By Katlin Cilliers | Staff Writer

Last Wednesday, as I rode the bus to school, a man near me said “Hey, it’s good to see you again!” We had an awkward exchange a few days prior, where he’d bombarded me with personal questions that I only half-heartedly answered. This time, he must have felt that we were close enough that he could share some more about himself: I watched him lift his pant and show me an ankle monitor.

Weirdly enough, that little sample of TMI made me act even more friendly; I hopped off the bus with mixed feelings about the interaction. It took me a few seconds to realize I’d been overly friendly because I was afraid of his reaction if he felt I was being unkind.

Individual stories of harassment – from subtle, seemingly innocent situations to tragic narratives – have been more prominent in the media throughout this past year. #MeToo has raised debate around topics such as the impunity of its perpetrators and the paramount importance of believing survivors. In some of my most recent conversations in real life and online, I have noticed that despite the recent feminist wave, there’s still room to keep working towards greater union and support for survivors of sexual harassment and assault, since victim blaming is still a frequent reaction, even among women themselves.

This Oct. 6, roughly a year after #metoo came to light in the Weinstein scandal, Judge Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to serve as one of the nine Supreme Court Justices, which is a lifetime appointment and not subject to term limits. Kavanaugh got the position despite having faced accusations of sexually assaulting three women; among them was a 36-year-old accusation from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who teaches psychology at the University of Palo Alto.

Dr. Ford said she first told her husband and therapist of the assault, which happened when she was 15 years old, in 2012. She passed a polygraph test about it and swore under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kavanaugh had assaulted her, providing the nation with an emotionally charged, detailed narrative of how the events unfolded during a party in the ’80s. Yet that was not evidence enough that he was the perpetrator of a rape attempt. That is what it means to be a woman. What does it take for society to believe the survivor?

Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation could mean drastic changes in the way the Supreme Court deals with social issues, especially regarding women’s reproductive rights. His confirmation may create further challenges to #MeToo as a feminist movement. If someone to hold an important position as a Supreme Court justice was able to face such heavy accusations can still get away with it and land the job, one can only imagine the hardships that lie ahead to women who may wish to come forward and expose abuse by ordinary men.

These current events sparked several conversations with friends of mine, both male and female. I was seriously taken aback by some thoughts I heard women share. I have heard statements such as: “Women should be educated to protect themselves.” “Women, not men, are the ones who should be educated.” “The world is evil, so we have to protect ourselves.” The most striking one was surely, “It happened to me, too. But I’m not crying about it.”

Comments such as those led me to think about the reasons behind victim blaming. I found an article on Psychology Today explaining that our mental models make us believe that essentially, the world is a safe place. When an event disrupts that view, it creates extreme psychological discomfort. So, being the humans that we are, we tend to look for rationalizations that explain away that what happened to the other person would not happen to us, because we are “more careful.” Whether it is someone’s house that got broken into (“Maybe they didn’t secure their house well enough!”) or someone being sexually assaulted (“How did she not protect herself?”).

The knee-jerk reaction is explainable – but not justifiable. Upon hearing stories of abuse, discomfort takes place. In an attempt to eliminate it, people fly into denial and victim blaming, rather than listening and allowing themselves to experience the discomfort that such narrative will bring, which will in turn allow empathy – the solution to victim blaming – to blossom.

Granted, the world is far from perfect. But, when tragedies such as abuse or rape happen, it is never the victim’s fault. In the end, it is okay – and emotionally healthy – to experience sorrow when hearing about or living through traumatic events, rather than trying to taper emotions with rational explanations.

Even in times of #MeToo, I realize from talking to my female friends and also noticing my own interactions with men that there’s an underlying feeling women share, a thought that keeps lingering in the back of our heads, questioning our own safety, and wondering if there are any expectations or potential threats surrounding these male-female exchanges.

Let us unite and fight those issues head first, rather than judge one another. If we don’t unite and hold space for each other, then who will? #MeToo needs female unity, a strong front in order to keep thriving.

Not all hope is lost, though. Despite the endless stories of sexual abuse around the world and the conservative wave taking governments from Europe to Latin America, the world is witnessing yet another strong feminist uprising, with women battling sexism, harassment, misogyny, fascism, conservative politics and its effects in women’s rights. Around the world, feminists are taking to the streets, voicing their rights and opinions, exposing their #MeToo stories and fighting for gender equality.

In India, #metoo has started to move forward. In Mexico, the Spanish newspaper El País reported that women have recently organized and protested their right to choose (the article is unfortunately only available in Spanish).

The same issue was covered by the British newspaper The Guardian, about Argentina. In Brazil, a massive wave of protests has been organized against the election of ultraconservative, chauvinistic candidate Jair Bolsonaro in this October’s presidential election, in a powerful demonstration named #EleNao (#NotHim). It gathered hundreds of thousands of women in cities around the country.

Regardless of all the struggles that come with being a woman in times of #MeToo, I couldn’t be more proud of what is being done to balance gender relations.