I Figured That Was Just The Way It Was

The pervasiveness of sexual harassment and coercion is not new, but suddenly we’re talking about it. I wrote the following thoughts to a friend of mine, an impressive young journalist, as a comment to something she posted on Facebook:

It’s been an amazing thing, seeing this unfold. I’m in my sixties now, but I’m sure most women my age remember in our younger days being targets of unwanted advances and male commentary about our physical attributes, whether at work or even just walking down the street…basically it was constant. The married manager of the grocery store where I was a checkout girl, office executives in suits and ties who held superior positions, random construction workers, a guy on the subway…any man could do this. (And here I must acknowledge gratitude for the ones who did not, the ones who were respectful and professional.) But after a while, you just figured that harassment was the norm…just the way it was.

One response technique was to sort of pretend it wasn’t happening. And maybe sometimes we might have even been naive enough to find it flattering, or to tell ourselves it was meant as a compliment. It was confusing, because sometimes you might misconstrue the attention for recognition or see it as the opening to an opportunity…you didn’t want to over-react. I always doubted my own instincts, tried not to embarrass men or hurt their feelings, even while feeling terribly embarrassed myself. But mostly it was humiliating, and sometimes scary, and I can see only now in retrospect how much it devalued us, and altered the way we saw ourselves and our ways of navigating in the world. But we didn’t complain. It was the norm! So I’m so glad that women are beginning to speak out and be believed, and to declare that this should NOT be the way it is.

Here’s her reply:

Thank you for sharing this, Cynthia. I think it captures how much *work* women have to do to find a way to survive in the workplace — any workplace — when men have so much license to do so much damage with so few consequences. I really hope that is changing, but I’m not yet convinced. And I really think it falls on men to take a long look at themselves, at their present and past behavior, and at the way they respond to other men who engage in a whole range of behaviors associated with sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

I heard this interview on the Brian Lehrer show yesterday, and I think the interviewee captures some of what you describe here, about the way women want to be truly seen in the workplace, recognized for their accomplishments, and often encounter men in positions of power who are simultaneously mentors and perpetrators. It can be terribly confusing and distressing. And again, the work to reconcile these things falls to women, and we have better things to do. Like, our jobs. I guess that’s my point here: we need a shift in responsibility, so that it’s men — ALL men — doing the work of listening and then figuring out how to be better men and better humans. http://www.wnyc.org/story/post-weinstein-reality-check/

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