When #MeToo exploded across social media, I didn’t hesitate to add my voice to the conversation. I’m a freelance travel writer and blogger, and I’ve been to 45 countries: I’ve experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault everywhere I’ve been.
It took me all of five seconds to type out those six characters and hit enter, but in that moment I was bombarded with uncomfortable memories of lewd comments, inappropriate touching, and too many pushy, unwanted sexual invitation. One situation stood out in my dark trip through memory lane, not for the fact that it had happened, but for its ensuing aftermath.
When I was 24, I travelled solo through Italy. In Rome, I joined a group of new travel friends for a night out at some of the city’s popular clubs. I was dancing with my friends when I was suddenly surrounded and literally pulled away by a group of local men. One shoved me against the wall and his tongue down my throat before I was able to push him away. My friends cut in to get me, but he came back; grabbing me from behind, wrapping his arms around my chest, and biting my cheek before disappearing into the crowd. The bite bruised, leaving me marked for the following few days.
The incident left me feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable. Was it a dangerous situation? No, not really. But I was disgusted that someone, a complete stranger, felt he could treat me that way and mark my body.
Later, when I shared my story with an Italian woman, she just shrugged it off as a “love bite.” She said it was no a big deal: Italian men, she said, are more forward and lusty than the North Americans I was used to.
Her reaction shocked me. And her lack of concern about my unease left me questioning myself. Was my fear an over-reaction? Was I wrong to be upset about this? As I ran the scenario over and over through my head, my shock turned to anger. It didn’t make sense. Sure, I was at a club. Sure, I was in a different country. But in that moment, I was scared. And, over the following days, I was embarrassed and ashamed to have that mark on my face. A mark left by a stranger without my permission. I didn’t care that Italian men were “lovers,” nobody had the right to do that to me or my body.
To this Italian woman, though, it was nothing. This type of behavior is the norm in some cultures, and they seem willing to stand by it. As the #MeToo movement gains momentum and strength here in North America, it’s being criticized in parts of Europe. France has indicated that the #MeToo movement may jeopardize their way of life; a life that they claim is more open to sexual freedom and seduction than in North America. Two famous French actresses, Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot, have argued openly against the movement. Deneuve added her name to an open letter, signed by 100 French women, to defend men against the movement. While the entire female population of France may not be in agreement, there is still enough of a push against the campaign to make a statement.
Two completely opposite opinions from strong, respected, and powerful nations. If they can’t agree, what does that mean for the countries where women have limited or no rights? Can #MeToo really apply world-wide? Or perhaps a better question, does it have the power to span all cultures? Based on my own experience as a traveler, I’m not sure that it does. But it does leave me with a lot of hope.
I hope that this solidarity between women spreads. I hope that it inspires women around the globe on an individual level to understand that they are not alone. I hope it encourages women to listen and support one another, so that the victims feel like they can have a non-judgmental conversation in a safe environment. I hope that it teaches every woman to sympathize, even if they can’t empathize.
Finally, on a personal level, I hope that the next time I feel violated and taken advantage of, the woman I turn to will listen to me and respect my opinion rather than just brushing me aside.
Cultural differences may exist, but no woman in the world deserves to feel ashamed for feeling threatened.