Can The Public Witch Hunt Cease?
It’s time for the daily public sexual harassment witch hunt to stop. I don’t speak for everyone, but I’m getting weary of revelations about some older (or not) clueless man being rightfully eviscerated for harmful and horrible behavior, some of it years ago.
This isn’t an easy piece to write and here’s why: I have always been a feminist, advocating for women’s equality in all aspects of life, including wages.
Secondly, sexual assault or abuse in any form is unacceptable. Sexual harassment is equally reprehensible. In all of these cases, perpetrators use their position of power or authority over the victim.
So let’s start there. Let’s start with the fact that all of the recent confessions and revelations are revolting, maddening, disturbing, completely unsurprising and way-the-heck overdue. God bless the women with the strength to stand up and say they’ll no longer accept this, no matter what the consequences.
And we’ve certainly seen how the truth-tellers of the past were treated; Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, Kesha, any woman with a heartbeat who met Bill Cosby. Things didn’t end so well for them. Liars. Bitches looking for a pay out or their fifteen minutes of fame. Each tiny lapse in judgment was exhumed in the media. Their own lives were derailed, while their abusers reputations and careers remained intact.
Even up until a few months ago, a whistle-blowing woman ended up as a late-night talk show punch line. The Harvey Weinstein revelations and the resulting #metoo groundswell opened the door to “out” more powerful men who were serial abusers, either buck naked or with bathrobes that seemed to lack ties (what’s with the bathrobes?)
Suddenly, we were awash in stories of unwanted touching, groping, masturbating and worse. The resulting visual images cause me, and countless others, to throw up in our mouths. I don’t want to picture any of these predators naked. Ever.
Many of us who came of age in the 70’s, when older white men ruled just about every facet of business and industry, simply accepted this was part of life. It may be appalling for my daughters to imagine this, but we young working gals learned to wriggle out of a hug, to telegraph who had a “wet tongue” or roving hands like it was the Underground Railroad. A good friend never left a female co-worker alone after hours with a creepy client.
“Sweetie, can you get me coffee,” or even a lingering squeeze was not out of the realm when I entered the workforce in the early 80’s. It was like the game of chess. You had to stay one move ahead of your opponent, or else. I fought my way out of a client’s grasp in the doorframe of his hotel room, all the while worrying we might lose the lucrative account if I made a fuss. For the record, I did tell my boss, who was wonderful and disgusted, although I never thought twice about the fact that it was me who was moved to another piece of business.
Like many women my age, I learned to match flirty come on’s with cheeky verbal retorts. I chuckled at the dirty jokes amidst a room of men. It was what it was. There was no point complaining about the status quo. That was just men behaving badly, right? Human nature, hormones and hubris. And just to be clear, I have many wonderful examples of male bosses who were mentors, role models and champions.
So why is it so uncomfortable for me to say that the blood-letting should stop?” I’m sure many feel that these daily revelations must continue, that we need to press the advantage, use this moment like a medicinal leech. But there is also a line somewhere, a line that can so easily be blurred.
I’m fully aware that what I may individually tolerate or choose to overlook in someone’s behavior may be very different from someone else. And I would never presume to define another person’s pain or assign a level to their harassment.
However, when allegations surfaced that elder President Bush had brushed a woman’s backside and told a dirty joke, I worried. Let’s keep this in proportion, I thought. We’re going to be in choppy waters if we create an arena in which all accusations are the same. We cannot place a potentially innocent rump-graze on the same scale as rape. That’s a slippery slope.
There are legal definitions of sexual assault and abuse. And there have to be meaningful consequences for those behaviors within our justice system. Blurry as it may be at times, the line must exist in society.
So I’d like to quietly give the benefit of the doubt to an 90 something year old ex-President in a wheelchair. You can shake your head and walk away from a dirty joke, but if we all completely lose our perspective, interaction between the sexes will be a trip-wired landscape, pockmarked with potential outrage, finger-pointing and fear.
I envision the stone-casting scene from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and I recall the blow-back and scrutiny of the original accusers after their rape allegations against the Duke Lacrosse team were proven false.
Let us not have come all this way only to backslide and dilute the critical issue. We cannot equate everyday Neanderthal bad behavior with sexual assault, abuse of power and misconduct. Yes, bad behavior is unacceptable. But let’s evolve to a place where we can shame the violator on the spot, call it out in real time. There’s nothing like a “teaching moment.”
I cannot imagine there is a man alive who hasn’t rummaged through his closet of inappropriate behaviors, drunken transgressions or hastily copped feels and wondered if the cleaver is about to fall on his neck. But I’m getting inured to reading about it. The proof of whether we were heard will be in the way forward, in a change in workplace behavior and the cessation of abuse and harassment. If it doesn’t stop, well then, let the revelations continue.
And no, I’m not arguing for a total ceasefire. If a public figure posing as the paradigm of ethics and morality is a secret predator, by all means, shout it from the rooftops. But can we collectively pause and take a deep breath, check our pulse and survey the battlefield in a moment of repose?
I wonder how these discoveries will change male/female workplace friendships long term. Will people think twice before telling a water cooler joke? Will we edit our behavior or sanitize conversations to the point of becoming social Wonder Bread?
I’ll be the first to admit that I possess a completely inappropriate and ribald sense of humor. I’m an equal opportunity offender, with men and women. Will my harmless sexual innuendos land me in social purgatory? Do I need to obliterate my cheeky side, mute my inner Bette Midler?
I’m grateful to the brave and formidable women who have come forward at great personal and reputational risk. Thank you for doing what I did not. But now let’s allow the smoke to clear so we can see if this long overdue truth-telling results in some real behavioral change.