Americans have been left breathless with all the talk of sexual improprieties over the last few months. Sexual harassment, sex acts with under aged kids, sexual assault, even rape. Allegations, admissions, apologies and confusion reign.
Let’s take a collective deep breath and reflect for a moment. What are we to make of all this, what are the lessons we should take away?
The grievances, some of them decades old, have bubbled forth from women (and in a few instances, men) from all sorts of careers and situations. From the entertainment industry in Hollywood to the news business in New York. From corporate suites in Silicon Valley to politician’s offices and state houses across the country.
The mostly female complainants are finally unloading about the men in their lives who have been guilty of groping, stalking, shaming, making lewd comments or threatening them with their jobs. Of course, the reports that should get our fullest attention are from those who allege they were sexually assaulted. That is a criminal offense.
I feel the pain of all the women who have stepped forward. Been there, done that — or more precisely – I’ve had that happened to me in the past. But I’ve resisted joining the trendy “Me Too” campaign, content to sit back and watch it all play out.
I’ve come to the conclusion that we are watching a sea change in human behavior taking place. Interactions between men and women at work (and elsewhere) will never be the same. Anyone with a brain will, henceforth, very carefully watch what they say and do with their colleagues. Women should be on notice that there could be a backlash and men might start lodging their own sex-based complaints.
In some respects, this is too bad. I liked having a colleague tell me he noticed my new dress. I liked seeing him smile back when I complimented his haircut. But I also adore the empowerment women are displaying, finally putting their collective feet down and saying, “Not anymore.”
Now it’s time to better define what we’re talking about and precisely how transgressions should be handled. What is sexual harassment, anyway, and what should we view as merely boorish behavior?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission puts it this way, “The law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents that are not very serious. Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision,” like the victim being ostracized, demoted or fired. State laws differ, of course, but harassment has also been identified as including on-going “pervasive jokes/comments, looks and body language that makes an individual feel harassed.”
Okay, so how do we define sexual assault? Well, that’s where it gets complicated, again, depending on various state’s laws. In general, sexual assault falls into one of three categories: 1.) Unwanted penetration of a body part by another body part or with a foreign object. 2.) Unwanted contact with an intimate body part. 3.) Exposure of an intimate body part to an unwilling person. It also includes sexual contact with a minor or a family member (incest).
With the spotlight now firmly on those who commit sexual harassment and assault I hope women everywhere don’t hesitate to step up, speak up and file police reports when the behavior warrants it. Only when confronted with public condemnation will perps be shamed into changing their dreadful conduct.
I have felt inner satisfaction watching the recent downfall of those obviously guilty of being serial predators. But I still have questions that, honestly, are not intended to be insensitive to victims.
Question: by bringing up an episode from ten, twenty or even thirty years ago don’t we inevitably erase the possibility that the guilty party has grown as a person over the years and learned the error of their ways? I know I did things decades ago that I’m not proud of, things I would never do again.
Question: how do we handle the man who delivers a seemingly heartfelt apology for their past bad acts? If we continue to vilify him aren’t we guilty of the very act of shaming we condemn? If the woman’s goal is a big money settlement couldn’t that be seen as a predatory act too?
And, final question: by automatically accepting an accuser’s version of events and immediately heaping scorn on the suspect haven’t we forgotten to give the accused an opportunity to defend himself?
That said, if multiple victims step forward to point the finger of blame at one person, well, that’s pretty telling. But let’s make sure we don’t robotically accept each and every complaint as true. False reports are more common than you think and once exposed they can dilute the power of legitimate complaints.
As we sail these turbulent waters toward true gender equality lets be sure not to go overboard. It would be a shame if this important voyage became waterlogged by its own rhetoric.