Looking Away, Looking Straight Back, and How To React In The Face of Sexual Harassment

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In the wake of the sexual abuse and harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the spiralling #MeToo campaign, a new energy for speaking out has been ignited, not just in Hollywood, but across the world. With the digital sphere providing a pulpit, what started as an initial spark of speaking out against the appalling acts of one man, has spread into a frenzy of voices calling out widespread wrongful behaviour against women. It’s a feeling of empowerment, strangled by the unravelling of so much that has passed previously without action or consequence, and the twisted awareness that this harassment, to its varying degrees, has often been known about and regularly hushed up.

The spark has been lit for us to speak out and feel inspired by the bravery of those who have lifted their silence after all this time. At The Merit Club we resonate so strongly with this need to look into the problems women face every day as they are going about their daily lives, and address them where we can. As women, we need to start questioning things. We need to start conversations, however taboo the topics may have been previously. We may be the most successful, independent, fiercely vigilant, and influential women we can possibly make ourselves, yet there is a painful truth that any woman, whatever their status or situation, can become vulnerable to attack. Physical, verbal, in the workplace, on the street, with people we know or by complete strangers, women can become victims. What we need to accept is, if it ever happens to us, that it is not our fault, and it’s certainly not something we should feel ashamed about. What we need to question is, why should we be put into these situations in the first place, and why should we be made to feel guilty for appearing vulnerable? What we need to do about it... that’s why we need these conversations.

In order to attempt to write something about this, we had to start our own conversation and started sharing various different experiences where we have personally felt vulnerable, together with scenarios where we have witnessed uncomfortable situations. Talking through the different options you face - what to do when you are made to feel vulnerable, what to do after, what to do if you witness a threatening scenario - made us appreciate just how difficult it is to come up with any resolute answers.

When I witnessed a young woman being harassed on the London underground, first I wasn’t sure if they knew each other. After a few stops watching what was unfolding in front of all the seemingly oblivious passengers was someone being touched inappropriately and taken advantage of against her will, and no one seemed to even care! I only built up the courage to do something at the same moment she rushed off the train, and I left feeling so angry at him, the people around her letting it happen, and myself for not knowing what to do or being brave enough to act faster

Focusing on public transport in particular, it’s evident that speaking out and knowing what to do is a major issue. According to TFL, 90% of unwanted sexual behaviour on London transport goes unreported. It clearly suggests that people just don’t feel supported and confident enough to report situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Harassment can make you feel incredibly vulnerable. It’s that jolting realisation of being taken advantage of against your will, mixed with feelings of disgust and hatred that someone can take away your control. It’s a haunting feeling that simply shouldn’t have to be suppressed and hushed up. Yet, have you ever looked away when you’ve seen something happening to someone else, in fear of confrontation and not knowing how to react? The thought of confrontation can be frightening, and no one should have to feel like they’re then putting themselves in danger.

I was on my way home one night when I noticed someone was following me. I built up all my courage to stop and turn around to face him. He changed direction and left. I’m still not sure today what would have happened if I waited another minute...

When something is scary or intimidating we tend to look away. We may avert our eyes physically and we avert our thoughts about it. Yet, there is a psychological power of looking something straight in the eye. Taking ideas from our recent podcast as an example, the power of sight can even act as a force-shield. From interviewing perpetrators of rape in prison, they found that many of them commonly said that if they approached a woman and she gave them direct eye contact they would choose not to attack them, in fear of recognition and that personal connection. Eyes have an intense power, and the act of looking is weighted in intimidation.

It may be daunting to tap into this, it may be easier to look away. Yet, we need to harness this sense of contact and connection. Tagging onto a hashtag is a start, but it’s time to look beyond this and start talking. Start questioning, start conversations, and somehow… taking action.


Have you ever faced similar situations? How did you react?



Words by Lottie Franklin

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