I said no. Repeatedly. He didn’t stop.
I had felt so pretty in my first formal ball dress. Not so pretty when he pushed me up against a car and grappled with the fabric. Not so pretty afterwards on my hands and knees vomiting, yet unable to rid myself of the sick feeling that engulfed me. Not so pretty in the days and weeks that followed, as I took refuge in the school toilets from the whispers of ‘slag’ that echoed around my sixth form.
There was no solidarity, no empathy. Just my own regret and shame, plus an overriding sense I had brought it on myself.
More than two decades on, however, the climate is different; there is hope. Hope that more victims of sexual assault will feel able to speak out – and be listened to. Hope the commonly held assumption that ‘she was asking for it’ while he was simply ‘a womaniser’ will be questioned. Hope New Zealand’s terrible record in the area of sexual harassment and violence will finally be addressed – and changed.
And it all began with a tweet from a slightly obscure American actress, an exhortation to victims to stand up and be counted, which sent the #MeToo movement global, altering the landscape everywhere from Hollywood to the Beehive. Many presumed it would be a flash-in-the-pan, but more than a year later, #MeToo is not just continuing, but growing in strength.
Today, victims have more confidence to speak out – to suggest anyone from a student to an MP could be a perpetrator of sexual harassment or assault – and know they will be heard. And New Zealanders are listening.
Harassment and assault are global problems
There’s little doubt #MeToo was needed in this country, and my experience was one that will resonate with almost a third of Kiwi women.
NEXT commissioned a survey into the issue, and found 28 per cent of New Zealand females have been sexually assaulted.
A further 82 per cent have been victim to either sexual violence or harassment – with two thirds of those revealing the abuse was of a physically aggressive nature. For 66 per cent, the first time they found themselves in such a situation, they were under the age of 18.
Well over a third of Kiwi women affected felt anxiety or depression due to what happened, and one in five feel they were held back or disadvantaged by the experience.
While this is not a problem unique to us – a similar US study found 81 per cent of American women have experienced sexual harassment or assault, and across the Tasman the Australian Human Rights Commission puts the figure at 85 per cent – it is undoubtedly a deep-rooted problem, which has long needed addressing. What #MeToo has done is given it some weight.
Psychology professor Nicola Gavey, whose research at the University of Auckland centres around gender and power, explains it has launched a dialogue.
“It has called something out that a lot of women have been feeling they’ve had to keep quiet about for decades,” she says, adding it covers the whole gamut from everyday harassment in the street to sexual abuse.
“It has provided a way of talking about it that’s acceptable; it’s given more permission and a sense of solidarity.”
Kathryn McPhillips, executive director of sexual abuse support organisation HELP Auckland, agrees.
“Survivors of sexual violence are almost always checking the environment to see if it’s safe to tell, but they won’t because they know they’ll probably get a bad response. Things like #MeToo re-evaluate that for people – they think, ‘They believed her, so maybe they will believe me too’.”
Indeed, in the two months after #MeToo went viral, HELP experienced a 50 per cent increase in the number of people contacting them.
“For some it reset the thresholds,” continues Kathryn, a clinical psychologist. “So forms of indecent assault, which in the past would have very rarely been reported, were reported more.”
Those working at the coalface believe what has particularly brought #MeToo home for New Zealanders – and contributed to its lasting impact – is the string of local cases that have followed it.
The launch of the Screen Women’s Action Group (SWAG), which came shortly after the indecent assault conviction of former Shortland Street actor Rene Naufahu – and as a direct result of #MeToo, led to revelations our screen industry could be just as fetid as the American one.
Film producer Emma Slade, founding member of SWAG, explains, “We knew there was an issue but we didn’t realise how many people had been impacted. I think #MeToo helped stir everything up.”
But this is not just about the bright lights of the screen industry. The Russell McVeagh scandal, which hit the headlines in February, centring around claims of sexual misconduct towards interns by senior male lawyers, not only rocked the major law firm involved, but shook up the entire legal profession. The decision by former lawyer Olivia Wensley to go public with her experiences of sexual harassment – one of which involved an approach by a senior male in her law firm two weeks into her employment, in which he outlined pornographic acts he’d like to perform on her – further fanned the flames.
The 33-year-old has since been contacted by hundreds of victims, many whom have never spoken out for fear of career repercussions.
“The overwhelming response I got was ‘Thank you. It’s what we’ve all known but we’ve been silent,'” says the mum-of-two, who ended up walking away from law, “because I couldn’t take any more”.
“You think it’s something you have to go through, and then you become conditioned, because it is the same everywhere.”
It’s not just those in the legal profession who have been sharing their stories with Olivia, and she believes the medical world is also hiding a major issue.
“There’s this quite hierarchical thing in medicine, especially in surgery.”
MeToo in politics
Then there have been the series of slurs in the world of politics. From the accusations of sexual assault at a Labour Party youth summer camp, through to the May conviction of Kapiti Coast councillor David Scott for indecent assault, the world of governance is increasingly being called into question.
Casting a major shadow were the October allegations surrounding renegade politician Jami-Lee Ross, who while denying allegations of harassment and bullying, admitted extra-marital affairs and stated “there’s a lot of bed-hopping that goes down in that parliament”.
Jan Logie, Under Secretary to the Minister of Justice who has been tasked with responsibility for domestic and sexual violence issues, describes sexual harassment as an “endemic problem”.
“It’s unlikely there would be entire sectors that are immune,” says the former Rape Crisis volunteer, who was herself sexually assaulted as a student.
She suggests, “Many women MPs certainly experience sexual harassment as part of their jobs”; adding, “for me, working to change the system is how I survive the society we have at the moment.”
Joining the dots between the causes and effects of sexual assault
Yet, we have been here before. From the Shipton-Schollum police rapes and the ‘Roast Busters’ scandal involving gang assaults on intoxicated schoolgirls, through to the sexual harassment case surrounding former Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority chief executive Roger Sutton, there have been plenty of high-profile scandals of this nature in New Zealand.
Why did these not gain the traction of #MeToo and the more recent cases of the past 12 months? Professor Gavey points out that many headline-grabbing incidents become seen as the exception rather than the norm.
“We look at the Roast Busters boys and see them as monsters doing something miles beyond the bounds of public acceptability,” she explains. “It takes our attention away from many of the more subtle forms of that behaviour happening under our noses.”
However, with the cases of the past 12 months taking place in the climate of #MeToo, Professor Gavey believes we are “joining the dots” between gender inequality, and sexual harassment and violence.
Indeed, as we celebrated 125 years of women’s suffrage back in September, many commentators put #MeToo on a footing with gaining the vote – a parallel even drawn by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her maiden UN speech.
“It’s the first time we’ve had any widespread drawing of attention to that connection,” says Professor Gavey. “It’s provided a kind of lens that helps us all to see and comment on those things.”
Kathryn concludes, “Something has shifted. Something changed in the social context and the world is tolerating keeping on talking about this – because normally it shuts down talk of sexual violence very quickly.”
Helping with the momentum is the fact that in the past 12 months we have started to see real change in New Zealand, with indications being that those at the top are listening.
The very appointment of Jan Logie, the first time there has been a person dedicated to sexual abuse working in the executive of government, shows a commitment to addressing the issue.
Jan, who in September announced a new joint venture plan across multiple government agencies to tackle the problem, explains the government is changing its perspective on how to deal with individual cases, taking the pressure off the victims.
“It’s important to shift it beyond expecting the person being affected by it to take all the responsibility for acting,” she says.
“We need to ask, how do we make it easier for people to disclose violence and ensure employers are responding appropriately? It’s about giving employees the confidence the response is going to make a difference in the workplace.”
Certainly, it is very much a workplace issue. The NEXT research, which polled more than 1000 Kiwi women, showed 45% have been physically sexually harassed in a work location – something Jan is aware is a major concern.
“Iain Lees-Galloway [Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety] has directed WorkSafe to make dealing with sexual harassment a priority; shifting the response to prevention, and making sure employers understand they have an obligation in this area. It’s a health and safety issue.”
And employers are being forced to address it – with those who have hit the headlines this year under pressure.
After the allegations at Russell McVeagh, prompting an investigation led by Dame Margaret Bazley which highlighted multiple failings by the firm, WorkSafe met with some of the country’s biggest legal companies about the problem. The Law Society’s Regulatory Working Group are also compiling a report, due out this month, addressing sexual misconduct and discrimination.
The Human Rights Commission has come under similar scrutiny, with an accusation of sexual harassment against chief financial officer Kyle Stutter leading to a ministerial review that has made 31 recommendations for change.
Since the Jami-Lee Ross saga, the National Party has launched an internal review to ensure there is a culture in the party where women feel safe. And while it’s unclear whether we have a Harvey Weinstein lurking in our midst, research into the Kiwi screen industry, which found 57 per cent of its female workers under the age of 35 have experienced sexual harassment in the past decade, resulted in SWAG developing a new blueprint for the future.
“We’re setting up a plan of how it’s going to be rolled out and how much it’s going to cost,” explains Emma. “We know we have made change already, before there weren’t many disclosures, now people are coming forward.
“We have a lot of support from government-level right down – I don’t think anyone wants to be seen to be working against us because the tide is so strong.”
The question is whether this tide can continue. While Emma is optimistic – “Women are fed up and I don’t think they’re going to let it go; enough’s enough and we don’t want our young people coming through having to deal with this s**t” – others are more cautious.”
The attitudes toward sexual assault are changing for the better
Kathryn believes, “At any point we have a range of attitudes to this sort of thing, and something like #MeToo will shift maybe 10% of that, but it won’t shift the whole”.
“It’s going to take a collective effort of women and men everywhere to keep the dialogue going,” suggests Olivia. “The more it’s spoken about, the more it’s recognised as being a real issue and becomes legitimised.”
In Professor Gavey’s opinion, it’s something in which we need to look at the broader picture, considering where it first starts.
“I would like to see a paradigm shift in terms of how we approach it; thinking about the seeds of this rather than the immediate precursors,” says the academic, who is currently working on a second edition of her book Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape.
“As a society we need to be shifting our attention to those broader culture norms around gender, looking at how we treat boys at a young age, questioning some of the values that set some up to become invested in an identity of dominance.”
What’s clear is that responsibility for change lies with all of us. That’s not to say we all need to be vocal about our experiences; for many that’s not an option. But through recognising that united voices are much more powerful than the individual, and spreading a sense of solidarity while pledging this can’t continue, change can be possible.
I haven’t let my experience as a 17-year-old define me. For many years I believed I brought it on myself – I was drunk, probably flirtatious, I followed him outside, I didn’t try hard enough to fight him off – but I gradually came to realise it wasn’t my fault.
Today I am in a happy, long-term relationship and raising three children. And I am adamant that my boys will grow up understanding the importance of respect; knowing masculinity is not about power, and power does not equal entitlement to ride roughshod over others. I say ‘me too’ in the hope that the next generation won’t have to.
The roots of #MeToo
The phrase #MeToo was first coined by US activist Tarana Burke in 2006, but the movement went global on October 15 2017, when actress Alyssa Milano reached out on Twitter to anyone who had been sexually harassed or assaulted, asking they reply to her Tweet with ‘Me Too’.
Her call to arms, which received half a million responses within 24 hours, came just days after film executive Harvey Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual abuse.
Since then, there has been a barrage of complaints against high profile people worldwide. In New Zealand, the scandal around sexual misconduct and harassment at Russell McVeagh has been the most widely publicised of the #MeToo cases, but just weeks ago it was suggested politics was having a #MeToo moment with allegations surrounding Jami-Lee Ross. The MP denied these allegations.
Kiwi women share the impact of their experience of sexual harassment or assault
“In the old days you didn’t talk about it – and when I told a family member, I was called a liar.”
“I just feel I have withdrawn from life a bit; I’m more cautious. As a mother I’m very protective of my kids.”
“It’s put a different perspective on sexual relationships. There’s a lot of guilt, self-disgust and disappointment.”
Age under 30
“Work has a boys’ club. If you complain about one of them, you get held back.”
“I complained about a co-worker at my job; I felt like I was treated as a troublemaker and didn’t get promoted.”
“I had to quit a job because of sexual harassment which turned into workplace bullying. My concerns weren’t taken seriously; the worst experience was blamed on myself by the HR team.”
Age under 30
“It is so disempowering. It made me feel very vulnerable and powerless to stop or change the inappropriate and unwanted behaviour.”
“I feel like it affects every relationship I have; I feel like a victim that gets stuck in the same cycle with different people and I find myself not strong enough to stand up for myself.”
If you are being affected by sexual harassment or violence, call SafeToTalk on 0800 044 334, or visit safetotalk.nz.