I never thought of myself as a single-issue voter. I’ve lived in equally liberal and conservative parts of the country with opportunity to develop a greater context for some of the hot button issues. Yet, this election, it centralized on one issue for me: respect and value for people. If we can’t value someone as more than an opportunity for advancement or pleasure, how can we solve any of the issues around healthcare, education, and equality? My bottom line frustration with Donald Trump (aside from many other concerns): his gleeful practice of sexual harassment as sport. While I certainly found inspiration in the idea of a female president, Hillary Clinton’s calculated silence on her own spouse’s sexual semantics compromised her presence in the conversation on sex and power – to me.
Born into white middle class suburbia, my resources in terms of education, healthcare, etc. were privileged. My vigilant mother frequently identified the opportunities sexual predators utilized for their benefit – like the manager of our neighborhood pool. My mother recognized his dismissive attitude towards regularly present parents and hugging nearly naked kids in swimsuits or holding their hands when their parents were nowhere to be found. He lived across the street from an elementary school, taught at the middle school, and ran a Sunday School class. Once I became a lifeguard, she told me to never be alone with him. A few years later, his arrest for sexually molesting dozens of children rocked our small, tight-knit community.
Somehow, one relief created from the current executive office consists of emerging dialogue on the very tangible concern of sexual aggression. Perhaps, the uncovering of Harvey Weinstein’s career-long sexual perversion and domination became a more legitimate, believable part of the conversation clearly revealing that sex abuse occurs at numerous positions of power. The bravery of our colleagues in the entertainment and media industries detailing years of trauma showed that sexual abuse doesn’t detour at privilege.
Sexual harassment ranges from subtle slights and micro-aggressions to aggressive physical contact. Subtle slights include the many times I entered a room, gas station, coffee shop, or meeting to find myself visually appraised from head to toe. Or, a male colleague shaking the hands of other men at a conference with intellectual platitudes, before turning to me, remarking how he loved to kiss a pretty lady goodbye. A faculty member greeted the other members of the panel with a handshake but kissed me on the forehead instead.
More aggressive actions include drivers tooting their horns, yelling their enjoyment of my backside as I jog. When this first started happening to me in high school, it was explained that “I should wear less appealing clothes” and to “not advertise what isn’t for sale.” As a grocery store cashier in high school and college some male managers would press against me as they cashed out my drawer in the very small kiosk rather than allow me to step out before they stepped inside. A lesbian coworker looked up my shorts every time I climbed up the lifeguard stand.
In a previous neighborhood, I increasingly appreciated passing a major police station on the way home. When men followed me for multiple blocks, detailing all the things they’d like to “do to me”, they disappeared once I hit the police station’s block. On the subway, men tried to sweet talk me into who knows what. As an experiment, I said, “no, thank you, please leave me alone.” When they wouldn’t let up, I said, “my boyfriend wouldn’t appreciate your speaking to me,” and most backed off instantly. They respected an invisible, imaginary boyfriend but not the person standing in front of them just trying to go to work, the gym, or the movies. Several NYC bartenders I knew constantly ran interference on men refusing to accept “no” from women.
When the above video came out, none of my female friends found it that remarkable. Just another day, trying to mind one’s business. I considered the video pretty conservative in my experience. I don’t fully endorse Amber Rose’s process of promoting female equality, but we concur on the basic message: no means no, women are not responsible for a man’s inappropriate behavior. In an interview with Rose, Rev Run countered, “you should dress how you want to be addressed,” putting the responsibility of the perpetrator’s behavior on their target. For the record, I’ve been hit on/harassed wearing baggy sweatpants, a full-length puffer coat, and a power suit. Catering one’s clothing or behavior to avoid harassment doesn’t solve the issue. Rather, one takes responsibility for another’s issue; the offending behavior unchecked.
Probably the most frightening experience occurred as a junior in college. My then-boyfriend and I enjoyed a day in New Orleans. We went to mass, hung out in a music store, ate a po’ boy, and walked through the French Quarter. The PG version: a large pickup truck with several men inside pulled up, followed us for a few blocks, purring about what a catch they’d found, that they would all take turns with me, and they’d even let my boyfriend watch! We suddenly realized we didn’t really know where we were, and, as we picked up our pace in the dusky light, debated how to get out of range. We took off running and turned left. Thankfully, that ended it. My deeply shaken boyfriend – a six foot four proud member of the NRA with a hidden gun compartment in his car – designated a safe word for either of us to use whenever we felt we were in a bad situation. He decided that if either one of us invoked the safe word, I would run for help and he would “take on” the instigator.
I traveled to Italy post-graduation with a theater cohort. In a little seaside town, locals at the roller rink/club announced that “the girls had already been divvied up.” I spent most of the trip’s remainder holding hands with a fellow male student when in public, just so men would leave me alone. Because, again, they respected another man’s “girl” but not the girl herself.
When I was mugged a few steps from my apartment several years ago, it was deemed lucky the incident didn’t become overly physical. So lucky. When I asked my landlord about installing a light at the entryway (at the suggestion of the attending police officer noting our building was not well lit), she snapped “it isn’t my fault you were attacked. You shouldn’t be out so late.”
I spent a couple years in an office with a very handsy colleague; in case you didn’t know, sexual orientation is not a factor in sexual harassment. One day the receptionist pulled me aside, warning me to keep my distance from a certain board member because, “he liked pretty girls.” I tried to adhere to my mother’s advice to always keep myself between the door and someone I didn’t know/trust. I shared about said colleague and company on LinkedIn – which received nearly 500 hits – and received this apology note: “I’m not sure if this post is referring to me…I hope you can forgive me. I have no excuse, and I will not even try to explain the reasoning behind my behavior.”
In Lupita Nyong’o’s Op-Ed, she described how Weinstein normalized sexual harassment. For young women entering the industry, he set their expectations on how to be treated. I think this is why many women, including myself, don’t think of ourselves as victims. This behavior was/is normal, often common knowledge, occurred casually and regularly.
In a raise negotiation, a director told me I wasn’t “done paying my dues and that there were a hundred other people who would willingly do my job for less compensation.” This negotiation came after working six days a week, nights and weekends; sharing an office with inappropriate colleagues regaling anyone within earshot of their recent sexual exploits; some taking every opportunity to touch me. In my mind, I thought, “hhmm, these ‘other people’ must be trust fund kids with a sugar daddy/mama because I can barely pay my rent or afford a gym membership.” It seemed to me that I’d been paying my dues. There were other human resources issues at this particular company; the expectation set for me was that I should just grit my teeth, do my job, ignore the chaos, my hard work rewarded with ridicule. It was so bad I took another job with a significant pay cut. The relief of staff meetings without someone caressing my back or stroking my hair temporarily neutralized the lost compensation.
I state all this as information; not as an angry rant about the wrongs done to me. Unfortunately, the statistics are much worse for women of color and lower economic/education levels. They say we have to hear something between three to seven times for the brain to comprehend the information. So, I’m saying it, and encouraging those with similar experiences to do the same. This is not a complete account of every harassment endured, but I think you get the idea.
For all this, I’d like to counter with times people looked out for me. Like the guy who caught me as I slipped on the stairs at Penn Station, “I hope it’s okay I grabbed you, I just didn’t want you to get trampled.” Yes, it is okay that you caught me by my backpack before I took out the morning commuters. Or the summer I worked as a lifeguard in Colorado and coworkers alternated picking me up so I wouldn’t have to walk through the woods alone in the dark. Or the bartender pushing the dude away kissing me without my consent. The landlord offering to come over, reset the locks, whatever was necessary, when a really aggressive ex-boyfriend made me feel uncomfortable staying there by myself. With the racial tension in Tallahassee, the Florida A & M student walking me to my car after a joint FSU/FAMU dance project rehearsal on the FAMU campus because, in his words, “white girls aren’t received well here.”
I heard a pastor say once that “when we choose to open the door to sin (make decisions we know are wrong), we may think we’re opening the door only a little to judgment (what some might call karma) but in fact we don’t get to control what comes through that door of bad decisions.” You can’t sexually harass or assault someone just a little; all those little indiscretions add up. Ask Harvey Weinstein. Sometimes privilege is more of a hindrance:
Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. ~Matthew 19:24