This morning I asked my mother, 94, if she was ever sexually harassed. Most days, over our coffee, we share an amiable silence. But waking up to a loud crash (the sound of Matt Lauer tumbling from his lofty perch), I wanted to know how to think about these daily revelations of bad behavior. What is happening between men and women?
I figured it made sense to look back in time before we think about how to move forward.
My mother immediately set down her spoon and said, “Yes.” She told a story from 75 years ago, with total recall. “I was a clerk at the United Lawyers Service,” she recounted. “One of the judges chased me around his desk, but I was faster than he was.” She smiled. Any angst over the incident had been dissipated by time. I got the sense that, for her, it wasn’t altogether terrible to be chased.
I thought about my own life. When I was 18, I worked for a physician over the summer break from college. It was a hectic diet office, basically a pill mill. The doctor was in his 40s, and his new wife was my age, a teenager. One day at work, he approached me when we were alone and slid the head of his stethoscope down the front of my uniform. I felt embarrassed and got away, and I never told anyone. I didn’t think about it again until I sat down to write this morning.
On a first date in college, a guy I had met at a mixer drove me back to campus after a movie. Suddenly he pulled off the road and attacked me, all hands, under my coat and all over my body, until I screamed and told him to drive me to the dorm. I was upset enough to call my parents at 1 in the morning, and my mother kind of said, “Boys will be boys.”
My mother also told me to dress “sexy” when I was a teenager, suggested I wear something “low-cut” in my 20s and last week told me to go blond. She is of a certain generation and a certain mindset, believing that a woman’s looks and body are her currency in the world.
Don’t think for a minute that I have this figured out. I’m just spinning along with everyone else, trying to parse the man-woman harassment thing. I didn’t think it had anything to do with me, but it does; it has to do with every single one of us. It matters what happened to us growing up. It matters how parents raise their sons and daughters.
The more I think about it, the more I remember. An incident that disturbs me the most occurred when I was only 12. We were in Atlantic City for a weekend with my parents’ best friends and their kids, a son my age and a daughter, 9. The parents went out to dinner and left us kids in the hotel room to watch TV.
We were lined up in one bed, our eyes fixed on the screen. Suddenly the boy reached over and grabbed my developing breast. It hurt, and I shoved him so hard that he cracked his head on the wall. He kept clear of me after that. He’s a lawyer now in Florida, and I haven’t seen him in more than 50 years, but I feel queasy just thinking about that night. I’m 100 percent sure he has no memory of the incident. We were just kids. But I can remember the color and pattern of the shirt I was wearing.
Where am I going with this? I’m thinking that my history of relatively minor sexual harassment still left its mark. How do women cope who suffer from persistent harassment in a situation they can’t escape?
The recent accusations and confessions and firings aren’t nearly as satisfying as they should be. Men we admire for their real achievements and talents are admitting to offensive, demeaning and gross behavior toward women. I feel betrayed and suspicious. Do they really feel contrition or just busted? What are the guys in the cloakroom and the clubhouse and the boardroom really saying when the mandatory sexual harassment training is over? How can we ever know anyone’s heart?
What about my male friends who still email sexist and crude jokes on a daily basis?
When the president of the United States is an admitted sexual harasser, how can we condemn others and not hold him accountable?
We are in the throes of a great, destabilizing cultural shift. The process is painful and unpredictable and emotionally charged, and we hope the change will be for the better. We hope.
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.