There is no doubt that human beings frequently misunderstand each other. Even when we speak the same language, often we fail to say what we mean and even more frequently we fail to understand what others have said.
The #MeToo movement which has raised the issue of sexual harassment and assault in our society is a good example of how hard it is for us to really understand what is being said. Almost every woman I know acknowledges that she knows what #MeToo means. Not everyone who adds the #MeToo tag to their social media posts has been violently assaulted or raped. Likewise, not everyone who has ever flirted with a coworker is guilty of harassment.
A few of my male friends have misunderstood what is being said and have responded with defensiveness. Some have made fun of the women who have added their voice to the discussion and have accused women who support the movement of lacking a sense of humor. Most of the men with whom I have close relationships are at least a little puzzled by what this conversation means.
Consider what it is like to be raised as a woman. We are taught from a very early age to be nervous about our physical safety. We are supposed to be afraid to be alone even in our home. We are not to walk alone after dark. We are warned about stopping at remote and deserted rest stops on the highway. We are told to be careful about how we dress, what might or might not be put in our drinks, and who we are alone with. All of these things make sense to some extent because we are often smaller and not as strong as others who might want to harm us. However, being conditioned to be fearful makes us vulnerable in other ways.
As a young college student, for a period of weeks I got regular anonymous phone calls. There was heavy breathing on the other end of the line and sometimes the perpetrator would say things like, “I know who you are and where you live.” Because I was raised to be cautious, I was already looking over my shoulder as I walked to and from classes. The phone calls made me even more uncomfortable. When a vehicle passed me on the street and the occupants whistled or cat-called me, I was terrified. I didn’t hear their comments about me as harmless, flattering or funny. They were frightening. I hated going out of my dorm alone even in the daytime.
Just because someone doesn’t mean anything negative by a comment or a whistle doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a harmful impact on the person hearing it. The object of the comment may have had many different experiences which make others’ words and actions traumatic for them.
I worked as a secretary at the University of North Dakota in my early twenties. One of my coworkers, a very shy, awkward, freshman work-study secretary was regularly patted on the butt by one of the graduate students. He would whisper off-color remarks in her ear just to make her blush. The young woman was so flustered by his bullying that she could hardly come to work. It affected her job and her self-confidence. She was so intimidated by him that she didn’t dare report him. She wasn’t confident her complaints would be taken seriously by the male department head. She didn’t lack a sense of humor. It wasn’t funny. She was humiliated and embarrassed.
Sexual harassment is not about sex or being attracted to another person. It is a form of bullying. When it includes touching inappropriately, it is abuse and possibly assault.
Flirting at work is not the same as sexual harassment unless one person in the relationship has power over the other. If the subordinate person feels their job, promotion or working conditions are at risk if they object, it is not innocent flirtation. Harassment is about power, not attraction.
It doesn’t really matter if one doesn’t mean to abuse or harass another person. The impact on the other person is often the same. Ignoring others’ discomfort and continuing behavior that makes someone else embarrassed or fearful is abusive because it does not respect the validity of another’s feelings and experiences.
Just because someone does good things in part of their life doesn’t mean they are incapable of being abusive in another part of their life. Being a good senator, a funny comedian or a brilliant actor doesn’t mean one is considerate of the feelings of others around them. By the same logic, just because someone is a jerk towards people who work with them or for them doesn’t mean they never do anything good or kind or worthwhile. However, bullying and inconsiderate, inappropriate behavior has consequences.
Rape and physical violence have horrible consequences. Being abused in other more subtle ways also has long-term impacts on the abused. It is often a betrayal of trust and hurts victims’ self-confidence especially when she has been raised to be fearful in the first place. The consequences for women and men who have experienced sexual abuse and harassment at home, at school and in the workplace are real. The consequences for repeated abusive and bullying behavior should also have real consequences for those who behave without regard for those around them.
We all say and do things we later regret. The words and actions being called attention to by the #MeToo movement are not the same thing. They are usually repeated, often intentional and frequently denied. Harassment and abuse is about exerting power over someone else through physical force, intimidation, or taking advantage of another’s fears. It is a selfish and inconsiderate act which hurts someone else.
It is not a mutually affectionate hug between friends.