One of the first times sexual harassment began to be widely discussed was in the United States during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing when Anita Hill, a former employee of his, testified that he had sexually harassed her. Even though Hill did not volunteer this information but was called to testify, she was vilified and Thomas took his seat on the court—where he remains to this day.
The same blasé attitudes around sexual assault have only grown in prevalence, and, if Ottawa’s headlines alone are any indication, definitely aren’t slowing down.
We were shocked/dismayed/disgusted etc. when the soft-spoken Jian Ghomeshi was accused of violently sexually assaulting several women, but was found not guilty because the alleged victims were thought to be untrustworthy.
We were shocked/dismayed/disgusted etc. when Justin Trudeau kicked out two Members of Parliament from his caucus because they allegedly sexually harassed two female NDP MPs in 2015, and again in late August when Calgary MP Darshan Kang resigned in light of sexual harassment allegations.
We performed the same tired routine when the news hit this past week in Ottawa that a man was acquitted of rape because he thought he could have sex with his wife whenever he pleased.
Then we went back down the rabbit hole again on Oct. 25, when Ottawa celebrity chef Matthew Carmichael admitted to sexually harassing a number of women on the job.
In light of these stories and more, why were we surprised when news broke of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulting and harassing dozens of women over the last few decades? Why were we surprised when hundreds of thousands of women shared their stories of sexual assault and harassment on social media under #MeToo?
What has been truly frustrating over the last few weeks is how many people have expressed shock at how ingrained sexual violence is in our societies, while also keeping their heads firmly planted in the sand.
Not only have we seen so many of these stories, but they all follow similar trajectories. First a woman, (a spurned lover, or power-hungry bitch is the usual assumption) accuses a powerful man of sexual harassment or assault. Then more and more stories come out, and they’re eerily similar. No, it’s not that this man has an M.O. of creepy and cruel behaviour. It’s that these bitches are in on it together.
They then cry “witch hunt,” as these women are surely working to bring down this poor man. But then enough stories come out with enough variety and disgusting details, that it’s impossible to ignore the fucked up behaviour being tolerated in (insert prestigious workplace here).
So many stories, many of them in our own backyard. And yet, we all forget, and then have the audacity to be shocked.
The #MeToo campaign has something in common with Bill C-62, the controversial religious neutrality bill passed in Quebec this past week. The legislation prohibits anyone wearing a face-covering to use public services, and it will overwhelmingly impact Muslim women who choose to wear niqabs. They reveal that a woman’s place in the public sphere is still uncomfortable for a lot of people. We women know that when we leave our homes and enter the public sphere, we will be subject to this very harassment that has taken the news by storm this past week.
Back on the U of O campus, the Our Turn advocacy movement has been launched to help prevent sexual violence, support survivors, and to advocate for reforms at the campus, provincial, and national levels. The movement itself is composed of 21 student groups in Canada, and grades university sexual violence policies.
According to Student Federation of the University of Ottawa vice-president equity, Leila Moumouni-Tchouassi, the U of O’s policy shortcoming lies in the promotion—she says it’s not advertised enough.
While that might be true, the policy must also have an educational component. We won’t eradicate the scourge of sexual violence in our society without addressing what aspects of our society feed these types of behaviours. We need to think about how we teach children about people’s roles in society and how that eventually leads to sexual assault and harassment. Finally we need to make it clear that women have just as much a right to be in the public sphere as men.