Yesterday morning I tweeted about not having a #metoo story, but I was not honest with myself. I have several experiences—a same sex boss touching my butt, a date forcibly putting my hands on his crotch, a stranger slapping his penis on my car window—that I reframed as “not a big deal.” No woman is exempt from harassment or assault.
Reading the #metoo stories others have shared led me to notice common patterns in how harassment and assault are veiled or excused. This list probably isn’t news to everyone, nor is it comprehensive. One further disclaimer is that the list is also reactive: it does not speak to the abusers and harassers about their need to stop. However, it does make me feel more empowered to have these ideas in one place, to be more watchful for my own and others’ insidious reactions/responses. Please add more in the comments or elsewhere.
1) Humor: Humor is a coping mechanism. Here, as in other serious situations, it can minimize the sense of the offense. When conditions are unchangeable (such as dealing with a terminal illness), humor can be helpful. But in cases of sexual assault or harassment, with an agent who creates the oppressive conditions, humor is dangerous. A boss put her hand on my butt in college. I responded by telling supervisors (who said “that’s not right” and never took it further). Because nothing happened to this boss, I adopted the strategy of standing against a wall or bookshelf whenever she walked into the room.
It sounds like a sitcom premise…because it was. Chandler Bing dealt with the same problem. Note the laugh track and the colleague jealousy in this montage. And note that Chandler “leans in” to the butt smacking at the end. Laid bare, “grab my butt to empower me at work” is a disgusting premise.
2) Aura of Nonchalance: Maybe no one’s laughing, but if an aura of nonchalance surrounds the survivor’s retelling of the story or surrounds others’ reactions, this nonchalance can be self-perpetuating. Instead of taking cues from others’ reactions, it’s essential to consider the basic facts of the situation. I feel terrible regret after hearing of a sexual assault from another adult who did not treat it like a big deal. I did not react swiftly enough. I told my boss that day, but I did not pursue it to the length it should have been pursued (see #4). We need to take the risk of being the “super serious” person who sees assault and harassment for what they are.
3) Plausible Deniability: We are often compelled to give people (especially men) the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he did not know how that made me feel. Maybe it wasn’t what he intended. But plausible deniability is a powerful guise. I think back to living in Boston 15 years ago, when a man exposed himself to my friends, ostensibly to urinate. He apologized profusely, then rode his bike ahead of them and did it again. Clearly, this man lost plausible deniability. But how many others are repeating harassment or assault and giving themselves just enough leeway to say it was unintentional?
Several years ago, I was told about the story of a male student intern who was asked to pull event pictures off of a camera so the pictures could be used for marketing purposes. But (oops!) the camera contained some pictures of the intern’s supervisor engaged in sex acts. Even if women, members of the GLBTQ community, and people of color are disproportionately affected by sexual assault and harassment, cis males are still vulnerable. I saw this as an act of fishing, of a person in power trying to get a read on an intern to see what the supervisor could get away with. In discussions about action steps, an administrator didn’t see it the same way as me. This administrator saw the camera contents as an “accident”—and was even concerned that the student discussed the incident with others and therefore violated his supervisor’s privacy! I had the wherewithal to call out victim blaming that time. Please, let’s start a public service campaign to protect those who “accidentally” bring their dick pics to work.
4) Chain of Command: Most workplaces have a chain of command that one follows for complaints or grievances. You tell your superior what happened and she or he is supposed to follow a protocol to remediate the situation. (Title IX, for example, prescribes protocols for higher education.) But what if they dismiss your experiences? What if they say they’ll look into it, but they never follow through? I think of this as the Mike McQueary phenomenon. What does one do after the higher-ups have taken no action?
In cases of assault, abuse, or violence, calling the police can be an important and even mandated response. For example, if a faculty member learns of a student’s sexual assault, Title IX requires reporting that information to police. However, it’s important to acknowledge the many reasons why survivors would not want to go to the police. They might be blamed. They might be re-traumatized. In egregious instances, they might even face charges themselves.
In other situations that are not criminal, the fitting response can be even muddier. Some women whisper warnings to others. Some have an ally with them during future interactions with the perpetrator. Some leave the situation, the job, the state. These coping strategies put the burden of response on the survivor. In doing so, she is further punished.
This is the place in the blog post where I should offer a solution. A tidy bow is needed to wrap this all up. Problem solved. We can all get back to our work and our lives. But I don’t have that neat and tidy solution. For now, the best I can offer is a lifting of the veil on some common mechanisms by which abuse and harassment are perpetuated. It is a veil to which I have contributed.