Gentlemen, welcome to our parallel universe. Yes, you, the 49 percent of the population, who apparently has been unaware of what 51 percent of the population (women) has known forever: That sexual harassment is rampant.
In the last few weeks and months, as icons, from entertainment to journalism, and from both sides of the political spectrum, have toppled like the proverbial dominoes, several of you have been stunned to learn that women live with the threat of harassment and/or sexual assault every. single. day.
It comes early in our lives, sometimes even before puberty. There are the catcalls as you walk down the street, going about your day. Or the sexual innuendo in casual conversations with men you’ve known forever, but meet again at a reunion, or by happenstance. You’re thinking oh, my old friend! They’re thinking something else.
It’s the interviewer who tells you he would hire you because “they need some beauty around this office” and that’s considered a compliment, not the fact that you’ve worked really hard, studied, and honed your craft. You’re young, and if you’re pretty, well, that’s all you need or should want.
So, if someone gets too handsy at the Christmas party, or behind closed doors at a meeting, you’re supposed to just take it, because that’s the way the game has always been played.
And just in case you’re thinking that it’s mere flirtation or an innocent pass that just goes awry, it’s not that at all. It’s about what all hostilities, bullying, etc., are about. It’s about abuse of power. The psychological rapes of being called vulgar names as you walk down the street, the butt pinches, gropes and squeezes that come from customers when you’re just trying to take their order, the middle-to-low level manager who humiliates you every chance he can because he knows you can’t afford to quit that minimum wage job — none of that is fun, or flirtatious. It’s boorish, ugly, and all about making women afraid.
And although the dominoes are toppling at the top of the public pyramid, make no mistake. This hostile culture isn’t changing anytime soon, especially in low to middle management positions, where women are subordinates, cleaning, or cooking, or typing. Because we need this job, we can’t go to Human Resources, if there even is one. We just try to stay out of your way, not be alone with you, and warn the others. This is our reality, our universe.
And many of you gentlemen who say you’ve never catcalled, or sexually assaulted/harassed a fellow coworker or subordinate, also never saw it happening. You’ve never had to, because it didn’t concern you.
In the same way people of color live in a different world from the majority white population, so do men live in the world with women. If you’re white, you don’t see systemic racism. If you’re able-bodied, you don’t see the inconveniences people with handicaps have to navigate just to get through a normal day.
And if you’re male, chances are you don’t think about the daily precautions the other gender goes through to keep from being harassed/assaulted/raped. The way we cross the street, turn our bodies inward in public places, keep our heads averted when we pass a group of men, pretend not to hear (God must have invented earbuds for us) although we’re still ever watchful, listening for the quickening footsteps behind us, ready to run, or scream, always looking for an escape route.
Sounds scary, and it is. But it’s also a part of our daily routine. And for many women, it’s a part of the daily routine of work.
How do you not know? How do you not see? We see. We believe, and warn each other, even as the men closest to us dismiss our stories.
When that older male relative goes in to kiss you goodbye, and tries to get you on the mouth and slip you his tongue, you may tell your partner (after you’re finished being grossed out). He won’t believe you. But his sister will. The young women in the family always knew. But they either never shared with their male relatives, brothers, cousins, or they told and were dismissed.
So we tell each other. Don’t get caught with the old guy who’s respected in his field, but can’t keep his pants on at night. Don’t go for that meeting in a hotel room with the respected movie mogul, or reverend, or businessman. You think there will be other people there. But it’s just him, and he’s only going to be wearing a robe — or a towel.
So men, open your eyes, stop being shocked that there are boors who live, work, and make policy among us. Stop dismissing the stories when your fellow human beings tell you that someone is being inappropriate, or excusing it as horseplay, flirting, joking, or locker room talk.
Start looking from our side of the universe. The view is very different from here.