Thinking about #metoo: It’s complicated

Edgar Degas. “Interior (The Rape)”. 1868-1869

By Olga Shafran

This is my third attempt at writing a post inspired by the #metoo campaign.  I almost abandoned the idea because I was struggling so much to figure out what I really wanted to say.  At first my point was that what some women consider sexual harassment other women do not and we should not judge them.  To illustrate this point, I recalled an incident that I was involved in about eight years ago.

I am a volunteer interpreter for my local police department. One Sunday night I got a call around 3 a.m. The police had responded to a call regarding domestic violence. The incident involved a Ukrainian couple and a male friend. They had a pleasant evening involving, no doubt, lots of vodka. Then somehow the husband felt that perhaps the wife was flirting with his friend, and things escalated to the point of needing police involvement. The police wanted to know if the woman wanted to press charges. She did not. The police asked for the whole story, and I translated. The woman sounded pretty hysterical, and the men sounded quite drunk, and this was in the middle of the night, and I had been woken up, but I thought I was doing a pretty good job. Until one sentence made me pause. And eight years later it still haunts me whenever I think about violence against women in the post-Soviet space. She used this sentence as a means of defending her man. She did not want him to be in trouble for what he did to her: “Он меня не бил, он меня просто ударил.” I had to ask the police officer to give me a minute to process. “He didn’t beat me, he just hit me,” I told them. The police officer also paused.

Everyone draws a line somewhere when it comes to sexual abuse, harassment or violence against women. When women use hashtags campaigns or just dare to speak out about their experiences, their line may not be in the same spot as some other woman’s. We need to remember not to judge where others place their lines. Some experiences are so horrific, they’re universally agreed upon. Then there is a whole lot of gray area.  The point of my first draft was let’s not re-victimize victims by telling them that what they find acceptable is not.

I let that sit for a couple days while I thought some more about the issue.  How do we affect change if we don’t educate women to recognize when they are being abused or harassed?  What is acceptable in some places in the world or was acceptable in the past is not what I wish to be acceptable to anyone in the future.  That brought me to my second draft and my second story.  This story was prompted by a discussion with some friends in which catcalling seemed to be a universally agreed-upon very mild form of harassment not worthy of a #metoo hashtag.  It turned my thinking in the completely opposite direction.  

I once was catcalled by a man driving a pickup truck as I walked down the street in broad daylight in a busy neighborhood in Chicago with lots of pedestrians and cars present. No big deal, just look down and keep walking. Only he didn’t stop. He slowed down, pulled over closer to the sidewalk, turned when I turned, followed me, continued yelling sexually explicit things. I flagged down the closest taxi and jumped in, shaking. “Guess you still got it,” laughed a friend I was meeting for dinner when I got there and told her what happened.  

Remembering how I felt that night, I expanded the point of the post to add a line on the other side of the gray area.  If someone feels victimized, even if we think it’s a minor infraction, we should not judge them or dismiss their experience.  This one may seem fairly obvious to most Americans, but Russian-speakers are a different story.  

The #metoo campaign reminded me of the #небоюсясказати (#notafraidtotell) campaign that made waves in the Ukrainian and Russian social media about a year ago. I was really surprised to see that one because the way sexual harassment and violence against women is viewed in Russia, Belarus, or Ukraine is not the same as in the United States.  For example, the Russian parliament voted this year to decriminalize domestic violence by a margin of 380-3.  And yet, here were brave Ukrainian and Russian women actually telling their stories! I was sadly not surprised that many women commenters in both campaigns blamed the victim for what happened to her. Some of the comments I read were pretty vicious.  

How we as women treat each other is as important to talk about when these campaigns flare up as the actual issue of male violence against us.  I am still struggling with my role in this conversation and writing this post has forced me to really examine my biases and beliefs.  I have lots more stories I could share, but no really solid main thesis.  All I can hope for is that this post might inspire the reader to reflect on their own experiences and examine where they draw the line for themselves, how they judge where other women draw their lines, and what kinds of difficult conversations we should have in order to support each other and move our collective lines in the direction of a world free from sexual harassment and abuse.


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