Things change

With social media hashtags #MeToo and #TimesUp, women take control of their own story

Neelam Bohra, Co-Editor

Junior Lilly Harlowe had just finished a shift of her summer job at Sonic.

“I was sitting outside because it was a pretty day,” she said. “There was this guy who came up in a van — that was already creepy because there were no side windows ­— and he just rolled down the window and started talking to me. He said, ‘Oh, you’re alone? You look nice. You look pretty.’”

Junior Hannah Yonas had gone to a restaurant with her friends for dinner.

“We were in line and he walked by, and he touched my back like he was trying to get out of the way, and he said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to push you,’” she said. “Then, as he was coming back the other way, he groped me, in front of everyone. He had to be kicked out by the restaurant. One of the servers had seen him, and they asked him to leave.”

Freshman Ava Aprea’s friends had left her at the neighborhood pool with a boy she didn’t know well.

“He got really close,” she said. “He grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. I told him no, I needed to go home. He didn’t let go.”

These student experiences are not unique. In interviews with 40 students over three months, girls in every grade told of unwanted sexual advances ranging from uncomfortable attention to outright sexual assault, happening anywhere from years ago in middle school to a month ago. None of these girls knew how to respond.

All of them, though, looked to the discussions created in both the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements for comfort and expression. It reassured them that they were not alone.

“He lived down the street from me,” Ava said. “He rode my bus. He seemed like a completely normal, sane person. And after that, I avoided where it happened. When my parents would drive by it, I would look away, because I didn’t want to see it and feel like I was there. I avoided the street he lived on. Any place I thought he could be, I didn’t go.”

She struggled to deal with what had happened.

“At first I was embarrassed, thinking it was my fault,” she said. “I remember calling my best friend and saying, ‘What just happened to me?’ She told me I needed to tell someone, and it took me a while, and a few weeks later, I finally told my family. And they told me I needed to tell the police. It felt so embarrassing and so outside of myself, that I didn’t want to feel it.”

Ava filed a police report, but said she decided to drop charges because she didn’t want to relive the experience with every time she recounted it. She said her emotional state could not handle it. As time passed, though, a project in English helped her start to move forward.

“I felt violated, like I was more of an object than a person,” she said. “But then, I ended up writing this report on sexual violence in class recently, and it opened up this whole thing for me. I had to read all these stories of how other women have been through the same thing. It made me realize that, I’m not alone, and I can get past this, and feel like myself again.”

She said her acceptance came from hearing other women’s stories, and that’s also how the #MeToo movement gained traction. As hundreds of women tried to deal with harassment, they realized how talking propelled them forward.

“The movement made me realize it’s OK to be offended, and it’s not my fault,” Lilly said. “It helps knowing it’s happened to so many other women, not just me. If I’m saying, ‘this woman shouldn’t blame herself for something that happened to her’, why would I blame myself?”

Hannah also said #MeToo mattered to her.

“This movement is a good thing,” she said. “I don’t want people to turn it into something bad, to think that people are coming for strangers. I just want everyone to know, there’ll be consequences for actions. I just hope everyone finds the strength to come forward.”

Counselor Pamala Adams helps students who have dealt with harassment, but she said in her 16 years of work, less than five students have come forward about violation.

“Very rarely have I ever had a student talk to me about discrimination because of their gender, or any harassment,” Ms. Adams said. “It’s not because it doesn’t happen to them. It’s because students don’t recognize it. They don’t know it’s happened to them, because a lot of that behavior, they just accept.”

Professor Karen Prager works in the school of behavioral and brain sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. She specifically researches intimacy, and said the movement is long overdue, including in a high school setting.

“I think sexual harassment has been around for a long time,” she said. “Personally, even as much as I know about it, I was shocked by the level of tolerance and silence there has been around some of these harassers, these highly influential ones.”

She said harassment occurs as a result of cultural thinking.

“In a high school, maybe everywhere, it happens because of an attitude toward girls and women,” she said. “That they owe something to boys and men, that girls and women are kind of possessions, that their bodies and sexuality is something that belongs to whoever wants it. It’s a lack of recognition of girls and women that they have their own will and desires, and that they are persons in their own right as opposed to playthings.”

She said this attitude is widespread.

“I think there are people who don’t think much of women, and that those are the ones who think that people who have been abusers, that if they do other things well, then it’s OK,” she said. “What I saw with the #MeToo movement is that all types of men were exposed. They were Democrats and Republicans. They were people of all faiths, they worked multiple occupations.”

As senior Barrett Smith has seen in places like the locker room, though, that culture has started to shift.

“Locker room talk includes guys talking to guys about whatever they want, because it’s kind of a safe place for guys to express what they think,” he said. “As guys, we talk about things we wouldn’t in front of other people, but it’s still human. It’s still with a heart, and we wouldn’t do anything to tear anyone down. Of course, if someone says something that crosses a line, they will get called out on it. Because, like I said, we have some respect. It doesn’t just disappear when we’re alone.”

As for the movement, Barrett said he supports it.

“The reason women are calling guys out is because it happens, and they wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t,” he said. “For guys, to do that is wrong, and I think women have the right to call them out. Guys should be punished for things that are disrespectful and deserving of a punishment.”

Until everyone understands that people exist beyond sexual purposes, Ava said, the movement continues in importance.

“I’m a big believer in and a huge supporter of the movement,” Ava said. “I know that somewhere, somehow, what I’m saying could help someone else, and make them feel like they’re not alone too. Because, it was reading other people’s stories, and hearing what they had to say, that really helped me.”