#WhenIWas: Thousands of women share chilling stories of sexual harassment

ABC News
April 21, 2016
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Thousands of women around the world are sharing their childhood experiences of sexual harassment and abuse on social media as part of a campaign to highlight the pervasiveness of sexual violence against women.

Using the hashtag #WhenIWas, women have recounted stories of being mocked, threatened, sexually objectified, catcalled, attacked and raped by men – some when they were as young as six.

The campaign was started by Everyday Sexism, an online feminist project dedicated to cataloguing everyday instances of sexism.

“It helps us see the connections between these things,” Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates told the website Mic.

“The things we’re told not to make a fuss about and the more serious abuse.”

Guardian Australia columnist Van Badham said #WhenIWas revealed just how prevalent in society instances of sexual harassment were.

“What’s upsetting about #wheniwas is how normalised & often public sexual harassment is when you’re a young woman,” Ms Badham tweeted. “It was normal for me.”

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer specialising in gender and sexuality at the University of Melbourne, said the campaign was a contribution to society’s ongoing conversation about gender inequality.

“I think it’s important that women have an opportunity to tell their stories, to have their stories heard and, for us culturally, to assemble a picture of some of the struggles of being female in our culture,” Dr Rosewarne told ABC News.

“No single project like this should be seen as a revolution, but rather of the continuing project of understand lingering gender inequality.”

However, she warned that tweeting about serious allegations of abuse may have legal implications. 

“I think we shouldn’t overplay the idea that telling a story is the same thing as therapy or is universally cathartic,” Dr Rosewarne said. 

“Equally, I am always apprehensive about vigilante justice so I would not like to see people named and shamed via this method if a case hasn’t gone to court.”

The campaign has also drawn criticism for potentially minimising the seriousness of sexual abuse.

Writing at SBS comedy, Kara Eva Schlegl wondered whether women sharing such traumatic experiences online was as “empowering” and “healing” as is often made out.

“There seems to be an agreement in new media that this confessional writing can be a cure to a culture which shames women into silence,” Ms Schegl said.

“Yet I wonder if it’s simply symptomatic of a new kind of oppression, one that is exploitative, teaching young women especially that sharing personal experience in 140 characters or less is empowering.

“I think the value of privacy is being underestimated … There is nothing wrong with choosing to write about a traumatic experience, but when it’s published in comic sans next to a find-a-word, the experience itself is most certainly being minimised.”

But one commenter responded that harassment could not be addressed if victims did not speak up.

Not that speaking up is easy…

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.