Sexual Harassment and Me
It’s time to speak of sexual harassment. But unlike a cop saying there is "nothing to see here" I must urge you NOT to move on. As Peter Finch in the 1976 movie , Network, said, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” It's a mantra many women are adopting these days and I hope the pattern continues, because it’s about time. Yes. #MeToo.
You see, some of us were taught at a fairly young age — from the time we began to wear training bras and dealt with the “curse” that happens each month -- boys are going to start paying attention. When my mom nervously tried to tell me about it, it sounded akin to Little Red Riding Hood being on the lookout for the wolf as she trekked along the forest path to grandma’s house. Honestly, I didn’t know what Mom really meant at the time. 1960s era mothers (well, mine, anyway) tended to be pretty guarded in their communications about anything sexual, as if they would gross their daughters out or ruin the idea of male-female relationships by telling us the truth. But to my unworldly mother who married at age 18, being careful meant covering yourself up. A lot. She assured me it was good insurance against boys or men ogling you, following you, or making crude remarks -- something she saw as disgusting but normal for the male of the species.
What I was to find, however, was that it didn’t really matter how I dressed. Unwanted attention was going to happen anyway and it was usually about power. It started with teasing when I was still in elementary school, since most boys wouldn’t know how to skillfully sexually harass girls until their mid-teens or later. That insane idea was put into our heads that if a boy teased you he LIKED you. Which psychologist figured that one out? So we weren't to take it as an insult but a compliment? On more than one occasion I would be walking to school and a group of boys on their bikes would taunt me and say something rude. Most of the time, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I could just see the contorted, sardonic smiles on their faces. Just as my mother taught me, I did not respond to them. I walked faster and kept my eyes straight ahead. She didn’t tell me that doing so would only make me look like a scared rabbit, emboldening them more. Fortunately for me, I usually had a big brother somewhere near by — either ahead of me, occasionally looking back to see where I was, or behind me, keeping an eye on me. And soon the taunters would disperse because they found I had protection.
Around age 12, I was riding my bike (we rode bikes everywhere in those days) to an early morning haircut appointment, passing through several neighborhoods including a very exclusive one on the way to the “beauty” shop. A man in a slow-moving car pulled up close to me with his passenger side window rolled down. He began saying things about a “peter” and how he wanted to use his on me. I had no idea why someone’s name was being used to describe a body part and of course, at the time, I was unaware of what a man’s appendages did anyway. I just knew he scared me. The faster I pedaled, the more he sped up. Finally, I diverted my bike to a small dirt path that led to a nearby school, where I stayed in the shadows of the school’s front entrance, hunching down below the level of the half-walls with my bike. I saw the car circle the block with its occupant looking for me several times, but I was convinced he could not see me there, crouching, shaking and crying in the cold morning air. As soon as I felt his search was over, I sped home as fast as I could, bursting into my house and telling my parents. My father was incensed, told me to get in the car, and we would backtrack the way I had ridden my bike, looking for the pervert. We turned near the school where I had hidden for a while and there, parked in the driveway of one of the neighborhoods most stately homes, was a car that resembled the make and model of the one I had escaped. Back then, kids knew the makes and models of nearly every car on the road. My father took note of the address and when we got home, called the police. I was never to hear anything about it again, but I was always driven to appointments after that.
By the time I was 14 or so, I recall being at a girlfriend’s house when her brother grabbed my breast and laughed — right in front of his sister. She and I went to her mom and told on him, confident she would at least make him apologize if not rip him a new one in front of us. But she didn’t. She simply said “Boys will be boys” — chuckling. I didn’t know what that meant, but I never visited that girl’s house again. I did go home and tell my parents, and to my surprise, they told me to shrug it off. No harm done in the big scheme of things. In my gut, however, I knew it was wrong. No one should touch you without permission. To this day, I shudder when a man not my husband touches the small of my back when conversing with me, even though I know he “means well.”
As I grew to adulthood, I found myself putting up with stares, catcalls, and unwanted remarks as many women do, because we are given no choice. I usually acted as if I were deaf or blind, but never, ever fought back with words or actions. You see, my mother had made it clear to me that SOME men were weak and could not control their urges, including wanting to show off in front of their friends by making women feel uncomfortable. Mom described men’s irritating "quirks" in such a loving, non-judgmental way, however, as if their gender was defective from birth and it was our job to make allowances for their behaviors and inabilities to show the kinds of compassion and empathy women did. If a girl got raped, I was told, it was because she had “encouraged” a man by dressing or speaking provocatively. “Women are really in control behind the scenes”, she told me.
Was this the well-kept secret of women everywhere? I imagined a clandestine society where we all took notes and shared them with one another. I began to wonder if we really were the ones in charge, though. By the time my own midlife came around, I began to see my mother grow in new and different ways as she entered her 60s, standing up to my father more and more when she felt his blustery reactions were unwarranted. She got a part time job and opened a checking account without my dad’s name on it so she could have a monetary stash of her own to blow on my daughter, her only grandchild. I was told by my brothers that she once even put her fist through a wall when she felt she wasn't being heard. It was the most physical thing to ever happen in my family, since we Mediterranean types usually deal with conflicts by yelling and then letting it blow over. But Mom was taking a stand because as she aged because she felt less able to deal any more drama -- even the type of drama we Greeks were famous for. After this incident, Mom checked into a nearby motel for two nights without telling my dad where she was — just to scare him. And it did. For a week or so. Then it was not discussed again. Don't get me wrong -- I loved my dad despite his dominant ways. He was adventurous, smart, funny, and accomplished. Our tight-knit family dynamic still finds me laughing my head off when I am in the company of my brothers. Even though we now speak the truth about our parents' marriage, we knew our dad's core was soft and tender despite his penchant to assert himself. Like many men of his era, his respect for women was highly affected by the prescribed roles they were supposed to play in life. And when mom died at the age of 69, his authentic world ended. He became incapable of being consoled ands spoke often of having regrets.
Adulthood only exaggerated the feelings I had about the nature of men and how careful women must be to not “emasculate” them by saying things that affected their self esteem while we worked our asses off to please them. I had been taught to behave as if women were not as intelligent, not as driven, and not as outspoken as men even as we fought our way up in any endeavor. Arguments with my dad during my 20s usually ended with his telling me that no man would marry someone with a mouth like mine, mostly because I refused to temper my opinions and/or be silent. Back then even traditional wives agreed with their husbands that women who took jobs traditionally held by men were robbing male wage earners while ruining the family unit. It was NEVER about women, our capabilities or our dreams. It was ALWAYS about them. If not, then why were NASA’s women portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures not included in our history books? Why were so FEW women heralded for ANYTHING in textbooks except for a few Madame Curies, Susan Anthonys, and Sacagaweas?
During my lifetime, the “casting couch” paradigm became alluded to in situation comedies and movies galore as if it were a joke. It appears even to this day the existential threat of it is alive and well, but in subtle ways women have traditionally not been as forthcoming about until now. As usual, Hollywood, the television industry, and now even women in politics are beginning to lead the way in emboldening new groups of tortured souls to stand up to inequities, speaking about their past experiences like people with PTSD. Like my own stories, these memories don't go away. If Hollywood brought attention to the plight of minorities and gays and became the great equalizer, perhaps it will become the topic of future movies being made about it. Power broker relics like Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, and Harvey Weinstein may have gotten away with their disgusting behaviors for what feels like an eternity, but women are no longer shutting up about it. Now it even seems men are beginning to support us, realizing that they would NEVER tolerate those types of lewd behaviors toward their own wives or daughters.
The recent upheaval about sexual harassment made me think about my own adult workplace experiences. Hadn’t I once personally been cornered in a store room by a manager, cleverly ducking his entrapping arms by joking with him? Hadn’t I been invited to the hotel room of one of my airline managers to “discuss” my upward mobility with the company and been greeted with a drink at the door, after which I made an excuse to leave? Hadn’t I endured harassment by a co-worker and even after documenting his remarks and warning him repeatedly, been told by my employer that harassment was too hard to prove? So they circumvented the issue by firing the dirtbag for performance instead. Hadn’t I had the top executive of my employer's security division visit my cubicle on a regular basis and say lewd things to me, wildly smacking his lips and rotating his tongue in between salacious remarks? I compared notes with other cubicle-trapped women around me, and several told me that he only singled out a few of us, so it was not a big deal and I should shut up about it.
Now in my 60s. I no longer get the kind of unwanted attention I did in my younger years, even though a few white-haired guys seem to avert their eyes less quickly than they should. My amazing husband acts as if I am still the sexiest woman earth, thank God, but he sees things through a unique filter that makes sense to both of us. But I ask you — how can I forget the looks my daughter used to get when I walked down the street with her, even when she was 12 years old? How can I forget how scared and angry I once was as both a child and an adult when I found myself the unwitting target on one of those quirky male animals my mother warned me about so long ago?
It all starts with us. It starts with women teaching their daughters about acceptable behaviors toward the opposite sex and how to fight back. It starts with both mothers and fathers teaching their sons what that respect looks like and how their behaviors might not be received the way they want them to be by the opposite sex. It takes all of us to tell these stories and not act as if they happened to someone else. We must reach back and remember those moments when we felt threatened, were treated like a commodity, or were made to feel "less than" merely because some man decided to spend a lifetime crushing women's self-esteem only to make themselves feel more powerful. Because it’s not about the sex. It’s about how the control serves as their prime weapon.