The social media conversation around hashtag #MeToo highlights how widespread sexual harassment is. The BBC’s Rajini Vaidyanathan shares her personal story.
I must have been about 25 years old.
We were in an Italian restaurant in New York, just after we’d finished working on a story. I was an ambitious producer who’d just been in Manhattan for the Republican convention.
Most of the team had gone but a colleague and I were the last two left and we were having dinner.
We’d gone to the East Village and in a dimly lit Italian restaurant, I made small talk about George W Bush and John Kerry.
Then he said it.
“I’m unbelievably sexually attracted to you. I can’t stop thinking about you.”
I dropped my fork and it bounced on the plate, the spaghetti still woven around it.
- ‘MeToo’ and the scale of sexual abuse
This was a colleague twice my age, well-respected and with a girlfriend. I had experienced sexism in the workplace before, but not in such an overt way.
I can’t even remember what I said – but it was something all too polite, as I tried to change the conversation. He continued talking about how beautiful I was, as I ate the pasta as fast I could.
I wasn’t sure at the time if he’d said anything that I could reasonably complain about, but I remember feeling disgusted and uncomfortable about it.
I now know it was utterly unacceptable, and is just another reminder of how some men in the workplace use their power to manipulate, harass and even abuse women.
Harassment in street, at work and on campus
The recent conversation about Harvey Weinstein has prompted countless conversations among my female friends about where the line stops in these situations, and when you should say something.
Do you have to be touched for it to count? What if you are friends with them? When does harassment start, and when does it end?
The Weinstein case has shone the light on the appalling practices in Hollywood, but it is of course a very depressing reflection of what women from all walks of life, from all corners of the globe, have to experience on a daily basis.
A few years ago a married former colleague of mine began sending me messages containing explicit details of his sexual desires.
“I have become obsessed with pleasuring myself,” he wrote. “I just can’t control myself.”
I was horrified but at first I thought I needed to be polite, as there was a chance we’d work together again (why do women always feel they need to be polite in these situations?).
I didn’t really know what to say, so I responded telling him that it sounded pretty normal for some men to think like that, hoping he’d go away.
But his messages continued and became more creepy. He said he’d fantasised about sex with powerful women, and how he wanted to cheat on his wife.
I told him to talk to someone else – not me – and to get help.
I didn’t tell anyone at first. I felt disgusted but kept it to myself.
Months later I was chatting to another female colleague who told me that for years she had received dirty messages from the same man. I let out a sigh of relief, as I realised I could finally share my story.
Soon after I heard he’d been fired. Another colleague had filed a complaint against him.
No matter what the degree of abuse is, knowing someone else has gone through it too makes it easier to speak out. Just look at the Bill Cosby case.
I have interviewed a number of survivors of sexual assault on college campuses in the US, who didn’t come forward because they didn’t think they’d be believed.
A lot of the time, men don’t understand how to deal with it, because – to put it simply – they don’t have to deal with it. They don’t get the same comments or asides, the same blame or judgement as women face on a regular basis.
More on the Weinstein story
The two examples I shared are just a few I’ve experienced over the years – I forgot to mention the knock on my hotel door from a married colleague on a trip, which followed a suggestive text.
In that case I ran into the bathroom and called a friendly male colleague – who told me to phone him again if I felt threatened.
And that’s a reminder there are many decent men out there who are allies in this fight.
As my friends share stories of being groped while working on boats, being objectified during board meetings, passed over for a job because they didn’t flirt back, it is patently clear that a lot more that needs to change.
But one positive that comes out of hearing such horrific stories from Hollywood and beyond is that the more people talk, the less it’s becoming acceptable.
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