What do you see in this picture of a man with his hand on a woman’s knee? Is it flirting or harassment? Doesn’t it depend on the circumstances, the nature of their relationship, and in particular, who holds the power?
What do you see in this next image? A prank? A joke? An immature and embarrassing violation? Does it matter if the man is not her boss? Does it matter if she is not specifically identified, but later finds out? How would you feel if that were you?
I use this image intentionally. I’m wondering if you are making judgments about the woman due to the length of her skirt. Does that change how you feel about this behavior on the part of the man? Should it?
And here, in this next image. What is your impression? If you’re a woman, do you feel anxiety? Fear? Does this scenario seem threatening?
It does to me.
Standards, circumstances, what is and isn’t a crime or misdemeanor, how the woman perceives the incident, a pattern of incidents — these matter, don’t they? Does the woman in question feel physically threatened, emotionally violated, or is her income potentially impacted? Is her reputation trashed?
Naturally, this isn’t only a scenario that pertains to women, though it is predominantly women who suffer these affronts.
Also, what occurs between an adult and a minor is different — (as in the current uproar over Roy Moore) — not only in terms of power and emotional repercussions, but legally, as it should be.
In the past months, weeks, and days, you cannot pick up a newspaper, check a social media feed, or turn on the news without seeing some new allegation of sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual misconduct or other abuse of power involving inappropriate touching, or worse.
Whereas some allegations, accusations, and charges are more easily “proven” than others, some may think we’ve gone too far. Others believe we are only just beginning, and it is about time. So what do you think? Is one person’s “joke” another person’s violation? What if a man claims he was just flirting? And no harm done? Where is the standard? Can we agree that all “offenses” are not the same, and thus all “remedies” should not be either?
I could list the towering figures in media and movies, and of course even more recently, politicos causing a significant stir. They are and have been much in the news — Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, Roy Moore, Al Franken, Bill Clinton… um… one Donald J. Trump… and so many more…
Sadly, I feel as if anyone I would name today would quickly be overshadowed by the next name appearing tomorrow. Along with, of course, the deafening silence or blaring noise of blame, accusations, and attempts to discredit the (typically female) victims — depending on political inclination.
And when women speak out, as Moore’s accusers have, shouldn’t we believe them? Especially when so much contemporaneous corroboration exists?
I find myself thinking back to Anita Hill, her courage some 25 years ago telling her story about Clarence Thomas, her testimony, and the unfortunate result.
I wonder if we are truly seeing a significant change in the ability to raise these issues into the light. This is not about political party, nor should it be; it is, or ought to be about respect, decency, values, and understanding that even power has limits and eventually, or so we hope on these cases, it will be checked.
Let us also remember, despite the well-known and generally beautiful faces we may see on the news at the moment, particularly in the Weinstein case, abuse of power is not just about young, attractive white women. On the contrary. Sexual aggression is an equal opportunity offender. The #MeToo movement should highlight the extent of the problems we face, and that age, race, and job don’t somehow immunize us. As PBS points out, we shouldn’t forget the victims of color. And, as I will say from my own experience, don’t think that women of a certain age are exempt.
An aside: I saw a silly rom-com on TV a few nights ago. The plot was thin, the characters what you might expect, but one scene caught my attention and struck a nerve. One of the female protagonists has a crush on a man in her office. She gets a little drunk at a party, grabs him, and plants one on him — hard.
He looks stunned, but he smiles and brushes it off. How are we to “assess” this move? Is his response to it what matters? Let’s assume there is no inequitable distribution of power between these two. They’re casual office mates. So what if the genders are reversed? Do we think differently about it? Should we?
Now, I’m not trying to muddy the waters with seemingly innocuous incidents. And certainly, there are differences between incidents in the workplace versus unwanted advances in social settings. But how do we determine what is innocuous versus egregious, and damaging behavior in either case?
Most of the events coming to light aren’t of the innocuous sort. Not by a long stretch. If a man exposes himself in front of a woman in a work context, leaving her humiliated and uncomfortable (of course!), that’s pretty clear. If he corners a woman, touches her inappropriately, touches himself in front of her after cornering her, again that seems clear. If he lures her somewhere based on a work pretext and is sexually aggressive or “inappropriate,” clear again. Anything that involves an adult and a minor? Pretty black and white.
The actions of a sexual predator, whether preying on either gender, seem crystal clear — patterns emerge as behaviors are exposed.
It’s tough enough being a woman in the workplace in many environments, still. The disrespect of sexual harassment on top of it? Abysmal.
It wasn’t so long ago that I read an article in Forbes that seemed to suggest that flirting your way to the top remains a viable “business strategy” for a woman. I’m still shaking my head at that one. Attitudes like that certainly don’t help.
We have a long way to go in this discussion, and it has everything to do with how we view women. No doubt we will tangle over complexities and nuance, and we should. We must recognize issues of abuse of power as similar, and the crippling consequences of silence. But we must also determine how to assess the “degrees” of misdeed (as opposed to clear crimes), and what remedies are called for in dissimilar acts and circumstances. That said, I’m glad we’re having the discussion. Now we need to set aside the partisanship.
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