Dad Next Door: Say something
Sexual harassment is big and pervasive. Anyone who isn’t fighting to solve it is contributing to it.
A little encouragement from across the fence
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
What is it about this time of year that brings out the monsters? A little over 12 months ago I was all ready to write a cute piece about homemade Halloween costumes when a videotape surfaced of a presidential candidate bragging about sexual assault. I ended up writing a very different column that day.
This year, I had a holiday piece about misremembered Christmas carols queued up. It was going to be all kinds of nostalgic and charming. Then Harvey Weinstein happened. With a sigh of resignation, I put “… good king, when his sloth looked down …” and “... in his silky dales…” back into my Future Columns file and sat down to write this instead.
The thing is, I’ve got a little girl named Pippa in my life now, and one day (all too soon) she’s going to be a young woman. If the world doesn’t change between now and then, she’s going to meet men in her life who try to do bad things to her. I can hardly even think about that, much less talk coherently about it. But I have to say something.
When I wrote my article on this subject last year, a good buddy of mine took issue with it.
“I just don’t think most men are like that,” he said. “I’d never do any of those things, and none of the guys I know would either.” But then a couple of weeks later he told me that he’d asked his college-aged daughter if anything like that had ever happened to her, and she’d looked at him incredulously. Yes, she told him — about once a week.
Ask any woman that question, and you’ll get much the same answer. Sexual harassment isn’t the exception in women’s lives — it’s the rule. And given how commonplace it is, our cluelessness as men doesn’t absolve us from guilt. It condemns us. When a problem is this big and this pervasive, anyone who isn’t fighting to solve it is contributing to it.
And for many men who would never admit it, their contribution is anything but passive. One in five women is raped at some point in her life, but most of those rapes aren’t committed by strangers. The majority are date rapes and acquaintance rapes committed by men who either don’t understand consent or don’t think it’s necessary. They would never call themselves rapists or sexual predators. In their minds they’re just playing the game. They’re just “boys being boys.”
Sexual harassment in the workplace is on the same continuum. It’s still about power: the power to take what you want because you can. Harvey Weinstein’s accusers may be famous and successful now, but when he first targeted them they were very young, and he had the power to make or break their careers. But like any form of privilege or abuse, those who wield it seldom recognize it for what it is. Even someone like Weinstein finds a way to justify his heinous behavior to himself. The same is true of the more commonplace, mundane kind of creep. These are the awkward, clueless but sometimes powerful men who make sexual references or deliver unwanted touches under the guise of jokes or “friendly” gestures, all the while hoping their advances will somehow be welcomed and returned. They lurk in every industry and every workplace. They’re out there waiting — for your daughter and mine.
In the wake of the Weinstein scandal and other recent revelations about famous, predatory men, waves of women have come forward to tell their stories. There seems to be a genuine shift in the national discussion, and it’s long overdue. But as Anita Hill taught us during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings 26 years ago, the courage of women alone is not always enough to change the world. This is a problem with men. Sooner or later men are going to have to help fix it. And the men who will inhabit the world in which our daughters will someday live and work are already right beside them, under their roofs and in their classrooms. These are the ones we have to reach right now.
We need to tell our sons. We need to tell them what harassment is, and what it feels like to the girls and women on the receiving end. We need to tell them about consent — what it is, what it isn’t and what they can never, ever do without it.
And after we tell them we need to tell our brothers and our co-workers and our husbands. We need to convince them to be vocal role models for every man and every boy they know. Sexual violence in its many forms is literally a silent epidemic. Silence feeds it and allows it to spread — not just the silence of victims but the silence of complicit, oblivious men. There’s only one way to stop it.
Jeff Lee lives, works and misremembers Christmas carols in Seattle.