In the past three years, three women friends of mine who I hold dear, have confided in me that at some point in their lives they were sexually harassed, assaulted and/or abused.
There’s no way to sugarcoat truths like these and while the point is not to keep tabs, it does beg the question “if three women in my inner circle felt comfortable enough to trust me with these terrible grievances, how many more are hiding their pain completely in the dark?” Well, according to a Brain Gallup poll published on December 2017, an appalling 46% of Mexican women admit they’ve been victims of sexual harassment. This is seriously messed up and it should bring shame to all Mexicans.
The #MeToo movement has not caught on in Mexico as much as in the United States. Some celebrities like Mexican playwright Sabina Berman, a sexual assault survivor herself, have explained that machismo is so engrained in our culture and societally accepted behavior, that women who find the courage to speak out are often ostracized, labeled as troublemakers and limited in their professional opportunities.
Now I applaud the intention and the courage of the pioneers of the #MeToo movement everywhere around the world, but this thought piece is less about that and more about my worries surrounding our normalization of abuse. Let me explain…
A couple of months ago, I was having a colloquial conversation with a dear friend… for privacy and reference purposes, let’s call her Julia. We were catching up as we had not seen each other for a while and, in the midst of chatting, she shared with me that she was worried about an upcoming professional project because a man who had sexually assaulted her when she was a minor, would be involved in the project. Like many other women who’ve gone through these horrors, Julia went on to explain that when the abuse happened years ago, she did not denounce the act, partly due to shame and naiveté and partly since as hinted earlier, it’s harder to speak out in a culture hard-wired to discard sexual violence, celebrate misogyny and sideline whistleblowers.
As I am reliving the moments when my friend shared with me these horrific memories, I find myself completely dumbfounded about the way that I reacted to her cry for help. When she finished sharing the details of the situation, I immediately went into problem-managing move, describing possible scenarios, calculating pros and cons for each alternative, creating conceptual maps in my head… I should have just hugged her immediately, held her close for at least a couple of minutes to show how much I cared about her in a moment of open vulnerability. Instead, I went into “the way I see it you have these options…” And herein lies the problem: could it be that I’ve begun to normalize the concept of sexual assault in my head? Just to be clear, by “normalize” I don’t mean “justify”, I mean that hearing about it and seeing it close to home no longer astounds me the way I think it should.
Maybe I’ve just been overexposed and have grown a thicker skin than I would like. Very early in my professional life, I worked on a project to combat trafficking in persons in Ecuador, mostly victims of sexual exploitation. I saw and learned of things too harrowing to even want to mention in this blog. I’ve seen the vice of sexual harassment in the lives of friends, I’ve read about multitudes of cases in the news and I’ve seen the tide of the #MeToo movement overtake social media and mainstream conversation… I posit that this overexposure could be having a numbing effect and it worries me.
The first time we see something new, be it negative such as an act of violence or positive, like the first time you attend a Cirque du Soleil show, your mind reacts in an enhanced way, precisely because it is new and unexpected. As you experience the same situation over and over, your margin of amazement begins diminishing, to the point where people learn to live exposed to the risk of violence or even the wildest contortion act in Cirque becomes unsurprisingly bleh.
On October 15th, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano wrote the tweet that got the #MeToo movement off the ground. When we heard the news about Harvey Weinstein, it was loud, it was amazing, it caught media attention, it was BIG and #MeToo REALLY flourished. But then came Kevin Spacey and Al Franken and the whole discrediting debate and divide related to the Aziz Ansari story, and so on and so forth… and we started normalizing and trivializing the phenomenon. Have we gotten to the point were if we hear about another case of sexual abuse we’re no longer appalled? If not, are we heading in that direction? In trying to raise awareness are we in a strange juxtaposition breeding a society were sexual misconduct becomes expected?
Maybe it’s time to commit to an ideal where we encourage people to break the silence, raise our voice against that which we hold reproachable but also ACTIVELY remind ourselves that we cannot ever allow normalization of this, even if it is a recourse of best intentions and a means to fast track into providing solutions. We MUST allow ourselves to feel angry and disgusted and to empathize with people to confide in us, to feel their pains, to support more by allowing ourselves to feel more and hence, love more.
Dear Julia, te quiero mucho. I’m here for you and I’m sorry for what you went through and I’m sorry I did not hug you really, really hard.
2 thoughts on “Dear Julia. A couple of thoughts on normalization of the horrific.”
Excelente artículo, Arjan. Como siempre.
I think we saw something like #metoo in 2016 in Mexico, although certainly it didn’t catch up as much as #metoo in the US. Do you remember #miprimeracoso ? I remember many male friends expressed just how surprised they were that most women in their lives had been sexually harassed (most women know this is a thing that happens, and sadly, many women -myself included sometimes, even if unintentionally- have normalized it too ), and that by talking about the first time, it implies there were many more following.
I am glad we have allies like you.