CONNECTIONS: Sexual harassment, an American traditionMore Info
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.
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?
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.