CONNECTIONS: Sexual harassment, an American tradition

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By Tuesday, Dec 5 Life In the Berkshires  2 Comments
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

I do not want to write about this. It is uncomfortable. However, sexual harassment is in the news, and there are things to be said.

Three centuries ago in the rough American landscape on an underpopulated continent, a husband correcting his wife’s behavior with violence was considered more than acceptable: It was expected of him. Female children were named Deference and Submit to remind them of their proper contribution to domestic bliss. Eighteenth-century minister Cotton Mather explained it this way: “In the well-ordered family it is but one mind and two bodies.” There was no confusion about whose mind it was.

Over the centuries, we moved from inviting domestic violence to turning a blind eye – it was a private affair. In the instances when the violence became public, the woman was blamed for making the husband angry. Women died – beaten to death. When there were too many, the reaction was dramatic. A wife could get a restraining order simply by saying she was afraid. The husband was guilty until proven innocent.

Photo courtesy Wooldridge Law

The societal response to sexual harassment, sexual extortion in the workplace and sexual assault followed a similar path. It was 1886 before the age of consent was raised from 10 years old to 16, thereby making pedophilia a crime. It was 1898 before rape was considered a violent crime. Not surprisingly, the woman’s right to complain paralleled her civil rights.

It was the mid-19th century in most states (1809 in Connecticut) before a wife could own property separate from her husband. It was the 19th century before she could work for pay, sign a contract and speak in public. It was 1920 before she had the right to vote. It was 1974 before she could borrow money, including getting a credit card, without a male co-signer. It was 1978 before she could work while pregnant. As for equal pay, it is 2017 and counting.

To understand what is happening now, know how we got here. A woman’s ability to protect herself, her right to accuse and the credence given her accusation paralleled her civil rights. So here we are. After decades – even centuries – of a sexually harassed or assaulted woman being dismissed as a liar or hysteric, being blamed for her own abuse or – my personal favorite – being disbelieved because her abuser claimed she was too old or ugly to incite sexual violence, she is believed.

More than simply believed, a creditable accusation has consequences. Men have been fired. The twin underpinnings of the discomfort we feel may be the paradigmatic shift. In this moment, the accuser has power over the accused; that is, women have power over men. The second shift is equally unnerving: The secret is out that there are so many women – in fact, most women – who have been sexually harassed or assaulted. To understand both the heat and the light, to understand how we got here – even where we are – understand where we came from. This is a backlash; this is pent-up demand, not for widgets, but for justice and respect. At the same time, this is a new place and its strangeness is uncomfortable. So here’s the thing…

Here we are, but is here where we will remain? Some women fear the pendulum will swing back to the bad old days when justice was denied. Other women fear men will shy away from hiring or promoting women: If women are not in the workplace, they cannot be harassed in the workplace. Both men and women ask: is this progress? is a woman’s assertion being believed without proof or due process any better than when, formerly, a man was believed when he denied the incident or blamed the victim?

Image courtesy the Daily Beast

Some men are just afraid. They don’t understand the new terrain. They want to know the rules: What can and can’t they do? Men are literal. They want the rules written down in bold, black letters. They want the final list of the unacceptable behaviors, and they want it ranked by severity. The decent will adhere to that list in the workplace and social settings.

The problem is that, for women, it is nuanced. Different women may have different tolerance levels, and it may be like that judge said about pornography: A woman will only know it when she sees it. So it may be harder than generating a list. It may require conversation and more understanding than memorizing. One thing, however, is indisputable: whether in a social setting or the workplace, if she says she doesn’t want it, that’s it – hands off, take two steps back. A man’s persistence may be simple harassment, coercion or a criminal act depending upon circumstances, relative ages, positions and degree of insistence. A man’s behavior may be predatory or pathetic but, if it is unwelcome, quit.

Beyond that, there do need to be definitions. We need to establish that an unwelcome hand on a bare back is not the same as stripping a 14-year-old to her undergarments and stroking her, exhorting sex in workplace, or locking a door and forcing oneself on an unwilling partner. We need standards. We need to trust those who set them, and both women and men must be at that table. We need less heat and more light, but not at the expense of the progress made.

My father taught me how to protect and defend myself. Thanks to him, no unwelcome advance ever went to the point of devastating me, BUT my father never said men should not do those things. He said expect they will and be prepared. If the power has now shifted from the accused to the accuser without inquiry, if women are believed, then progress has been made while a final balance may not have been achieved. The establishment of women’s rights has been a dance – two steps forward, one step back – but remember this: There are no more little girls named Submit.


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2 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    Carole, Well said! I truly appreciate you ending with balance needing to be found. I also agree with you that men are afraid. Afraid to speak on the topic, even, if there is any risk of disagreement of perspectives. In fact, I feel that risk right now as I expect an emotional torrent about what I am going to say.
    Women lie, cheat, and manipulate too. Over the years I have literally encountered several women who have shared their intimate desire to “seduce men of power and influence” and use that against them.
    Now, please understand I know this is not always the case, indeed probably a tremendous minority of cases. The point is, it happens. The default may best be: credible accusations should be investigated and dealt with accordingly. Not: all women always tell the truth and all men are guilty.
    Also, as you point out it may be a matter of perspective. Recently, I had a women put her hand on my “cute little ass”, as she called it. The setting was such that it was inappropriate, at best. I shrugged it off and did not respond or act upon it. As a man, I would not ever think of reporting it as harassment, and was frankly a little flattered.
    As women continue to strive for equality in all areas, that balance can be a delicate one. As one author wrote: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

  2. Carl Stewart says:

    Ms. Owens makes some important observations, but playing footloose and fancy-free with the facts is not a good way to advance your argument. To cite just one, important misstatement she makes, it was “not until 1974 that [women] could borrow money, including getting a credit card…” Women could borrow money in their own names as early as the 19th century. They could obtain credit cards in their own names as soon as credit cards became generally available to borrowers. Is it true that women were at a disadvantage with respect to male borrowers? Of course, they were and usually for the wrong reasons.

    Although she incorrectly states the date, Ms. Owens is probably referring to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1978 (not 1974) which was the first time a Federal law was enacted making it illegal for lenders to discriminate against women solely on the basis of gender. History is a valuable tool but only if we use it responsibly.

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