Two weeks ago Carla Rountree of Washington, D.C., was enjoying an autumn afternoon with friends at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, gaily dressed in a tutu with a goofy unicorn horn tied to her head. While ordering a drink at a beverage stall, a man standing next to her said, “You know, I could grab that horn like you’re an ice cream cone, flip you over, and just lick you.”
She retorted, “I don’t think you’d like the results of that.” He smirked and replied, “YOU might.”
“No one within earshot, including the female bartender, said anything about it,” Rountree says. “It was just accepted, which infuriated me just as much as the god-awful comment.”
That incident occurred as women all over the United States are tweeting and posting #MeToo, sharing their experiences with sexual harassment.
The movement followed the fall from grace of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the latest rich, famous and powerful man to be brought down by a series of allegations of sexual harassment dating as far back as 30 years and involving more than 20 women. Weinstein’s attorneys say he did not participate in any nonconsensual sex.
If the number of women harassed by Weinstein looks dramatic, the number who have spoken up via #MeToo to reveal their own sexual harassment experiences is more startling.
On Oct. 15, actress Alyssa Milano called for sexual harassment victims to post or tweet the two-word phrase. By the next day, Time magazine reported, more than 27,000 people had responded. By mid-week, women from around the globe were tweeting their stories.
By the numbers
Meanwhile, a poll released Tuesday by ABC/The Washington Post, indicated 54 percent of female respondents said they have been the victim of sexual assault.
A third of female respondents said they have experienced sexual advances from a male coworker or a man who had influence over their career. Fifty-eight percent of the women who said they had been harassed on the job said they didn’t report it. And 94 percent of women who were harassed at work believe men usually don’t face consequences for those actions.
An all-too-common thread among #MeToo stories: When the behavior was reported, no one did anything.
Kellie Dickson Johnson of Chattanooga, Tennessee, says she was frustrated by just such an experience while working at a restaurant. A patron pursued her relentlessly with flowers, poems and invitations to go out. She began to dread going to work.
“When I finally told the managers, their response was that it was ‘cute’ and ‘sweet.’ They absolutely did not see the problem. The next week, they were down one employee.” In other words, she quit.
In The Washington Post poll, 64 percent of women who had been harassed said they felt intimidated, 52 percent said they felt humiliated, 31 percent said they felt ashamed.
Many of the stories happened when the victims were children.
Deirdre Launt says she was 14 and working at a hometown grocery store in Portage, Michigan, when it happened to her.
“It was my first job,” she says in an email. “There were two guys a bit older than me who worked there, too … They used to poke me really hard, all over, and laugh and be like, ‘What are you gonna do, go tell?”‘
When she reported the incident, Launt says, “I got something like a ‘boys will be boys’ brush off and nothing was done. They didn’t see the guy’s behavior as a problem, they saw me as a problem.” Launt quit the job and 29 years later, she rarely enters the store.
Many women have wondered if their experience counts as sexual harassment if it wasn’t considered too bad, if they didn’t feel psychological damage, or if they were drinking or dressed provocatively when it happened.
But the biggest question is this: What do we do about it?
Cheryl Colbert of Arlington, Virginia, recalls an incident in the early 1990s when a man accosted her in the courtyard of her apartment building. She is now raising a teenage son and daughter, and says she feels guilty the rules she sets for her daughter are different than those she sets for her son, such as coming straight home after a practice at school so she won’t be walking alone at night.
Colbert says she takes heart that men and women are responding to #MeToo with support.
“While my story isn’t public, those that need to know are aware. But speaking up wasn’t easy so please listen, acknowledge & accept.,” actor Alex Winter tweeted this week.
The hashtag #HowIWillChange has also cropped up, posted by men who detail what they will do differently in future to help protect women. Some of the methods mentioned are teaching children respect, proactively learning about women’s issues, and calling out predatory behavior.
“Men, keep in mind women don’t owe us their stories for us to become advocates for them in public/private spaces,” Phillip Lewis wrote.
Other men and women are tweeting #WithYou.
“I’m raising my son to treat all women with respect and compassion. I am speaking out against misogyny. I am listening,” U.S. military veteran Dave Harrell said.
Colbert has a pretty straightforward plan, which she describes in an email. “The only thing I feel we can do is each one do the right thing. And say something when it happens. SAY SOMETHING WHEN IT HAPPENS.”