This post might anger some of you.
I have been sexually harassed several times, one or two of them life-threatening. I’ll give you details. But first, I must confess: I’ve used my sexuality too. More on that later as well.
I am “of an age” when men walked on the street side of the sidewalk to “protect” you from cars and, later, the alley side to protect you from muggers. They opened doors for you, pulled out your chair, helped you onto a bus, opened the car door, and many other things that I would in more modern times scoff at.
There are behaviors that are so ingrained in those of us born in the 1950s that we don’t even think about them. Smiling at a pretty girl. Complementing the color of her too-tight outfit. Talking to her boobs instead of her face. It’s also smiling sweetly up to a good looking man when asking for a favor. Low-cut blouses, 4-inch heels, shaving your legs. Wearing makeup, for god’s sake. Honestly, who are we doing that for, and why?
Attracting attention is ingrained in human interactions. It helps us make friends, collaborators, mates. It perpetuates the species.
But what about all the “Me Toos”? When does it cross the line? How guilty is each of us?
In my younger years, I think I was a “looker.” I remember walking past a construction site in New York. The men whistled at me. On instinct I turned and whistled back at them. Shock and awe, just let me say. And suddenly I felt I had a little bit of power to control how I was treated.
In my opinion, it all comes down to vulnerability. The line between innocent flirting and predatory harassment is how threatened or powerless the other person feels. If I’m making what I think are cute, sexy comments to a male employee of mine, does he feel he has to take it to save his job? If I’m hired for my first job out of college and the boss says it’s because of my legs, do I feel that’s a sexual foray?
So here are my stories of Me Too. My high school math teacher was well known to stop by girl’s desks and put a hand on their shoulder or an arm behind them on the chair to “help” with a problem. On a scale of vulnerability, it was just creepy. Walking to my hotel from dinner on a street in Buffalo, New York, I was grabbed in the crotch by a man who was gone before I could even react. High vulnerability index as I contemplated that it could have been a knife instead of his hand.
My favorite one is a potential advertising client who, at an awards event, followed me into the coat room and pinned me up against the wall. He was six foot something and drunk of course. He said that my boss promised I would handle his very lucrative account “personally” (wink, wink) and, to sweeten the deal, he offered me a red Corvette. When I got home near midnight, I called my boss at home, woke him up, and told him in no uncertain terms to be at my house at 9 AM the next morning. He came, I yelled, and the potential client went to another agency. (Do not ever buy a Chevrolet from a dealership in Albany, New York.)
Personal power trumps vulnerability (unless there’s a knife or physical assault involved). All of us need to be more aware of how our actions and words can impact another person who might feel vulnerable in our presence. We also need to take our own power to another level and call out someone harassing us, even if it means not getting the Corvette.