Content warning: Mentions of sexual violence
From where he was standing, he could not see me. All he saw was a young woman, possibly alone, sitting inside Juliette et Chocolat, enjoying a dessert. She was not making eye contact or flirting. She was just sitting. That is when he, the man looking at her, decided to repeatedly tap on the window, mimic sexual intercourse, and shove his phone against the pane in some perverted attempt at courtship. This was the first time I had ever witnessed the sexual violence that my girlfriend, and all feminine-presenting people, experience in their lives every day.
When I was in middle school, I generally spent recess alone, avoiding my peers’ conversations. That was partly because I disliked what some of my male classmates talked about: They ranked the girls in our class based on appearance and bullied those they deemed less attractive. I knew this was wrong, but it was easier to avoid it than to intervene, so that’s what I did. I never said anything.
When I was in high school, I was a member of the varsity basketball team, and I thought it was important to maintain amicable relationships with my teammates to preserve my position within the group. That is why, when one of my teammates began circulating a female classmate’s nude photos without her consent in the team’s group chat, I again said nothing. I was always a passive bystander.
When I was in my senior year, Donald Trump was revealed to have said, among other disgusting things, that he considered women to be objects for his own pleasure and that he could treat women without regard for their humanity because he was a “star.” A month later, my country elected him as President. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, faced immense structural sexism in how the media covered her campaign and the scrutiny that she faced. As a result, Trump was elected despite a litany of sexual violence allegations and the Access Hollywood Tape, which his defenders and supporters termed “locker room talk.”
But for women, these actions are so much more than cheap talk. They are the foundational blocks of a permissive society wherein men can objectify and harass women, while negating their ambitions, accomplishments, and humanity. 81 per cent of women experience some form of sexual violence, a deeply dehumanizing experience, and 75 per cent of those who are harassed and speak out experience some form of retaliation. There are real consequences to locker room talk—the same talk that begins with boys ranking girls and sharing their nudes, which are both examples of sexual violence.
It is easy for men to miss seeing these consequences, precisely because when men are present, they do not occur. When a woman is without a man, our society has taught men that she is not so much an independent agent as she is “fair game.” In effect, men are to be respected, while the respect afforded to a woman is dependent on her immediate relationship to a man.
That is why, on that dreadful night at Juliette et Chocolat, the harasser only stopped his movements when I came around the wall to reveal myself, standing by my girlfriend’s side. He and his friends were stunned because they knew that they had been caught. And in knowing that they were caught, each revealed that, deep down, they knew what was happening was wrong. I shouldn’t have had to be there from them to know they were being violent. And yet, like me in middle and high school, no one had said anything.
Being an active bystander is far from easy, especially when it means telling a friend that they are wrong. But it cannot take getting caught, or watching those we love get harrassed, for us to speak out for what is right. As men, we must all do better to hold one another accountable for the way we talk about and treat women. For, until we do, the society men have created, permissive of everything from casual harassment to a rapist in the White House, will go unchanged.