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Speaking up against sexual harassment: There’s real power in numbers

Anne T. Donahue is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Ont.

I was 17 when a DJ at the radio station I was interning at made it his habit to stand over me and massage my shoulders as I typed. And I wasn't surprised: Weeks prior, he'd begun asking why girls my age preferred oral sex over intercourse, or poking me in the side while commenting on my figure. He assured me that he could help me get on the air if I just did what he said.

Days before I was supposed to start my role as his special assistant, another DJ took me into her office and warned me not to do it. She told me he had a history of harassing his previous interns, asking them to look up porn while physically overstepping his boundaries. That afternoon, I quit. The man worked under a stage name, and I have no idea what's happened to him, but I know he remained employed long after I left.

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When I told my friends about it, they weren't surprised. By high school most of us had endured more than our fair share of being on the receiving end of sexual harassment. And yet, while it was happening, I couldn't help but feel paralyzingly alone. I knew, logically, that it wasn't my fault, but growing up surrounded by rape culture sent a different message: I asked for it, I suggested it, I wanted it, I welcomed it. I didn't freak out and unleash the necessary rage when I always thought I would.

On Thursday, as I read about Harvey Weinstein's legacy of alleged harassment, I remembered all too well the pattern of someone in power abusing it accordingly. And it turns out thousands of other people recognized it, too.

Rape culture is everywhere. It permeates our politics, our entertainment, our walks to school, our job interviews, our families, our social circles. We ask victims of harassment and assault what they were wearing before asking the perpetrator why they did it. We ask how much someone's had to drink, why they didn't quit toxic jobs or report creepy teachers, or why they didn't rearrange their lives to escape the pattern they managed to get themselves into. We remind the masses that "boys will be boys," or worse: that real boys and men aren't victims of harassment, abuse and assault themselves, pressured into silence at the hands of toxic masculinity that uses dangerous sexual norms to measure one's worth. Rape culture doesn't discriminate. It thrives on what we decide is "normal," reminding anyone who's suffered at the hands of it that they did something wrong.

After tweeting about my Grade 12 radio co-op placement on Thursday, the replies came in like a tidal wave and shone a spotlight on the only norm that really matters: that these moments happen to everybody. And they thrive on our culture built on stigmatizing and shaming anyone who's endured them.

Women and men shared stories of bosses, coaches, teachers, uncles, fathers, TSA guards, adding how old they were when they were first introduced to rape culture and the power imbalance that fuels it: ages 14, 17, 13, 8, 21. Some had talked about it before, others hadn't, none had asked for it. All were finally talking about it now.

Which is the first step of many we need to take should we begin reclaiming our power. Sharing one's experience can help create a space where we begin challenging the climate we've found ourselves stuck in, and that space can make anyone who's endured harassment, abuse or assault feel less alone. And that matters. Because there is power in numbers, and we know it.

As many toxic abusers of power as exist in this world, there are still more of us who've been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual attention. And we're sick of it.

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There were few people surprised or shocked at the news of the allegations against Mr. Weinstein, and far more people expressing exhaustion that comes with recognizing its pattern.

But I also saw the power that comes with using one's own experience to call out a toxic social and political climate, and of realizing it wasn't you, you didn't ask for it, you didn't want it. Every single one of us loses at the hands of rape culture. And it's when we push back and remind ourselves that it shouldn't be normal and that our normals are hurting us, we inch closer to balancing the power.

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