Sexual Harassment

Nov 29

Sexual Harassment

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN RAPE and looking down someone’s blouse lies the murky waters of sexual harassment. Every man in America has to be looking back at his life, wondering if he has every done anything that could be construed as inappropriate or legally actionable. Just turn on the news. One after the other, powerful men are falling like ten pins, knocked down by whispers from their past and shouts of women they work with now.

So…what about you? If you’re a woman, have you ever been sexually harassed? If you’re a man, have you ever used your power over a woman to take advantage of her sexually- knowing she could not retaliate, or probably wouldn’t be believed if she tried?

This morning, after learning  yet another prominent man, Matt Lauer, had been toppled, my husband asked if I had ever experienced sexual harassment in the work place when I worked in the corporate world before becoming a teacher. Good question. I suppose it depends on how you define it.

When I was a twenty-year-old waitress, a couple of cooks in the back kitchen used to throw gobs of mayonnaise on the floor, laugh, and leer knowingly at me. They were always whispering to each other and watching me as I worked. To this day I’m not sure what that was supposed to mean, but I knew it was sexual, even at the time. They weren’t my boss, though, so I just ignored them and nothing ever happened. It was clear they were idiots and no response was necessary. No one followed me to my car. No one touched me inappropriately. Still, in today’s world, that behavior would probably get them fired.

As a secretary – we weren’t yet called administrative assistants in the 70′s – bosses flirted and several suggested lunches or more, but again, I let it be known I was very married and they gave up. If anyone had cornered me in their office or lunged at me, that would have been different. Maybe I was lucky, maybe I sent  ’don’t mess with me’ vibes. I don’t know. But no boss every went farther than telling me I looked nice that day or wishing he wasn’t married.

Later in life, when I was single again in my mid-thirties, I had two incidents that were a little scary. These would definitely fall into the category of not OK, to put it mildly. The father of one of my former students asked me to dinner, and when he came to my door to pick me up, I invited him in while I went to get my coat. When I came back, he was leaning against my dining room table, with his penis in his hand, smiling at me.

Ok, then!

He asked if I wanted to skip dinner and when I said no, he again offered his penis up as a present and said, “Are you sure?”

I wanted to laugh, but he was between me and the door, so I calmly repeated that I didn’t think this was going to work out and asked him to leave. He did. Again, I was probably very lucky.

The only time I felt in real danger was when a man I had gone out with once on an internet date gave me a strange vibe, so when he called for a second date, I turned him down. This did not go well. He waited for me outside my apartment and followed me to my front door. When I again told him I didn’t want to go out with him – for sure, now – this was getting creepy- his face twisted in anger and he threw a jumbo Coke in my face.

Ok then….

He had stepped inside my apartment, so I had to remain calm again and get him to go outside, after which I locked and dead bolted the door.

When he kept calling me, I told him I had reported him to the police and that my upstairs neighbor was a cop who watched my apartment. Never heard from him again. Very lucky that time.

My best advice to anyone dealing with creeps is to not engage in conversation-do not explain – simply close the door. It only encourages them.

I realize not every woman is so lucky. I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to be raped or attacked physically in any way.

But I also know that bosses flirting or men whistling at me when I walk by a construction site did not make me feel bad, and certainly didn’t traumatize me. If a boss ever grabbed my butt, I would have laughed in his face. I had no money, and less power, but I have never let that stop me. Just ask my former husband…LOL

If a man doesn’t treat me well, he’s history. I can always get another job. Maybe being on the bottom of the office totem pole already made me braver and gave men less leverage over me.

I would assume most women probably have had similar histories to mine. Should men be held accountable for their actions? Of course. Should a man lose his job or entire career for telling someone they have a great ass? No. In my opinion. Reprimanded and made to apologize? Yes. The punishment should fit the crime. I think anyone guilty of committing rape, particularly of children, should probably be castrated and never allowed out of jail. I don’t think psychologists have figured out how to fix someone who is that deeply disturbed or evil. No amount of therapy makes someone safe again.

So. That’s my two bits – we need to talk about this more. I know I don’t understand the deeper ramifications of sexual harassment in the workplace. And just because something doesn’t bother me and I can laugh it off, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t traumatize someone else. I need to hear what other people think and feel- both men and women.

Only when we listen to each other and examine our own thoughts and feelings will we figure out how to handle this in our society. Here are some sample questions on this topic to toss into the hat at your next SATURDAY SALON:

  1. Have you ever been sexually harassed?
  2. Have you ever sexually harassed anyone?
  3. How would you define sexual harassment?
  4. What is the appropriate consequence/punishment for sexual harassment?
  5. If you are a man, are you afraid of being falsely accused? Do women have inappropriate power of men now? Even if proved innocent, a man’s career, marriage and family could be taken away just by the lingering questions.
  6. Where do you draw the line? Is it OK to compliment someone’s appearance or whistle at a woman or date someone who works for you?
  7. How does the recent news affect you personally? Dating, marriage, work environment. How have you changed your behavior to protect yourself?

Feel free to add questions (or answers) you think of for this topic and I will post.

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