The world is abuzz with new revelations about sexual harassment, workplace predators and all-around bad behavior.
This leads me to think about a couple of incidents from my past. Viewed through today’s lens, they’d probably warrant a call to HR. But — and this is not to excuse these men — the world WAS different when I was young.
A suburban-dwelling supervisor stopped by my desk one evening to let me know he was going to “apartment sit” a friend’s place in the city for a few days and encouraged me to meet him there for drinks “and”. Said supervisor was married, decades older, and my direct boss. Accepting might fast-track a promotion and certainly lead to plum assignments; refusal could turn a cordial relationship into enmity.
Unlike, say, Harvey Weinstein, there was no physical intimidation. But the message was clear: if you want to advance, here’s one way to do it.
I had a tiny office and a very large, very tall boss. One day, he came in, closed the door, and proceeded to back me up against the wall while attempting to kiss me. Physical and scary, as this man had total power over me — not just in that moment but going forward if I handled things badly.
Did I tell anyone? No. Because what good would it have done? Men had no hesitation coming on to women at work; it was almost expected and it happened a LOT. So with both bosses I tried to offer a reply that would protect their egos while I rejected them –thereby preserving our working relationship.
With boss #1, I flattered him by reminding him that I was a lot younger and said that if we became involved I’d risk falling for him, which would be a very bad idea.
He bought it.
With boss #2, I flattered him by telling him how much I liked working for him (he was brilliant) and I may have lied and said I had a boyfriend.
Was this brave? Of course not. Just simple gut instinct that if I didn’t make a big fuss, they’d stop. It didn’t occur to me that they might victimize someone else or that this could be a pattern; I only wanted them to leave me alone.
My questions are these: Does every proposition by a person in authority qualify as sexual harassment? And has it become too easy to assign blame without also considering ways in which the other party might respond?
I get that a powerful person like Weinstein can intimidate the hell out of a young woman whose career might never get off the ground if she doesn’t “go along”. But showing up at the guy’s hotel room might send the wrong signal. And if he answers that door in his bathrobe, why in hell does she go in? Is she that naive? Or is she a participant in a quid pro quo?
I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of sexual harassment. Men who think “grabbing pussy” is a compliment, or feel entitled to treat women as objects, are disgusting. On the other hand, I wonder whether we’ve gone too far in the other direction, labeling every advance or teasing remark as harassment, which minimizes those that are.
Perhaps we should learn how to diffuse a tense situation before it gets out of control. Plus karate, in case that doesn’t work.
What are your thoughts?