One of the most frequent sh*tty reactions to sexual harassment stories in the Press, including but not limited to the #MeToo furore, is the inclination of some folks to sit back and say, “why are the victims only speaking up now?” In the minds of some people, a sexual crime is diminished if there is a lengthy period of time between the event happening and the victim speaking out.
This is totally irrational and rarely true for other crimes. If a murder was committed twenty years ago, and the murderer was still alive, no one would so much as hesitate to put them in prison.
To this, I plead for humanity and compassion to be shown towards alleged victims. Just because an incident of sexual harassment happened in the past does not mean an allegation is less valid, serious, or due process should be any less thorough. There is still stigma and shame attached to sexual crimes. Times change, but they don’t change quickly. Perpetrators aggressively try to discredit and silence their victims. In the case of Harvey Weinstein, the threat of actual violence appears to have been very real.
Sometimes the process of bringing people to justice may be so unpleasant, that vulnerable people come to conclusion that it’s just easier to move on from their experiences.
I have a great deal of empathy with victims of sexual harassment, having witnessed some particularly aggressive sexual harassment whilst working in politics both in the UK and USA. In the particular case I mention in the link above, the women I know pushed on every door they could to try and deal with their harasser, and only chose to start ‘speaking out’ publicly when every other option had been exhausted.
Unfortunately, I also empathise with victims of sexual harassment who fail to speak out because of something I witnessed as a child, and made the choice not to talk to anyone about it.
When I was sixteen, in the first year of my A-Levels, I was acting as a stage hand for a school play. The incident took place during a rehearsal. Behind the scenes, the stage was dark, and there weren’t many people around. Only present were a handful of other students and a couple of teachers milling about and minding their own business. I was carrying props back to their starting positions when I saw a male teacher touch a female student.
He had his hand on the back of her head and had pulled her closer to him. The touch looked like a caress. The female student did not seem phased by his attention. His face was close to hers — only just not close enough for them to be kissing. Once he saw me, he stood straight upright and let go of her. He looked alarmed. She didn’t turn around. I carried on walking.
I’ve thought about this incident many times in the past fifteen years — and the question I ask myself most often is this:
Why didn’t I speak out?
Here are the reasons — not excuses — I didn’t speak out, presented with no judgement.
I didn’t trust the adults around me to believe me and treat my word as more valid than/just as valid as that of a teacher’s word.
To this day I have serious questions about the integrity, sensitivity, and competence of the teacher’s at my secondary school for a plethora of reasons. I simply do not believe that I would have been considered a credible witness.
This teacher had also had cause (and I would say irrational cause at times) to discipline me over the course of my school career. I felt that this teacher really didn’t like me. I was worried that any allegation against him, however true, might be perceived as a vindictive act on my part.
To this day I am not sure what I saw.
What did I see? Was it sexual? Was it merely platonic/if somewhat misplaced affection? If it was sexual — Was it welcome? Was it exploitative? I have no idea what the nature of that incident was. I know that she was facing him and that he pulled her into him by the back of her hair. I don’t know anything else. It was dark. It wasn’t that dark. What exactly did I see? I don’t know. And I don’t feel like I can ask either of the other parties involved.
By the time my juvenile mind had processed the confusing thoughts and emotions surrounding the incident, it was too late.
By the time I came to the correct conclusion that a grown male teacher should not be touching an unrelated fourteen/fifteen year old girl in any way, the metaphysical statute of limitations on this act had passed. Rationally or irrationally, in mind, the “right time” had well and truly passed. I just inherently felt that any claim would be diminished because of the time that had passed between the act happening and me convincing myself that it, whatever it was, was wrong.
The teacher was popular. I was not.
Secondary school was the hardest phase of my life to date. I was neither popular with other students nor the teacher’s who considered me a trouble maker and a non-conformist. Despite being a more than able student, I struggled daily to conform to their ideals. I sensed that teacher’s wanted something from me and I just couldn’t fathom what the right answer ever was. Intellectually, physically, and emotionally: I was isolated and alone.
The teacher in question, however, was considered one of the “cool teachers”, he was generally well-liked by his colleagues and my peers. A lot of my peers considered him to be their “favourite” teacher. I have mutual friends with this teacher on Facebook, as he’s one of the rare few teachers a lot of my friends wanted to stay in touch with. I was intimidated by his likability and this added to my sense that I wouldn’t be believed.
Not speaking out was the easiest, simplest, best thing for me.
Without any certainty, I decided the most rational thing was to keep shtum (until telling a world of strangers on Medium fourteen/fifteen years later…). No consequences for them, but also no consequences for me. What if the encounter was sexual and welcome? Then she may have lied to protect him. Then it would be the word of two people against me. But by staying quiet there were no questions about my integrity. No being interviewed with a sceptical eye by teacher’s I already didn’t trust. No disruption to my own already troubled school career. No further isolation from my peers.
The trouble with not speaking out or dealing with sexual harassment at all, however, is it leaves the perpetrator free to carry on business-as-usual. Or worse — more confident in their faith that they will always be able to get away with their behaviour.
The consequences of me talking about this could have been that I destroyed someone’s career on a false assumption. I’m strangely confident that I did not let an aggressive paedophile get away with anything, and yet I still have enough doubts about wether or not I did the right thing to prompt me to write this article.
I know the names of both the people involved. I’ve looked them up on Facebook. We have mutual friends. Both of them appear to have fairly ordinary lives. If there’s anything haunting their consciences, they haven’t spoken about it either.
The purpose and message of this article is this: be kind to alleged victims, but also fight for due process. This is a world of shades of grey. Nothing about sexual harassment is black and white. I am someone who always thought they would be strong enough to speak out, but when I had cause to, I did not.
I know I would be strong enough to say something now, but I didn’t always have that strength.