Sitting with a group of Moroccans discussing sexual harassment, a problem in Morocco all the men and women in the group confirmed, one of the young women commented, 'men, they don't know what harm they are doing.'
I couldn't agree more.
Men don't know what harm they're doing.
Sexual harassment and all forms of sexual violence, do indeed cause tremendous harm.
However, there seems to be some confusion, amongst many men, globally, first of all in understanding exactly what constitutes sexual harassment and secondly, in understanding that sexual harassment does in fact cause harm.
As I have travelled through many parts of the world, along side my organization Project Monma which investigates violence and discrimination against women and girls, the stories of sexual harassment, have been endless. My own experiences have been endless.
These experiences have included endless, aggressive, lewd staring, otherwise known as leering. It includes comments that are sexually aggressive, inappropriate and disrespectful. It includes men following women down the street. It includes large groups of men turning to stare at a woman in a threatening and aggressive manner as she walks by. It includes looking at or speaking to a woman in a sexual and demeaning way, as if her value is only that of a sexual object. It includes groping, grabbing and touching women without her permission.
Did I mention staring? Yes, men staring at women in an aggressive and sexual way, is sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment happens everywhere regardless of religion, race or ethnicity. It happens throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, North America and the islands of the Caribbean and the Pacific.
Yet there seems to be some confusion amongst many men. It seems as if there are some men who believe that this type of behavior is acceptable, that they are entitled to behave in this way.
There are even some men, who think that it's not their fault when they behave in this way.
Through this confusion, many men do not seem to understand the harm their lewd behavior causes. They don't seem to understand that leering and acting in a sexually aggressive way towards women causes discomfort. In fact, some of these men are so confused, that they even think that such behavior is a compliment.
Or perhaps they're not confused. Perhaps they know. Perhaps they know very well that making sexually explicit comments about women's bodies as they walk down the street is harmful. Perhaps they know that leering at women in an aggressive, sexual manner is excruciatingly uncomfortable. Perhaps they know that touching a woman, without her consent, is wrong.
But they just do it anyways.
I asked this very question to a group of men in Northern Iraq, do men know that sexual harassment causes women harm?
For a group of soldiers in the Kurdish city of Erbil, once they stopped laughing, they did confirm that men knew that following women down the street, and other forms of harassment, are harmful. 'They're just men without manners,' they said. Their laughter however, indicated that it wasn't a serious issue for them.
For a 15-year-old boy from Mosul in Northern Iraq, he says sexual harassment is something that he sees often in the street. Though he doesn't think that the men would care if their behavior hurt women.
For a man from the Republic of the Congo, he doesn't think men care either.
When investigating why girls chose to become prostitutes in the Republic of the Congo, I was told by everyone I spoke with that there were cases of the police raping the young girls working as prostitutes.
I asked him about these police, did they not know what harm they were doing?
'I don't think they care,' he said. 'The fact that the girls are poor and along with the way women are seen in the Congo, I don't think that they care if they're doing harm.'
On a project in Argentina on human trafficking, I asked a similar question. I asked all of those who I interviewed including police, social workers and lawyers specializing in human trafficking as well as the many Argentinians I met, whether they thought that the men buying prostitutes would care, if they knew that the women they were buying, had been trafficked. Would they care if they knew that the women were being held as slaves and raped everyday.
No, was the resounding answer from all of the Argentinians that I spoke with.
No, the men wouldn't care.
If the general consensus is that men would not care about raping young girls trying to survive through prostitution, or would not care if they raped a young a woman who has been tricked and sold into sexual slavery, how much they would they care about the harm caused through sexually harassing women on the street?
In fact, the absolute majority of my conversations with men all around the world about sexual harassment and sexual violence in general, seems to be one of complacency. Many seem to be completely unconcerned about the discomfort, harm and structures of inequality that sexually degrading behavior, perpetrated by men towards women, causes.
Or maybe they just don't realize?
So is it confusion or is it complacency that propels so many men around the world to publically degrade women on the street and ignore the harm that acts of sexual harassment and violence cause women?
Either way, something needs to be done. Women need to speak up globally and make clear that sexual harassment is harmful and men, globally, need to listen. The media needs to address this issue and greater punishments are needed for men who harass and perpetrate acts of sexual violence towards women. And most importantly, we, all of us, all around the world, need to send a message to our friends and families, that we won't tolerate this type of behavior. Everyone has the right to live a life free of sexual harassment and intimidation, lets clear up the confusion and get rid of the complacency and make that happen.