Happy New Year, y’all!
So far, 2018 has been eventful. Two weird things have happened. I shall begin with grad school.
I just started my second year at a Traditional Chinese medical school. Only three more to go!
Anyway, I have zero complaints about my program excepting one. His name is Sean, and he’s been harassing me for about a year. I didn’t recognize his behavior as harassment until it was pointed out to me and labeled as such. I thought he was just a really annoying, clueless arse of a guy who needed some serious mentoring.
Last Friday, I reported his behavior to one of my professors in an attempt to get some advice. Sean is in one of my classes this term, and he targeted me in class almost as soon as class began. He then used your run-of-the-mill intimidation tactics later on the same day. I found his behavior to be annoying at best and fear inducing at worst. My professor happened to be the newly appointed chair of the Bio-Western Medicine Department; I didn’t know that. With that position comes legal responsibilities such as mandated reporting. After I ran my situation by him, he went ballistic.
He has a strong “dad energy” about him and an established moral code. My seeking advice on whether I should ask the teacher of my shared class with Sean to run interference for me turned into a huge legal matter. The college’s attorneys were called. I had to write a statement for a legal record. I now require escorts. The police may be notified in order to establish a better record. They will seek to expel Sean due to the nature of his harassment. Frankly, I was and continue to be stunned.
And, I’m now somewhat scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming weeks. Sean is also retaliatory.
So, as I pondered all my interactions with Sean as I wrote out the disclosure, I wondered why I waited so long to say anything. Why did I not report the harassment sooner?
I think the primary reason that I didn’t report anything was that I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was truly sexual harassment. I’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace before, and it was severe. A fellow employee started with highly inappropriate remarks like, “Wow, you look really wet today.” If I he found out that I had been on a date, he would pass my desk and taunt me: “I bet you rode that guy like a bucking bronco…” Finally, one day, he cornered me in the women’s bathroom and refused to let me leave. To me, this is a clear example of sexual harassment.
I reported him after a few months of his on-going acts, and the company fired me. Not him. They were in the middle of an IPO and didn’t want any trouble. That’s how it was twenty years ago. If a woman reported sexual harassment, she was often not believed, or she was punished in some way.
In this case, I had to ask myself if I was still operating under that premise. No. That wasn’t it. What caused my inaction? I think that one of the primary causes of my personal confusion was the fact that there were witnesses to almost all of Sean’s misbehavior, and no one acted surprised or indicated that his actions were out of the norm or a violation of social mores–save one person. She and I both agreed that he should not be working with patients. He was predatory. Neither of us knew what to do about it. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to us to report him.
I realized yesterday that we do look to those around us to gauge the normalcy of a situation. If everyone seems okay with someone else’s behavior but I’m not, then what? Am I overly sensitive? Do I have a reason to feel uncomfortable? Am I easily “triggered” because of past trauma? There is a lot of room for self-judgment here, and other people judge, too. There is such a long tradition of sexual misconduct and its normalization within our culture. Simply look at Harvey Weinstein and the narrative accounts that have exploded and expanded around him. His actions against women are utterly deplorable, and many people knew what he was doing. There is no defending him. And yet when questioned, the people who lived and worked around him say, “Well, he was a terrible guy, but we didn’t know he was doing that…”
That isn’t true because when these same people are pushed to tell the truth, they confess, “I suspected, but I was afraid of him. I didn’t want to lose my job.”
Fear of retaliation is a very real thing. Fear of not being believed, I think, is the other reason people don’t report. Bullying and sexual harassment are largely normalized behaviors, and targets of said behaviors have to prove that they didn’t misunderstand the “attention” far more than the accused has to prove, well, anything. Women also have the burden of defending their lifestyles, choice of clothing, and sobriety in terms of whether or not they made themselves vulnerable to harassment.
In fact, sexual crimes against men and women are the only crimes in which a perpetrator can openly admit to the crime but be declared innocent of any wrongdoing. What do I mean by this?
If a man is accused of sexual assault, he could say that he was confused because the woman was dressed quite scantily. He thought she was interested in him sexually, and he never recalled her saying ‘no’. This explanation is still enough in some states to exonerate someone. He could even admit to raping her and still use this explanation and muddy the waters. If a woman got drunk at a party and became apparently flirtatious even to the point of dancing in only her underwear, a man could rape her and claim that he misunderstood because she was almost naked. And, he could go so far as to say that he heard her say ‘no’, but her state of drunken undress communicated–to him–otherwise. She would then be blamed for her sexual assault and told to keep her clothes on and refrain from drinking at parties.
Now, if we apply this logic to other crimes, then anyone standing outside holding their wallet would be blamed for getting mugged. A thief could easily say, “Well, they were holding their wallet right in front of me. I assumed they wanted me to have it. So, I took it.” Car thieves should be jacking far more cars since cars are everywhere. If it’s in public and on display, then isn’t that an invitation to steal it? Well, no, that’s just ludicrous.
And yet we still blame victims of sexual crimes and find ways to normalize myriad forms of sexual harassment. Women, I have found, are especially good at this particularly when they witness it, and I have been wondering why this is. I wonder if it’s because most women have been sexually harassed at one time or another, and we have grown accustomed to it. Perhaps we don’t recognize it when we see it, or we believe that we just have to put up with it because it’s just part of being female. Sort of like cramps. We see another woman enduring harassment, and we shrug. Welcome to the world, honey. It’s a man’s world. Get used to it.
Also, many successful men and women are often judged to have domineering, entitled personalities. Women can sexually harass, too, and the idea of ambitious, entitled, mercurial personalities binging on success and bringing in loads of money to corporations is practically a trope. With that cliché comes the meme of the handsy boss who takes what s/he wants, and everyone who works with him/her just has to put up with it. This is exactly why Harvey Weinstein got away with rape and sexual harassment for so long in Hollywood. It is, in part, why sexual harassment in work and educational environments is known about and tacitly condoned–these people are really good at what they do. So what’s a little ass-grabbing here and there?
I think the tide is changing around this issue. That may be why my college is taking such swift action. I am not especially angry about any of this. I have questions more than anything. How could this have gone on for a year? Why didn’t I recognize it for what it was? Why didn’t anyone else even after witnessing it? Sexual harassment is very slippery and hard to pin down, and it is this way by nature. It is subjective in experience, and, when left unchecked, it can become dangerous. This is where I’m at now. He has the potential to become retaliatory, but that is something that can be reported to both the school and police. I watched and waited for too long.
The other weird thing that occurred happened yesterday as I was studying. A patron of Caribou Coffee approached me as I was hard at work, nose deep in my text books. He is a rather inappropriate personality, always telling disgustingly shocking jokes involving body parts and sex. I have never liked him. And, he loves to find me when I’m sitting in the corner unable to flee so that he can blitz me with his dirty jokes.
Yesterday, however, he apologized to me for “being that guy”. He explained that he had been at a bar and witnessed another man harassing women with shock jokes and crude sexual energy. He observed how the women responded to him, and he didn’t like it. He realized that he was that guy. He said that he knew he needed to grow up and stop. His mother had recently passed, and he wanted to do something better with his life.
I was truly surprised to hear him say this. Sometimes I feel a little cynical and wonder if people want to be better. He did. It was a welcome reminder considering the circumstances.
People can and do change.
So, what does 2018 hold then? Well, I think I can say for sure that it is worth investing energy in your own safety and personal care. What you would do and want for others close to you, you must do and want for yourself. This is how my boyfriend put it to me last night as I was voicing my concerns over this current legal matter. He asked, “What would you do or want for one of your daughters if they were dealing with a guy like Sean at their college?”
Are you kidding? I would be driving to school daily to pick them up and lining up escorts until it was all settled. I would be seeing to their personal sense of safety 24/7. He indicated that this was what I should be enforcing for myself. Oh boy…
So, for you, whatever situation you may find yourself in currently, ask yourself how you would handle it were it happening to someone beloved by you. Then, apply that answer to yourself. That is your standard. It’s hard, isn’t it? This is the beginning of self-compassion.
Perhaps this is the theme of 2018. Practicing self-compassion.
Do for yourself what you would do for others. This is an outstanding starting point when you don’t know what to do.
Happy New Year once again.