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OPINION

Who am I supposed to tell when a man sexually harasses me in front of our friends?

Why didn’t women speak out before the #MeToo campaign? They did, but nobody listened, says Marie Phillips

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By Marie Phillips on

In the wake of the Weinstein revelations and the subsequent #MeToo movement, a question that continues to arise is: “Why didn't they tell?” Why did the women who were sexually harassed not speak up about it? Their silence, it is implied or explicitly stated, doomed innumerable other women to the same treatment.

There are good answers as to why some women don't tell: fear of reprisals; fear of not being believed. But, ultimately, what it comes down to, much of the time, is: tell whom, exactly? Many of the women targeted by Weinstein and other predators would have had recourse to go to the police, although they may not have felt safe to do so – many others wouldn't necessarily have felt that the law had been broken, only that something deeply disturbing had occurred. Is it illegal to invite a young actress up to your hotel room, greet her in a bathrobe and demand a massage? Is it up to that actress to risk the humiliating call to the police to find out? And, if not the police, who else was she going to tell? The boss of Hollywood? Weinstein's mum? The headmaster? Anybody who thinks “the press” is a good answer has my permission to not bother finishing this article.

Those of us who have voiced our #MeToo may also feel we had nobody to tell. Maybe if you are sexually harassed at work and you work for a large, well-organised company with a sympathetic HR department, there is somewhere you can go, although that is hardly risk-free. But what about if you're a freelancer? What if your company is tiny and the boss who harassed you has no boss? What about if you are harassed outside the workplace?

Who do you tell when someone is following you around a wedding, going on and on in detail about the threesome they want to have with you and their girlfriend, even though you have said no repeatedly? Who do you tell when you catch a supposed friend of yours secretly taking upskirt photos of you under the table in the pub? Who do you tell when someone with whom you're on a group holiday holds you down on a table in a bar when you are wearing a strapless dress and licks your back while the rest of the group claps and laughs? The people who are clapping and laughing?

Calling the police would have seemed over the top even if it had occurred to me and, most of the time, I had no clue whether what had happened was a matter for the law

These are all real examples from my life and there are plenty more. I always knew whatever shitty thing was happening to me was wrong, but I never had any idea who I could tell about it. Calling the police would have seemed over the top even if it had occurred to me and, most of the time, I had no clue whether what had happened was a matter for the law. All I could really do was try to make them stop – usually in vain – or wait until it was over, and then get out of there.

So, we don't “tell”, in the way that people mean when they ask, “Why don't they tell?” But, of course, we do tell. We tell other women who to avoid. We always have. The expression NSIT – “Not Safe In Taxis” – goes back to the debutante era, referring to men with whom who you should avoid finding yourself alone in a cab. And we tell the people we know we can trust – we tell our friends. And sometimes we do tell the authorities or the people we believe can do something about it. But what happens when we do?

It is the height of blindness that I can receive a campaigning email, as I did yesterday, that reads: “Weinstein’s reputation was well known but nobody spoke up.” If Weinstein's reputation was well known, it was because women did speak up. They spoke up endlessly. They told and told and told, otherwise nobody would have known at all. The problem isn't that women didn't tell – the problem is that nobody was listening. The problem is that the people who had the power to do something – the Weinstein Company board, for example – ignored what they had been told.

So, next time you find yourself asking why a woman didn't tell, consider the possibility that she did. It's progress that, with the #MeToo movement, so many women feel able to speak out in public. Now let's make sure that their voices are heard.

@mpphillips

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Tagged in:
Harassment
harvey weinstein
Sexual assault

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