events because I can be heard above the din. A friend of mine once told me I barely needed a mobile phone because I could just shout and be heard from miles away. And I’m loud in other ways too. I speak up at meetings, I contribute to discussions, and my job as a lecturer means that I talk for a living. But you can be silent and loud at the same time, it turns out.

When I was a 22-year-old PhD student, I found myself in the ‘grey area’ of receiving sexually inappropriate advances. The first time it happened, though it makes me sick to admit it, it did not occur to me to object. A professor, whose work I revered, attended a paper I gave at a conference and afterwards, in the bar, he beckoned to me and led me by the hand behind a pillar, where we were shielded from view. Still holding my hand, his other arm rubbing against my side, he told me he wanted to be alone with me to talk about my career. Improbable as it seems now, I felt lucky to be singled out. I knew his advance was sexual, I knew he shouldn’t be doing it, and I knew I shouldn’t smile in response. But it was my first conference, I was young, and he was powerful. So I smiled back. Thankfully the conference organiser appeared before anything further could happen. 

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“Improbable as it seems now, I felt lucky to be singled out.”

Four years later, when I was 26, another encounter made me begin to question how threatening a man’s attention at work could be. He was a lecturer in another department and I was in my final year as a student, living in student accommodation on campus. Before that day I’d always thought that living in my workplace was convenient – it had never occurred to me that someone saying a couple of sentences could suddenly make it feel dangerous.

One afternoon, the lecturer walked past me as I was coming out of the gym, and stopped to say hello. He was only a few years older than me but his job put him in a power category above mine. He seemed to want to talk, but I was red-faced from the exercise class, and embarrassed at being post-workout and pre-shower, so I apologised and said I had to go and ‘clean up’. Even now, I can still feel the cold air and the way my sweatshirt stuck to my skin and chafed on my neck.

Looking at me, the lecturer said: ‘I like to see you sweaty’. I didn’t respond, but as I turned to leave he commented that he liked ‘the view from the rear’. And then he proceeded to walk behind me all the way to my building.

It was daylight and there were plenty of other people around. Perhaps I shouldn’t have felt threatened, but I did. I got to my building, and stopped, key in hand, turning my head to see if he was still there. Ahead of me, a narrow corridor led from the building’s entrance to the door of my room. I did not want him to follow me into that corridor. He waved as he walked past. I ran in and double locked the door behind me.  

The next day, I described the exchange with the lecturer to both my boyfriend and my best friend, but they had no advice about what I should do or say. I sat at my computer and prepared to write an email. But then I paused. How would I phrase it? Who would I send it to? Who would take it seriously? And if someone did take it seriously, what would happen then? 

I could imagine only too well the lecturer’s response to my complaint – that it was a joke, that it was a compliment, that he was only being friendly. And I knew that if I claimed that it had not been a joke, that it had been an unwanted come-on from a lecturer to a student, I would suddenly be labelled as the trouble-making girl who couldn’t play with the big boys.

I knew the price of sending that message. And so I deleted the email. 

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“I knew the price of sending that message. And so I deleted the email.” 

I’m not claiming that either of these events were damaging in the long run – I was not left traumatised, and my career was not damaged by either of these men’s come-ons. But they left me shaken, because I was suddenly made to confront, and to be ruled by, the unspoken code of the workplace, where inappropriate comments and the invasion of a woman’s personal space are recognised as wrong and yet also acceptable.

But in the end, it’s not the arm-stroking or the predatory comments that I see as the real offence. It’s that instead of blaming those two men, I blamed myself. I blamed myself for somehow provoking their interest. I blamed myself for making a big deal out of what I knew was so commonplace that it barely registered as out of order. And I blamed myself for not speaking out.

I learned through these encounters that the most important skill for a working woman is resilience. This resilience has allowed me to ‘rise above’ the sexist work cultures that I have repeatedly encountered over the past two decades. But resilience, while it allows personal survival (and even success), does not challenge the larger toxic culture, or stop the problem of unwanted sexual advances. And it does not produce what we really need – a culture of respect and consent.

In a post #MeToo world, I know that my resilience was a kind of silence. In the context of what so many other women have shared as part of this movement, I also realise that my experience is minor. But as #MeToo has shown me, minor problems are still problems, and harassment at the bottom of the scale is still harassment.

I tell my story not because my experience is exceptional – far from it – but because for so many women and men who are precariously employed, or dependent on goodwill, calling out harassment is simply not possible. It’s important that we tell our stories – minor and major – because that is the first step towards changing the culture. And out of that cultural change, we can create policies that mean we can all go to work free of the burden of blame and without needing the armour of resilience. 

Emilie Pine is the author of Notes to Self, the first non-fiction book from Tramp Press. It is available to buy now

Images: Rawpixel, Unsplash