Can we have an honest conversation about sexual harassment?
Let’s begin with our history: The term “sexual harassment” was coined in 1975 in response to the way men casually and carelessly sexualized women. Thankfully, the women’s liberation movement began providing clear instruction for girls and women years earlier. The nuns at my elementary school in Hayward, Calif. told girls in my 7th grade class that if we walked by a construction site and were greeted by catcalls or salacious comments, we shouldn’t giggle or get into an argument. Instead, we should respond as equals: Turn around and confront the man, saying, “Have some respect.” If the man balked, we should continue to speak up. In other words, we should stand up for ourselves. What a concept!
Fast forward to my years as a teacher in public and private schools in Sacramento, where sexually inappropriate comments or behavior by boys and men were often dismissed while teachers and administrators diligently policed what girls wore. The drive to obscure the natural female form was—and still is—considered justified to protect a girl’s virtue. But that’s just a fixation with superficiality. Back in the 1970s, we wore mini skirts and hot pants (Daisy Dukes but in crushed velvet). The nuns and other teachers at the private religious school I attended didn’t criticize our clothing. If sexual harassment could be stopped through clothing choices, nuns and other modestly dressed women would never be harassed. But ask an honest nun—Catholic, Buddhist, etc.—even nuns and other plainly dressed women have been sexually harassed.
Here’s why: Sexual harassment is enculturated behavior. Every one of us, through our own choices, teach men how to treat women and women how to treat men. If we want human interactions to change, we must stop trying to raise girls who obediently follow rules but cannot manage confrontation or conflict. We should also stop teaching boys that bravery means taking what you want. Let’s raise girls who know they are equal and whose behavior reflects that truth. Let’s ensure girls know how to stand up for themselves calmly and intelligently. Let’s stop teaching girls that they are damsels in distress who should wait to be rescued from harm. We must also accept that when we refuse to speak out about sexual harassment, we’re actually trying to avoid facing conflict. Conflict resolution is a skill and can be learned. A choice to remain uneducated is a decision to stunt personal and social transformation.
One last thing: We’re seeing a lot of successful men toppled by accusations of sexual harassment. Surprised? I’m not.
Remember elementary and high school? The education system most often rewards those who are naturally preoccupied with detail, orderliness, and control. Once further habituated through rewards, that preoccupation too often morphs into anxiety and control issues that create personal chaos, and even disorders. The result is an individual who can’t stop thinking about something (like propositioning a co-worker for sex) or can’t stop doing something (like grabbing women in the workplace) even though he knows it’s detrimental to the women and to his career.