The recent spate of accusations of sexual harassment has me assessing where I fit into this conversation. I can’t claim to have been sexually harassed. Discriminated against because of my sex, certainly. But harassed? I don’t think so. A few cases in the media seem like an over-reaction to me, with the indignation out of proportion to the offenses. I’m sorry if that doesn’t sound very feminist. I deplore sexual harassment, but I also see some gray areas in the #metoo campaign.
Truth be told, I may have contributed to language and behavior that some women are now calling harassment. I enjoyed—and shared—raunchy jokes as much as my male colleagues did. I worked in marketing for a Fortune 500 corporation and frequently traveled with the field sales force. Raunchy came with the territory, but I didn’t feel forced into listening. I thought of myself as “one of the guys.”
In my twenties and thirties, I was what could have been described as hot. I began my career during the sexual revolution. Even though I worked in “sophisticated” Manhattan, I was partial to miniskirts. At just shy of five-feet-two, I didn’t have length to work with when it came to my legs, but their shape more than made up for it.
I remember one lunchtime when I was walking past a construction crew in midtown. As I passed their work site, one of them called out: “I think I’m gonna come in my pants.” Since I wasn’t 100% certain there wasn’t someone hotter behind me (with a shorter skirt, if that had been possible), I kept walking and said nothing. What I wanted to do was to answer back: “Better in yours than in mine.” We would have all laughed and I would have won that exchange. I didn’t feel harassed; I was flattered. I suspect most #metooers would take issue with my feelings about cat calls.
I’m now in my seventies and definitely more fat than phat (look it up). Which is probably why I look back fondly on the attention I received in my salad days, especially compared to today. You could graph my receptivity as an inverse bell curve. The attention itself, however, is a steeply declining straight line. Does the fact that I could feel flattered while others might be offended make me complicit?
That sexual revolution I mentioned had us all feeling our way in the business world. I was young and naïve, as were many of my sisters, all of us plodding along in professions that were often men’s domains. I was probably a tad too flirtatious, but I deflected unwanted advances deftly. I didn’t slap someone after an unsolicited kiss (received more than once, but never from the same man). I stated simply and firmly that it was not to happen again. And it didn’t.
If I found myself on the receiving end of an ambiguous touch, I moved away and let my body language and facial expression convey my displeasure. That worked for me. I’m not sure why. Perhaps being “one of the guys” earned me special consideration. Once I moved into a position of power myself, this type of behavior stopped.
What does all of this say about my role in the culture that produced #metoo? In today’s work environment, it seems that nothing sexual is permissible in language or behavior. I don’t know where the line should have been drawn between harmless flirtation and predatory behavior in the sixties and seventies. A young man who worked for me once gave me a box of condoms to take on my vacation to a Club Med. He handed it to me in a brown paper bag and my entire team thought it was hilarious. Would that make him a harasser today? Or me one, for accepting the gift? (Never used, by the way.)
I think we should save our outrage (and media coverage) for the truly dangerous predators. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of those. Here are my clear signs it’s harassment. You keep saying “stop it” and he keeps doing it. His position of power makes you afraid to say “stop it.” You start comparing notes in the ladies room and discover you’ve all had similar encounters. Persistence. Power. A pattern of behavior. These can all be indications that there’s a predator in your midst.
But if he stops when you tell him to, can’t we just move on instead of texting #one-strike-you’re-out? And if he’s ninety and in a wheelchair when he pats you on your fanny? How about instead of telling the media about it, you pat him back (gently) and sidle out of reach. When you get to be my age, it might be one of your fonder memories.