Opinion

Karen Middleton
The ubiquity of sexual harassment

Last Saturday, my phone started dinging with incoming messages at 8am.

It began with friends – five in the first hour – who’d read what I had written on this page about some of the unwelcome sexual attention I’d received in my adult life. They were supporting my decision to write about it. They also wanted to check that I was “okay”.

Brave was the word that kept coming up – a brave piece of writing. Honest, raw, brave.

I wasn’t certain being called “brave” was necessarily a good sign and I braced for the backlash I was sure would come from those who so enjoy dissecting my appearance and my intellect – or apparent lack thereof – from their anonymous castles on social media.

But the wave of responses was another kind entirely.

By the end of the day – indeed, the week – I’d lost count of the messages, not only from friends and family but also from colleagues, professional associates, politicians, their staff and strangers, responding to what had clearly struck a chord.

“I found your article hard to read,” a parliamentarian wrote to me. “Almost beyond comprehension that this has been your experience. Thanks for writing it.”

I wrote about my experiences – some of my experiences – at my editor’s request. We had been talking about the sexual bragging of United States Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, which had prompted me to observe that such behaviour was sadly neither rare nor confined to the celebrity realms of the rich and famous. It happens in bars, cafes, homes and workplaces everywhere, including at Parliament House.

But the surprising extent of the response – from women and men – leads me to think it’s a conversation that needs to be had.

A man I know professionally emailed me through the week. “I have found myself particularly affected and upset by your story,” he wrote. “I keep thinking about it. I feel so angry and affronted that you have had to cop so much crap from so many men on so many different occasions.”

He said he’d been trying to work out why it had triggered such strong feelings in him.

“I’m not naive; I know horrible stuff goes on in all parts of society,” he wrote. “I’ve got a 15-year-old daughter and naturally I wish I could protect her from going through the sorts of things you wrote about. But perhaps that is not possible. (In fact, maybe she has had a taste of it already, but hasn’t told me about it.)”

He worried that if a journalist like me has had to put up with so many unwelcome “intrusions and assaults” in the course of doing my job, what hope did his smart young daughter have?

“I’m angry for you and for her.”

I wasn’t looking to make people angry, just aware that it happens a lot to many women in all sorts of situations, that this kind of sexual attention is not the same as flirting and it would be great if it happened a lot less. Like, never.

The number of women who contacted me with their own stories would seem to underline the point.

Among the men I wrote about, all of those who were parliamentarians are now retired. Some are dead.

“Name and shame!” said some people. But that wasn’t the point. The time for that was many years ago and part of the problem is that we are made to feel as though these kinds of incidents are to be expected, that we shouldn’t protest, that it must be our own fault, that nothing good would come of it. Or that it’s just a joke.

As I responded to those who – understandably – have pitchforks at the ready, assembling a selection of the examples from my own experience wasn’t about vengeance. It was about sunlight.

And here’s some more of it, from others. I can’t vouch for the veracity of these stories; they aren’t my own. But they came tumbling out in a pretty convincing way.

“Once, at a work Christmas party, I received a pair of lacy undies as a secret Santa gift,” one woman wrote. She described how, when a male colleague asked her to put them on, she put them on her head to try to turn “an awkward situation into a funny one”.

“Later in the evening he beckoned me to another room and asked me to ‘really put them on’,” she continued. “I refused. He (of course) dropped his pants. I stared at the ceiling, and he demanded I look. I ran out… And once, at a work Christmas party, a colleague I barely knew loomed out of nowhere and stuck his tongue in my mouth. I recoiled and blurted, ‘Why did you do that?’ He replied: ‘I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think you wanted it.’ ”

She urged me: “Keep telling those truths. It’s important. As a mother of a daughter, I say: it’s important. As a mother of a son, I say: it’s important.”

Another message came from a mother whose 12-year-old daughter was staying overnight with a friend when she discovered that the friend’s slightly older brother had rigged up a hidden camera to film her undressing. She protested, told her mother, and they went to the police in the small town in which they all lived.

The teenage boy confessed and was warned but police took no further action. As the girl’s mother tells it, the police argued that “no one had been physically hurt”. The boy’s family branded the 12-year-old and her mother liars and made life miserable for her.

In the end, the mother says, she and her husband sent their daughter away to boarding school so she didn’t have to put up with it. The girl, now a little older, is still dealing with how the whole thing made her feel.

Many, many women said my experiences had “stirred up stories” or made them “remember” things they’d put out of their minds, stored away in dark places.

“This has brought back some unpleasant memories for me,” a female colleague wrote.

Another woman in the advertising industry wrote about being harassed by an older male colleague and bringing a formal case against him, which he settled to avoid public disclosure of his activities.

“I want the next generation of women to feel empowered to stand up to these guys with no detriment to their reputation or careers,” she wrote.

“We need a shift in culture so that this behaviour is unacceptable and where there is nowhere for these pigs to hide.”

She was one of hundreds of people who responded to the piece.

As a male colleague wrote: “It’s high time we all called out this appalling behaviour.”

And a female former journalist: “If there is one good thing that has come out of Trump’s campaign, it has been this exposure of what is usually covert behaviour. And if there is one good thing that has come out of social media, so often a platform for trolls and haters, it is that women can now speak up and stand in solidarity with each other, rather than be silenced and separated.”

Another woman wrote: “From about the age of 12 onwards, I just thought being inappropriately groped by men was a natural part of life. Now I recognise this isn’t how things should be.”

She didn’t have the usual parental protection and she believes that many men – some of them relatives – took advantage of that.

Some people who wrote to me said they were going to make their daughters read it. Some said their daughters and their sons.

Some men said the men described in my story were “a major embarrassment to other men”. Some said they had no idea such behaviour was so prevalent. One called it “a horrendous hit parade”. Others “jawdropping” and “deeply unsettling”.

“Imagine if we all wrote our stories,” a female colleague said. “Because we all have them.”

The real story is about the normalisation of predatory behaviour. The problem is not just what is said and done when women are around but also what’s said and done when they aren’t – and the culture of acceptance that creates.

A Sydney woman I know responded that she has had many similar experiences she hasn’t spoken about. She said seeing so many examples collected in one story made her think.

“It isn’t until something like this happens [that] we all sit back and talk about it and remember all the times this happens,” she wrote. “It is mind-blowing how regular an occurrence this is and how it becomes our ‘normal’ everyday life.”

She, too, had been instructed by a doctor to take her top off without explanation or any apparent reason.

Another woman also recognised the experience with a doctor that I had described – being made to stand naked from the waist up while he just looked.

The two of us have this week established it was the same doctor, now deceased.

“I’ve been groped, followed, kissed and yes even grabbed on the p****, had ‘men’ start masturbating in front of me (including at a bus stop when I was on my way to school),” the Sydney woman continued, “… by people I know, people I worked with, people I trusted, complete strangers, from young men to old men, men no one knows or remembers, to people I still see on TV.”

She said it had happened from the age of about 11.

“Many of these incidents become the little stories we share and ‘remember that time’ someone did or said something. I don’t know how or when or if this changes, but that it ever happened to any of us once is bad enough. I can’t even remember how many times and who anymore and that is probably the most disturbing part of all.”

Yes, that is the most disturbing part of all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 22, 2016 as "Shining light in dark places". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

Continue reading your one free article for the week