Enough is enough: Why #MeToo matters in education

Whether intended or not, sexist behaviour causes distress - in education as elsewhere. It must stop, writes Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons

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All too often, the defence that some people run with when they’ve said or done something that has caused distress is: “That was not my intention.” Even if the intention is innocent, but the way in which words, actions or behaviours are perceived has caused distress, distress has still been caused, regardless of intent. Own it. Apologise.

I recently saw David Mamet’s new play Bitter Wheat, starring John Malkovich. The basic idea explores a how a powerful Hollywood producer’s appalling predatory behaviour is publicly exposed. Yes, it does sound familiar doesn't it? The pivotal point was where Malkovich’s monstrous Barney Fein, nonchalantly and for the sake of “convenience”, suggests to a young actress that their business meeting should move to his hotel room.

From the extensive coverage of various #MeToo horrors, the audience knew that “Why don’t we move to my room?” is a CODE RED. We all seemed to breathe “Noooooooo” in unison, as the soon-to-be victim wandered unknowingly into danger.

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Like most women I’ve had uninvited attention. There were a number of occasions as a young actress where I was in danger. At the time, I truly believed that those situations were completely my fault; I was to blame for someone else’s actions because of the clothes I was wearing, or the signals I was unintentionally giving. I was silly enough, or naive enough, or drunk enough to be vulnerable, so what did I expect? Now I know differently.

When we discuss predatory male behaviour it’s easy to assume that the females targeted are young girls who can be easily manipulated. Not hard-faced old matrons like me…

Recently, I had a routine work meeting scheduled for 11am in a hotel lobby. It wasn't an 11pm chat at a party, but a professional appointment. It was suggested, by the man I was scheduled to meet, first in email, then in text message and later in person that his “hotel room would be quieter”.

Though alarm bells were ringing in the distance, I still assumed that he was genuinely concerned about noise. I made this assumption for a number of reasons:

  1. In the midst of #MeToo, where we all know what a “hotel room meeting” is code for, what sort of powerful (married) man would put themselves in the vulnerable position of requesting a one-to-one hotel room meeting with a far less powerful woman?
  2. I know loads of brilliant blokes in positions of authority. Some of whom are even more fastidious about their feminist credentials than me. I got a light telling off from one recently because I assumed his wife would have the same surname as him. So obviously this meeting request was just a clunky communications faux pas which we would no doubt laugh about.
  3. The bloke in question had either dismissed me or completely ignored me on the number of occasions when we had met previously and in public, so why would I think he would be the slightest bit interested in any shenanigans?
  4. I am not what one would describe as a femme fatale. The menfolk do not, in general, have to harness all their concentration in order not to fall in love with me. I am what it says on the tin (or on my Twitter profile): “Renowned battle axe with theatrical tendencies.”

'I was shocked by what was happening'

Still, I was unsettled and chatted to my husband before setting off to the meeting, laughing at myself for making assumptions about this no doubt embarrassing (on my part) misunderstanding. My husband was not convinced and said I sounded like that man’s defence lawyer.

When I arrived at the meeting venue, I texted the bloke to say I was in the lobby and had found a quiet spot, thus avoiding the awkward conversation where I said no to meeting in his room. He arrived at my table, behaving as if we were very good friends indeed, locked eye contact, and proceeded to have our planned conversation with his face about four inches away from mine, so close I could taste his breath. It seemed I’d been naive. Again.

I was shocked by what was happening. I didn’t know how to behave. Once again he suggested that it would be quieter in his room. Once again I said no.

What I wish I'd said

I wish I’d have said one, or all, of the following things:

  • “That’s extremely inappropriate and unprofessional.”
  • “I feel intimidated and uncomfortable by the way you are behaving.”
  • “I find it hard to believe that you are so socially and culturally unaware that your suggestion is purely practical.”
  • “Am I supposed to be flattered by your attention?”
  • “How would your wife feel about you taking meetings in your hotel room?”
  • “Is this the first time you've behaved like this?”
  • “Are there other women who have felt obligated to you in your considerable position of power, and therefore didn’t feel they had a choice but to accept your suggestion?”

The creepiest part of this experience was that the second the meeting was over, he reverted back to how he had behaved with me before - and even more so when we’ve crossed paths at public events since, either dismissing or totally ignoring me. It made me think…if I had gone up to that room, if something had happened, would anyone believe me? The intensity of what did take place, barely felt real to me.

'This was different'

I told my colleagues about the experience, and they were as stunned as I was. Then I went home, burst into tears – and felt silly for doing so. After all, nothing illegal had happened and I've been propositioned before – in social situations, even professional social situations – and either had a chuckle about it, or in some cases felt flattered before declining. This was different.

I think I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by having the pleasure of knowing and working with so many clever, funny, kind men. I honestly didn't think this sort of predatory sleazy bullshit existed in our sector, a place which is so dedicated to empowerment. This encounter knocked my confidence badly because it was about control; whether it was intentional or not. His words and actions made me feel powerless. He caused distress.

I am no longer distressed, I am defiant.

This. Shit. Must. Stop.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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