Sexual Harassment: Now You See It. Why didn’t you before?

A black and white image of empty theater seats, curving at an angle away from the viewer

sexual harassment accusations are emptying a lot of seats

Red Flags and Shock Fatigue

Sexual harassment is bringing down a lot of people’s heroes. Not so many of mine.

The only Woody Allen movie I’ve ever managed to sit all the way through was Antz.

I feel about him the way I do about tempeh. Other people have ordered tempeh and told me, “Oh, this is the best tempeh I’ve ever had!” and I’ve tried a bite, and honestly? Tempeh tastes like rot to me, and not in a good way.

I tried to watch Annie Hall, and not very far in, something in my stomach churned, and I turned it off and watched something else. I don’t even remember at what point that happened in the movie, or what triggered it.

Sometimes very good storytellers have a skewed view of the world, and those of us who see the skew recoil from the stories. Not every well-told story is good. When the allegations against him came out, something in me breathed a sigh—not of relief, just a momentary, “Of course”— as I finally got an explanation for an instinctive recoil.

We’ve known about him for years. He keeps making movies. I keep not watching them. Will the known abusers now face consequences?

A black and white image of a school hall, with lockers lining the walls and fluorescent lights overhead

school hallway—where it started

How (not) to Train Survival Instinct

My whole life, I’ve run into that feeling a lot with popular culture. This singer, that TV show, this personality. It’s the same uneasy feeling I had in junior high school and high school, when the “hot” guys, the “popular” guys were around. A stomach-churning sense of unease, a lack of trust.

Of course, it didn’t help that some of the “cutest” guys in the grade ahead of me made a game of yanking my chain (by which I mean violating my boundaries) as hard as they could. I was incapable at that point of letting anything slide. There seemed to be a calculated game of how far they could push without getting into real trouble. One slapped my ass in the school hall, and no, it wasn’t flirting. It was, and always felt like, a power move. It hurt. I felt diminished.

One day—in a class for the “best and brightest”—I got overwhelmed with the noise level while a sub was out of the classroom for a few minutes, and crawled under a desk to shut some of it out. The boys noticed, of course they did, and surrounded my shelter, grabbing at their crotches and trying to shove them toward my face.

It was like being under siege. Those weren’t the only incidents… they were just the most memorable. I took to spending as little time in the hallways and the lunchroom as possible. I skipped lunch daily at age 12, while growing 7 inches in about six months, and lost ten pounds, avoiding bullies.

If you think it’s a good thing for a growing child to lose weight in the middle of their growth spurt, you need to reevaluate your priorities.

Teachers that I asked for help just told me the guys must like me, or that I needed to not let them bother me so much. Boys are like that.

 

a small child stands blurred behind a crisply focused tangle of sticks and strings. Black and white, oudoors in the sunshine

child behind a tangle © jenrose 2017

The Things We (fail) to Teach our Kids about Sexual Harassment

It would have been easier if they hadn’t been working really hard to bother me so much. I wonder that they didn’t try harder to stop the boys from being “like that.”

The irony is that I had very few boundaries at that age and would have done anything for someone who was genuinely kind to me. Genuinely kind people don’t ask for “anything,” though, not from a 12-year-old, a 13-year-old.

Those boys are now in their mid-forties.

They were trained, along with most of the attractive men in their cohort, to be aggressive, to push for what they wanted. They were literally instructed that if a girl said no, the answer was to push harder. That they could use their sexuality to gain power. That what women said was not worth listening to, and that meant both that they would not hear a “no” and that they would not take seriously “I don’t want to,” and it would not even register if a woman gave a sign of discomfort because literally their entire lives, when they did these things, these damaging, horrible things, people told them it was nothing.

Boys will be boys.

Sow your wild oats.

It’s just a joke, why don’t you have a sense of humor?

I’m not absolving them.

But I don’t know why anyone is the least bit surprised.

Our culture trains little boys from the moment they start walking that it is funny when they ignore boundaries.

I’m raising a son and I see it in him. We’ve been working on consent and boundaries with him since he was old enough to understand the word, “No.”

 

Black and white image of a light-skinned black woman's head and shoulders are visible against a very dark background. She is looking down and to the right of the image, and looks pensive or upset.

turning away

The Failures of No Means No

When I was in college, “No means no” was a rallying cry of the endless Take Back the Night marches.

Anyone who has ever listened to a Take Back the Night open microphone can never again be shocked at the depravity of humanity.

The numbers “1 in 5, 1 in 4, 1 in 6” always seemed low to me. I knew so few people who had not been hurt somehow, by someone.

And even then, “No means no” was the cry… We did not know about the freeze response. I did not press charges against my rapist because I hadn’t told him to stop after I told him no—a few minutes later he rolled on top of me and did it anyway. I was so shocked and overwhelmed that I couldn’t move.

Within my circle, and him, it was taken seriously. We did not know what restorative justice was, but we did it anyway, finding peace with each other.

I am not joking when I say that recovering from the rape was less traumatic, in the long term, than being told by my high school chemistry teacher that another student running his hand up my inner thigh was no big deal, that I should grow a thicker skin. The student justified it by saying, “But you were wearing nylons!”

I wasn’t wearing nylons for him. I don’t have to tell you now that nylons were in no way permission to have a boy who had never had a kind word for me to touch me so personally. And at this point in my life, I think it’s been 15 years since I’ve worn nylons at all. I will probably never wear nylons again.

I wore them that day because I was in a miniskirt because miniskirts were in fashion and I was trying desperately to fit in, and I didn’t want to feel so exposed. It was not an invitation to sexual harassment. There are no invitations to sexual harassment.

I was not physically injured. I was mostly just really, really angry. And then the utter helplessness of going to the person in charge and being told, “Let it go…”

I liked that teacher a lot, but he really fucked up.

“No means no,” puts the burden on the victim. By the time I could get a “no” out, the damage had been done.

 

Black and white image of an ornate carved handrail with the stairs leading upward and turning to the right. One stair is missing, but it is hard to see unless you are looking for it.

missing stair

Calling Out The Missing Stair (even when it’s awkward)

I get it. We don’t like conflict, or stress, or rocking the boat, and we really just wish a lot of these things would go away, but the more we try to bury them, the worse they get.

Part of me wonders at the sheer volume of firings going on right now as new allegations of sexual harassment are made.

On the one hand, I get why it’s unsettling for people. And part of me wants to push away the knowledge and just go on the way we were, because this man or that man was doing important things in the world. I hate change. There are some things I just don’t want to know. “Not him…”

But I know that with the types of abuse people are talking about—repeated, predatory, manipulative, power-based abuse—it doesn’t matter why they did it or what pathology is at play… These men need to stop being in positions where they can do those things to other people. Their legal consequences are in the hands of the legal justice system, and I know a lot of people would prefer to wait for verdicts.

But that way lies the missing stair.

“He’s an alright guy, just don’t let your kids hang out with him.”

“He’s fine, he’s only joking, he’s just like that. Don’t get too close or he’ll get handsy.”

“Don’t accept drinks from Bill.”

“Don’t go into Harvey’s hotel room.”

“He’ll do the thing, but you kind of have to just let him if you want the job.”

The problem is that there is no whisper campaign loud enough to protect newcomers. We become complicit, when we decide to let them be, that it is reasonable to value the work of an adult man over the mental health of a 14-year-old boy, or girl, or anyone else who didn’t get the memo.

“The mall kicked him out, but no charges were filed because he was the DA.”

 

Black and white detail from an oil painting titled "Rape of the Sabines". Image includes a woman pointing out to a man that a woman is being grabbed. The woman being grabbed looks anguished, and a man is touching her bare breast.

detail: Girolamo del Pacchia (Italian (Sienese), 1477 – after 1535) • Rape of the Sabines, about 1520, Oil on panel • 66 × 144.8 cm (26 × 57 in.) • Gift of J. Paul Getty • Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

The Uncountable, Truth, Damning Truth, and Why We Bother

The vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported. I am not blaming the people who do not report. Is it any great shock that I would not bother reporting being groped at a party while I was asleep in a friend’s room, after trying to report being groped fell on such deaf ears in high school?

The vast majority of rapes which are reported do not result in a conviction. Most don’t even result in a trial.

Most of the inappropriate sexual behaviors being talked about now are well past their “expiration” dates. People could not press charges if they wanted to, due to the statutes of limitations.

But our ability to whisper softly in this age of Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr has become diminished. We speak, and we are heard. And employers are realizing that they cannot take the liability of knowingly continuing to employ sexual abusers. Fox News paid tens of millions of dollars to sweep things under the rug. Most businesses can’t, and the good ones won’t.

Survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment often have mental health consequences that last for decades, without trial, without conviction. Some manage to soldier on and do their jobs, others do not. Those who fight back may be punished. Have been punished. Have lost their jobs with far fewer resources to support them than the men who are accused.

Even those who succeed often falter, often break. Drugs, alcohol… all are ways of finding distance from pain in intolerable situations. I do not wonder when I hear of stars falling to addiction.

Turning Away from the Commodified Feminine

When the level of harassment was at the worst, I was young, as slim as I’ve ever been as an adult, “beautiful.”

My doctor talks about me losing weight, now. There are many reasons why I am the weight I am, but I do not yearn to be slim again. I do not wish that I was young again.

I am not perfectly protected by my balding fatness, but the world no longer acts like it owns me, like my prettiness makes me fair game, like I owe the world a smile. I do not miss the catcalling. If being a woman means wanting to be young and thin and pretty, if it means being at the world’s mercy… if it means that people constantly underestimate me and make incorrect assumptions about my capabilities… I would rather not. The traps and trappings of womanhood do not serve me.

 

black and white image of a bathroom gutted down to the studs in order to remove hidden dry rot and create a structurally sound room.

tearing out the rot to rebuild  © jenrose 2017

Past, Present, and Wrestling with Consequences of Sexual Harassment

I have no real desire for revenge. I will not, here, tell you the names of those who hurt me. I believe every single one of them was under the age of 21 at the time, and at 45 years old, I know I would not want to have my whole worth judged on my behavior at age 14, or 17, or 19… At some point we do have to let children and teens grow up and learn to make better choices. It is part of my self care that I do not seek them out or try to find out more about them. People who know me and know them seem to think they’ve changed. I’ll hope so.

The people who are being fired now are being fired for actions that took place well into adulthood. Old enough to know better. Old enough to do better. This shit is not new.

Sexual harassment has been an issue in the public consciousness since the late ’80s. It was just starting to filter down to my conservative small town when, late in my high school career, we did a mock trial about sexual harassment, because of Anita Hill. I played the “expert witness,” and had to give testimony in a court of my peers about what the reasonable person standard was, and why sexual harassment was harmful.

The judges at the competition were impressed.

The boys from my school treated it as a humongous joke, and used it as an excuse to give me more shit. By that time I’d written off their opinions as anything that mattered to me.

One or two of them had been in that group, five years prior, shoving their crotches at my face while I cowered under a desk.

Redemption, Forgiveness, and Performative Apologies

I want to believe in redemption.

I want there to be a path to forgiveness.

I do not believe that every person who has ever done wrong should never be allowed to function in society again in any form.

I believe that people can learn, that they can change.

But I do not trust the words of men who give in so easily to their baser urges and then claim ignorance. Either they knew what they were doing and manipulated the situation and should not be in positions of power, or they are so completely ignorant of the basic limits of human decency that they cannot function in positions of power.

It is, in fact, possible for someone to misread the room, as it were, and violate a boundary they did not fully understand. But good people who make mistakes and then learn of their mistakes actually regret hurting the person they hurt. They do not worry more about getting caught than about making it right. And they don’t just go right in and do it again with someone else, hoping that this time they won’t be called out on it, that this time it will be okay. That’s part of how someone manages to not be a good person.

 

Another detail from the Rape of the Sabines, focusing on the man on the throne. Sexual harassment and assault are almost always a top-down problem.

detail: Girolamo del Pacchia (Italian (Sienese), 1477 – after 1535) • Rape of the Sabines, about 1520, Oil on panel • 66 × 144.8 cm (26 × 57 in.) • Gift of J. Paul Getty • Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

This is Hard, but it’s Not Complicated

There is no orgasm or thrill worth damaging the psyche of another human being.

And people who don’t understand that should not be in positions of authority.

Leaving them in positions of authority means leaving a trap in place for people with limited ability to protect themselves.

The only reason why we are seeing all this now is that so many people are speaking out at once. The old tactics of intimidation and slander don’t work as well when twenty people are making the same accusations.

I confess impatience with the current rounds of hand wringing and astonishment. We knew this was going on. Stop pretending you didn’t know this could happen.

The predatory director, news anchor, actor, executive are such tropes that they are constantly written into our fiction. Those things weren’t just invented from thin air. What we are seeing now, as with all sexual assault, is a tiny fraction of the actual problem.

For every one you hear about, there are a thousand you didn’t.

Your opinion is not
the most important thing in the room…
If you don’t understand
why people are upset,
you need to sit down
and listen until you do.

Last year, a noted science fiction author, famed for writing strong female characters, said in exasperation, “I write strong women, I treat everyone the same, I don’t know what you want from me!”

He said this while on a panel about strong female characters in which I believe the moderator was female and none of the panelists were. He talked over people and cut people off constantly.

And my answer to him is simply, “Listen. We want you to listen to us when we tell you this character is not ringing true. We want you to hear our stories about why pretending that everyone is exactly the same simply doesn’t work, because our experiences of the world are so very different from your own.”

He protested that he always cuts everyone off. But the only way you can possibly find out what other people want? Is to shut up and stop doing that. Your opinion is not the most important thing in the room when it comes down to the blood and tears of other people. If you don’t understand why they’re upset, you need to sit down and listen until you do. And if they won’t tell you? We’ve got a giant internet out here that has lots of information about how thoughtless or predatory behavior can damage others. How to listen. You do not have to understand exactly what someone is feeling to know that they are hurt, and it should not be a revelation that other people matter.

It does not matter if this is how it has always been. The world is changing. Those in positions of privilege have a responsibility to interrogate their own training, to challenge their own assumptions, to stop ignoring those they perceive as having less power.

What We Want

So, if you are wondering how to navigate this strange new world of ours? If you wonder what we want? Listen, and I will tell you. I do not pretend to speak for everyone, so you may have to listen to some other people, too.

  1. We want to be treated with basic respect, not as potential mates or sex objects. (Trust me, people who treat people with respect can still get laid. Consensual sex is actually pretty hot.)
  2. We want to be heard when we speak.
  3. We don’t want to see dick unless we specifically ask to see dick. Do not ask us.
  4. We don’t want to have to chose between our sexual autonomy and our job. We really just want to be able to work and go about our lives without constantly being treated as sexual objects. Sex really has no place at our jobs unless we’re sex workers, and even then sex workers deserve as much respect as anyone else and get to set boundaries.
  5. We want our worth to be judged on the basis of the fact that we are human beings capable of independent thought and feeling. Every human being has worth, and we should not be categorized on the basis of our fuckability.
  6. We don’t want you to assume that we are dressed up for your benefit. If we are, we’ll tell you, and it won’t be at work.
  7. We want you to remember that we do not owe you a smile, or our prettiness, or any other irrelevant thing.
  8. We want you to remember that if we are being nice to you, it is because we are polite human beings who have been taught to be nice. It does not mean we want to fuck you.
  9. We want you to take no for an answer.
  10. We need you to ask the question rather than assuming that it’s fine unless we say no.
  11. We need you to accept that there are some situations where it is literally never going to be appropriate to ask that kind of question.
  12. We need you to spend more time looking for ways to be a better human being and less time wallowing in your assumption that you are terrible and cannot be fixed.
  13. We need you to stop expecting us to make you better.
  14. We need you to listen to the people who have been hurt, even if you weren’t the one who hurt them.

The (new) Rules

There are some basic guidelines here, that should be obvious, but probably need to be stated.

  • Sex requires sober, enthusiastic consent, period. If you aren’t comfortable asking for sex, you’re should not expect sex.
  • Not “No means no,” (though of course it does) but “Yes means yes.” Anything other than “yes” means no.
  • Drunk is not consent.
  • Clothing is not consent.
  • Looking a certain way is not consent.
  • If you are in a position of authority or privilege, you need to remember that power comes with responsibility. Do not abuse your authority or you will lose your authority.
  • Jokes aren’t funny when people get hurt.
  • Saying “I was just joking” or “I was just kidding around” is an actual lie designed to deflect criticism. Power manipulation and sexual assault are not funny, are not jokes, and actually damage people. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, you will do yourself a huge favor if you look up “How to avoid sexually harassing people.”
  • Just because you might not get caught in the moment doesn’t mean you won’t get caught down the road. Some of the accusations being made now are about things that happened twenty, thirty years ago.
  • Don’t say it was a cry for help. If you need help, ask for help. Cries for help do not involve sexually abusing people.
  • Don’t say you’re too old to change your ways. I’ve seen men in their late 70s learn how to be better people and have better relationships with the people around them. If you’re competent enough to get into a position of authority, you’re probably capable of learning how to be a less toxic person.

If, while reading this, you find yourself getting defensive about your own past actions, or about the actions of a loved one, or you want to nitpick or argue details with me, I will ask you to stop. That’s not the point, and I honestly don’t care.

The point of this is not for me to persuade you, it’s to help keep you from sabotaging yourself and someone else. I’m not going to debate the rightness of firings or whether X rises to the level of abuse. I honestly do not really care about having that discussion at all, I’m just too tired.

I just want you to stay out of that kind of trouble, and I really, really don’t want anyone else to ever have to suffer the way so many of us have.

All of us are diminished when one of us is hurt.


As an aside, if you assume that by “we” I mean “women” (or in particular, “cis women,”) in fact, I mean literally anyone who has found themself in a power down position who has had to deal with the inappropriate or abusive actions of others. Many of the abuse allegations put forward have come from men, and I am nonbinary. Trans women have it particularly rough, as they frequently get harassed as intensely as any cis woman, plus with extra harassment for being trans, for not performing masculinity when it is expected, etc. Trans women of color in particular face more abuse, violence, and actual murder, per capita.

For more on the subject of harassment, gender and being a better human being, see the Political category on this blog.

Posted in Feminism, Gender and Sexuality, Health, Life, Mental Health, Political.

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