As 2018 begins, I would like to thank the many women who shared their life experiences with me for this article. I feel honoured by their trust, admire the courage they have shown and am inspired by the belief that their voices are now being heard. I truly hope that they will know a better future than their past.
Many people, especially men, wonder why women are so angry today. They are baffled by the #metoo or #balancetonporc hashtags. It’s true that most men are decent and do not consciously, actively abuse women. To use an analogy, when a house is on fire, no one shouts that all houses matter, instead, they just water the one that’s on fire. Right now, women are speaking up, sharing their experiences and yelling at the top of their lungs, as our houses have been on fire for generations and until now we have not been heard, listened to or acknowledged. Whilst it is true that some women are also guilty of inflicting abuse, here I am focusing on the experiences of those many women who have been its victims.
As a society we tend to blame the victim or make them responsible for the acts of others. For example, we are used to questions such as ‘How many women were raped in 2017?’, but perhaps a more appropriate way to discuss the topic of abuse would be to ask ‘How many men committed rape in 2017?’. Sexual violence is not a female problem, but it is women who have to live with its results. It is never the victim’s fault that someone decided to commit a crime against them.
Sexual abuse and harassment come in many formats. Most women have, at some point, heard comments from strangers along the lines of ‘Hey, are you single?’, which then often regress into a diatribe against women if we dare to respond in a defensive way. Catcalling and groping on the metro are not uncommon and seem to be worldwide phenomena, not limited to any single culture or place. As one female expat commented, « Who hasn’t had experiences like this?»
In 2017 I conducted a poll in our Expatriates in Paris Facebook group where I hoped people would share their experiences of harassment and abuse. Unsurprisingly, the majority did not respond to the poll but instead asked to speak to me privately. Though they wanted to remain anonymous, these women wanted their stories to be heard.
Here are just some examples of the experiences of harassment and abuse I heard about:
« I experience constant street and work place harassment, as well as being followed by strangers on the street, having my body groped in bars and on the metro. It is exhausting and frightening. Bystander intervention is rare and it is only ever another woman who will notice, care or intervene.»
«I’m Korean-American, clearly Asian. Men regularly tell me how they would love to sleep with an Asian, in many public places in Paris. I get called ‘Oriental doll’ and ‘China doll’ often as well. Racism and harassment all in one!»
«A man and his friend sat next to me on the metro and began stroking my legs. I did not know how to react as I was scared. I asked a French woman to help me and she did nothing. I ended up screaming at the man who only smiled in reaction and was not at all concerned.»
Now darker and thankfully less prevalent, but still altogether too frequent, are rape, spousal abuse, sexual molestation and other forms of physical violence that over 35% of women worldwide experience annually.* Police in general do not want to get involved or are unable to effectively investigate cases of domestic violence and rape. Less than 10% of women worldwide go to the police when in those situations due to power, children, money, family pressure and love. They rarely say much or are able to effectively deal with their situations.
One lady summed it up when she said, «We feel so alone when we live through these life-changing experiences. It is a weird feeling as we feel these acts are so unusual when in fact they are not.»
The shame is real, and it is sad that so many men have felt free to abuse their power or their situation and violate the women around them for so long.
«My eye doctor, when I was a child to young teen, would schedule regular visits with me to check my eyes (I had an ongoing eye-issue) and would have me lie down. He would put his hands in me and touch himself. I was told to say nothing, or I would get in trouble. I never said anything until I was adult. My family was angry with me.»
«My ex-husband raped me regularly. I could not defend myself or make noise as I did not want the children to be traumatized. To this day I still have trouble defining this as rape as he was my husband. I was not strong enough to stop him from having his way. Today we are divorced, but I never pressed charges. I see him weekly and pretend nothing terrible ever happened.»
«My ex-husband used to beat me up, broke many of my bones, threatened to murder one of my children from my first marriage if I went to police or left him. To prove he was serious, he murdered my cat in front of me. His parents and extended family lived in same building, were fully aware of his abuse and refused to get involved or testify against him as it was ‘my’ fault to have made him angry or provoke him.»
«My husband gave me a large black eye and I went to the gendarmes. They refused to get involved in domestic violence and told me to go home and make up with my husband.»
«A father is someone you should look up to. One day, my father sat on the edge of my bed and put his hand on my leg saying I was becoming a lovely young woman and that I should experience it for the day I met the right one… I was 10 when I lost my virginity. I never told my mother or brother because I was afraid they wouldn’t believe me. I was 14 when it ended because my father died.»
«My ex-boyfriend had a sex addiction. I decided to dump him. We were at a train station. His reaction was to punch me several times in the face and drag me on the floor. I ended up in the hospital, he got locked up and judged BUT the court let him go without any record (in France!!).»
These are a few of the stories of the regular women around you. As 2018 begins and we look to the future, perhaps spare a moment to think of the past, and the women in your own lives and what they have likely experienced. Think about how we can all build a better future so that our children will never have to be crying that their houses are on fire.
I wish all the best and many thanks again to the group members at www.facebook/groups/expatriatesinparis for having the courage to share.
A confidential and non-judgemental English-speaking helpline in France. Call 01.46.21.46.46 or visit
Domestic Violence Help Paris
A website for English speaking women in Paris offering both advice and support to abuse victims.