Over the weekend I watched with growing horror as the "#MeToo" campaign revealed the number of people who have been subject to sexual harassment and assault at the hands of men. With a cascade of celebrities disclosing their stories about the abhorrent Harvey Weinstein, it's easy to comprehend at least that victims of such abuse exist. It is all the more unsettling when you realise that victims are much closer to home. As my social media feeds filled up with more and more brave admissions from friends, family members and colleagues of "me too", it soon became apparent that the victims of sexual harassment and assault exist much closer to home.
This most recent breaking of the silence around this widespread issue has reinforced how the attitudes making sexual abuse acceptable to perpetrators are attitudes that pervade the way men behave. So normalised has harassment and assault become that it often goes unspoken of. As a result, many people (including myself) have woken up to the fact that victims of sexual violence are people we actually know saying, "I just didn't know". Considering that the group of people on the receiving end of harassment and abuse includes pretty much all women, there is no excuse for this kind of ignorance. Of course the victims are people we know - we all know women.
Maybe part of my own unwillingness to realise the extent of this issue has been precisely because it is so close to home. Foolishly - but humanly - it can feel better to remain in ignorance of those things which hurt us, and it took me a number of years to awaken to the fact that this is something I've been personally subject to as well. As a gay man, I've been quick to recognise the occasions where I've been verbally or physically assaulted by other men on the basis of my sexuality. That's homophobic abuse. It took me much longer to realise that sexual comments, groping by strangers in nightclubs, and threats or enactments of sexual force were actually sexual assault, and not just a normal part of socialising in certain environments.
But the fact is, sexual assault IS ubiquitous in the gay scene. So normal has it been in my experience to be treated as a sexual object by other gay men, I rarely questioned it. I've even thought I should've felt flattered by it, that is it was desirable - laughing it off despite the sick feeling in my stomach, or the sense of disgust that comes with your bodily integrity being violated.
Whilst the silence of the abused protects the abuser, it shouldn't be the responsibility of the victim to have to stand up and say "me too". It shouldn't be for women to have to tell their stories in order to right the wrongs of the behaviour of men. This double injustice is simply not OK - it is those who perpetrate abuse who are responsible for stopping it from happening. The discourse that says we must empower women to refuse the unwanted sexual advances of men is a disturbing oversight of the real priority - stopping the need to so frequently defend against male behaviour in the first place.
Why is it that the onus is on the victim to say "this is not OK"? Of course we are all responsible for our own behaviour and how we respond to challenging situations, and should someone be unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of harassment and abuse then it is better that they have the skills to prevent the worst from happening. But in the causal chain of events, prevention is better than cure, and men have to step up and take responsibility.
Ensuring that sexually harassing and abusive behaviour doesn't happen in the first place also involves tackling perspectives that see it as OK for men to treat others as sexual objects. In this sense, responsibility for sexual violence also lies with those who are complicit with the attitudes that cause it. For example, what about the men who knowingly keep silence for peers who view and treat women as sexual objects for their own use? In the case of Weinstein, so much effort has been made to criticise powerful women in show-business for not speaking out about the way they had been treated, yet the powerful men who surrounded him are left unexamined.
What about the pervading culture in the gay community that makes the assumption that simply entering a gay bar is to make an open invitation for sexual advances from anyone and everyone? All of us men have a responsibility to speak out - not only if we (or someone we care about) has experienced sexual assault, but when we have played our part in propping up the attitudes that cause this end product.
For things to really change, we need to see a hashtag that admits "me too" not to being a victim of sexual abuse, but to complicity to sexual objectification, harassment and assault. "Me too" to being part of the slippery slope towards sexual violence that begins with the sexualisation of children or making remarks about someone's body that were never asked for. How about "me too - I am guilty of touching any part of another person's body without permission"? "Me too, I remained silent about male colleagues harassing women at work"?
Don't you think the time is long overdue for all men consider the roles we play in keeping sexual abuse alive?