by Brenda Guesnet
We’ve all experienced it in one form or another: a small remark from a passer-by that was ‘only a compliment,’; an unwanted hand somewhere on our body at a party; a person we trusted going further after we said no. I don’t have a single female friend who doesn’t have a dozen stories like these to tell, and yet most of the time we don’t even consider them worth mentioning – precisely because they happen all the time, and we’ve been made to accept sexual harassment and sexual violence as a fact of life.
On Twitter, I follow the Everyday Sexism project and I think what they do is very simple but quite strong: they re-tweet stories of “everyday sexism” people tweet at them to their 195 thousand followers, no matter how minor or major. Their account almost functions as an archive of the daily harassment women face just by walking down the street, and makes visible these incidents that are so normalized in our society. This made me think that maybe the simple act of verbalizing these stories and bringing them into the public sphere can have a powerful impact.
I go to a small liberal arts college where I help organize a week that is dedicated especially to issues of gender equality. I thought that maybe setting up a participatory exhibition in my school building would be a good way to raise awareness, especially among people that are, for instance, less likely to attend a lecture on feminism. People could visit on their own time throughout the week, alone or with friends, and come back if they wanted to. I decided to call the exhibition It Happens all the Time: Sharing experiences with Sexual Harassment because I think many people don’t realize how pervasive of a problem this is and how seldom we actually talk about it.
To encourage people to share their stories, I posted a Google form on my school’s Facebook pages through which anyone could anonymously submit their experience. I told people that their experience could be something serious or minor, could be super offensive or so normalized that it felt to them like they couldn’t complain about it. It could come in any shape or form – one line of text, an entire page, a poem or a song. People could decide to put their names or to stay anonymous.
And we actually did get a whole range of diverse responses that came in all different ways of writing. The stories we received ranged from a bus driver making a nasty comment to horrifying accounts of sexual violence, and as responses kept on coming in I often felt myself unable to read through them because of their intensity. But I was also so grateful for peoples’ bravery in sharing their stories and for the opportunity to present them to a larger audience.
Thanks to the participatory nature of the exhibition, putting it together was ridiculously easy – this is really something you can do with limited resources. The most expensive part was the paper, since I wanted to have a certain color paper that I got from a fancy store for 4 euros, but otherwise all we needed to do was print the stories and find a place to hang them in school. I printed every story in a different font and size to emphasize the different voices behind them, and we set up a table where people were encouraged to add their experience. We also made sure that the content of the exhibition wouldn’t be immediately visible and put up content warnings on the outside of the display.
My school was really worried about “excluding men” throughout the week, and kind of silenced all references to gender inequality we might have in our events. So I purposefully made no reference to gender in the description of the exhibition – even though of course statistics clearly prove who is disproportionately affected by sexual harassment and sexual violence – and decided to let the stories speak for themselves. And although each story we got was unique, what they had in common was the way they showed how often men feel entitled to women’s bodies, and the devastating effects this has. If girls and women are reduced to their bodies, and then denied the right to them, what do we have left?
I hope that the exhibition showed that although sexual harassment comes in all shapes and sizes, one thing is certain: all of it needs to stop. And while it can be extremely upsetting and depressing to read such stories, I also realized that taken together, these stories are also testimonies to defiance and survival. To be sure, It Happens all the Time was a tiny step in the struggle – but everyone who shared their experience helped send out a message that they will not allow themselves to be silenced, and that we will continue fighting against injustice. If you feel the same way, you should totally do this at your school/university/in your community – all you really need is some paper and a pen.