Women will remain prey to sexual harassment as long as their careers are stunted and bodies are regulated

By Sheana Ochoa

My husband came to me after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, talking about how men would have to “think twice” now. He said, “As a man I have to confess I’m completely ashamed of Harvey Weinstein and his sick, compulsive behaviour.” There’s been so much press coverage, he said, “This will be a watershed moment for change.” “Watershed,” I laughed. I called him naïve and it hurt his feelings. I’m sorry about that, but I know that this story will fizzle out. It will soon be replaced by something else to enrage, scare, and stir us up. Meanwhile, nothing will have changed.

Women know this the way climatologists know the earth is overheating. A flash-in-the-pan news story about how deforestation threatens the life of a beloved animal won’t solve the problem of global warming, because that animal has no power: it doesn’t control policy; it can’t affect the first-world comforts of a few privileged countries, countries that maintain the capitalist patriarchy and the wars that fuel it. Like the displaced animal in this analogy, women are, as a whole, exiled from their power — whether its earning power, believability power, or the power to govern their own bodies.

When I was five years old, the teenage boy next door took me into his father’s boat, told me to spread my legs, and shoved his finger into my vagina. This is how I discovered I had a womb, a vulnerable opening that another could trespass, at will, by the mere virtue of being able to physically overpower me. I learned I could be occupied, dominated, invaded. The reality of my body became too frightening to bear, and so my mind erased the siege in the boat. Ten years later, in the throws of a teenage crush, the boy I liked decided to finger me. Suddenly, my body remembered the childhood molestation with all of the implications about my body as an object to be mishandled. But by then I had been fully conditioned by the patriarchy. In point of fact, I had been socialised to buy into my position of weakness through industries of media, advertising, pornography, and the dictates of my government. I knew if I wanted to keep the boy who was recklessly probing me, I had to let him continue. Worse, at the time I didn’t even know that what he was doing to me was wrong. These factors rendered me complicit, the shame of which was immensely more painful than the physical violation.

In high school I discovered a love for photography. I joined the yearbook staff. I didn’t notice the entire staff was female. For the first time in my life I had real power. I got to handle expensive cameras and lenses, darkroom enlargers and studio lights. I got to design pages, choose the book’s theme, decide who did or didn’t go into the yearbook, and how the chosen ones were portrayed. Ultimately, my fellow staffers and I were in charge of characterising the high school careers of our entire class. But there was a price for power, and, again, we all went along with it. The teacher leered and ogled to his heart’s content. We tolerated and dreaded his proximity in the darkroom, his hand on the small of our backs and shoulders, his stale coffee breath on our necks. Like any and every woman you ask, I could go on. I could lay out every lewd comment, inappropriate touch and proposition in subways and college classrooms, at crosswalks and in restaurants. I could tell you about all the times a group of women have gotten together and how when the subject of sexual abuse came up we took count. Always, at least three fourths of the room admitted to being assaulted. And those were the brave ones.

Women have begun sharing their stories on social media. One Facebook friend, Christina Haag, an author in New York, wrote about her experience being groped. “What makes men think they can grab at our body parts without our consent or desire? It starts at a young age. I was 12 the first time. I hadn’t been kissed yet, but I was grabbed so intimately I burst into tears. I still remember the violation and how he walked on without ever looking at me—and the message is get used to it, your body isn’t yours, or it means you’re attractive, or keep the secret, or you asked for it, or, hey, it’s just a joke, or he was drunk. It’s your fault, after all, by virtue of your sex . . . Then it goes on through your life—and you are planning, dodging, looking for an exit when you sense it might be coming.” Her question, of course, is rhetorical. But it deserves an answer. Men think they can sexually assault us because they can and have for centuries.

Because we all have them, following Hagg’s Facebook post, dozens of women shared their own list of assaults starting from childhood. CNN producer, Loen Kelley jumped into the litany surprised by these stories: “This is incredible: learning that being groped is so prevalent it’s like a rite of passage. Isn’t everyone surprised by this? So, what do we do now? Clearly, there’s a groundswell of anger and resentment going on and what to do with it? Laws? Stricter punishment of perps, extend statute of limitations – or a grassroots messaging movement: anonymous hot lines, etc. with a slogan like “we’re talking now” or maybe just “hands off.”

When every woman has a list of sexual attacks she’s had to endure since childhood there’s no chance of change within the current paradigm. Simply, until women have as much power as men, nothing will change. Some men may presently have their guard up, like an addict whose been found out. She stays off the sauce or keeps her use to an acceptable minimum, just until the heat dies down. When the coast is clear, all bets are off.

So yes, I laughed at my husband who felt at once ashamed and hopeful about the Weinstein affair. And he is a social activist. We aren’t talking about a run-of-the-mill white man, but a humanitarian. Yet just like me, he has been socialized, which goes to show how deep the conditioning is. My husband adores me. He is caring to a fault. But being white and a man, he holds privilege just as I do owing to the color of my skin. I talk back to police when I’m pulled over. I don’t fear for my husband or my son’s life when they leave the house. Some of the subtle forms of my husband’s privilege show up when he asks me to smile, or that time he told me “not to make a scene” when our then seven-year-old son and I were cooing over one another in a restaurant with a little too much zeal for his taste.

Human nature inheres those in power to not only take advantage of their privilege, but to feel entitled to it. And why not? Rare are the repercussions, just a few media scapegoats every few years. What remains is the hierarchical paradigm that allows men to abuse women. Women remain prey to sexual harassment as long as their careers are stunted and their vaginas are regulated. Imagine a world in which women govern their reproductive health and in which they are as ubiquitous as men in careers that shape policy and society. At that point, and not before, will men think twice about sexually harassing us.

Sheana Ochoa is the author of the first biography on acting maven, Stella Adler: Stella! Mother of Modern Acting. Ms.Ochoa received her Masters in Professional Writing at the University of Southern California. She has written for various outlets such as Salon, Film International and CNN.com. Her current project is an historical novel based on the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado. 

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