A few months ago, I saw a tweet on twitter by @zellieimani asking, “At what age did you first notice men were looking at you sexually?” This made me think about my own experiences growing up, as well as the experiences of friends and family members, and how desperately we need to be having this discussion about the hypersexualization of young girls and consequently women.
I was made aware of my sexuality at a young age when men would look at me as if I were a grown woman, despite still being a kid. Being three or four years old, and having a family friend’s son that was a few years older than me tell me to take off my dress and play leap frog on top of him on my bed. Or being 13, and my best friend’s married, 30-something-year-old brother would write love notes to me, telling me I was beautiful, offering to buy me expensive gifts, would hold my hand when no one was around, as if we were having some sort of secret love affair, when all I wanted to do was to scream and repeatedly wash my hands because his were cold and clammy. I still remember how he would come over unannounced, and look at me like I was some sort of steak dinner when my parents weren’t looking, calling me “sexy” even though I was in the 7th grade and didn’t even know what sexy really meant, let alone what sex was.
And the worst part? I wasn’t the only one.
He, like countless other people who take advantage of others, are predators. But it isn’t always entirely about sex. The exploitation of power is a huge contributing factor.
On October 5th, the New York Times and New Yorker reported on the abounding number of women who have spoken out about the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and the financial settlements made to keep his employees and several actresses and models quiet. Ever since then, celebrities have been sharing their stories of sexual abuse by Weinstein via social media. This led to actress Alyssa Milano tweeting #MeToo in response to the sexual abuse outrage, urging women who have been sexually abused to share their stories by posting “me too” on various social media platforms, to help prove how much of a widespread problem sexual assault is.
Women are often disregarded, stigmatized, alienated, and slut shamed when sharing their stories about how they were assaulted. Not only does this make it that much more difficult for women to tell someone about their situation, it also gives their abuser room to find other victims, continuing the perverse, vicious cycle. I know several women who have been assaulted, and were either too afraid to speak against their predator, or were treated as if it were their fault.
Why? Why is it that women are blamed in these situations and constantly told to view men as something to be feared, while men aren’t being taught how to properly respect women, without conditions?
Sexual assault or harassment isn’t limited to just women, either. Men experience sexual abuse as well, and are also stigmatized or made fun of, because it seems taboo to be taken advantage of sexually if you are male, which is a extremely problematic mentality to have. This can result in repression of emotions, and a vast misunderstanding of masculinity. For example, men in society are often led to believe that in order to be a man, they must act tough, take control, and rarely show emotions.
If a guy were to say that he was raped he would either be congratulated for achieving some sort of sexual medal, or laughed at because it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. I urge everyone to please be more aware of your reactions, and to hold yourself accountable for your responses. It makes a difference.
So what can we do? What must be done?
The first step is realizing that the first important relationship is the one you have with yourself. Make yourself a priority, and love yourself enough to know how to use your voice to end what’s hurting you and potentially hurting others. We must constantly be aware and alert, and make smart decisions to keep ourselves safe. We have to speak up and stand up for ourselves and others, even if it’s scary, and we mustn’t keep our hurt inside. When we are made to feel like abuse is our fault we may build walls to protect ourselves from feeling hurt (or feeling anything for that matter), fearing attachment, which keeps us from having healthy, long lasting relationships with people.
Having this mentality can be taught to others, especially children, and the cycle continues. #MeToo has given people the opportunity to share their experiences, to break the barrier between what’s going on in Hollywood and the “real world,” which helps us relate to one another in a powerfully universal way. It’s a reminder that we are not sexual objects; we are human beings with thoughts and feelings, and should be respected.
Written by Teresa Johnson