Beware the Backlash: Notes from a Silence Breaker (with Advice for Fearful Men)

Beware the Backlash
Beware the Backlash

When I was in graduate school, I testified in a university-based sexual harassment hearing, against a tenured professor. Let's call him Professor X. I didn't file the harassment complaint, another student did. But several of us women and at least one man stepped up to speak about the hostile environment Professor X created, on campus and off. Ultimately the university suspended Professor X for two years and established conditions he had to meet in order to return.

I was told to think of this outcome as a "win." Professor X was unlikely ever to fulfill those conditions, so we had effectively rid the campus of his behavior. But I didn't feel like I had "won" anything. I had endured, yes. I had done what I felt I must do, even though I didn't want to, yes. But win? No.

All this happened more than 20 years ago. After graduation, as I was packing up my apartment to move cross-country, I filled a milk crate with stacks of paperwork generated by the hearing—emails, journal entries, committee reports, newspaper articles. I drove to a public park, lit a fire in a barbeque pit, and burned every last page. I intended to leave that experience behind me and focus on building a career I would love, surrounded by colleagues I enjoyed and respected.

Due to Professor X's stature in his field, the hearing and his suspension became national news. In the early part of my career, when colleagues learned when and where I had completed my degree, they would ask me about my experience of Professor X. I would say two or three things: 1) He was a man in a lot of pain. 2) I learned a lot in graduate school, but very little of it was what I had hoped to learn. Depending on the circumstances, I might add, 3) I walked out of there saying, No one's gonna f*ck with me anymore.

That was the attitude that launched my career: I would do good work, with good people, and nothing—or no one—would lead me off that path. Twenty years later, so far so good.

*

My graduate school experience remained in my deep past until recently, when a friend from graduate school posted on Facebook a link to an essay he had written, years ago, about the sexual harassment case. Reading it sent me back to that time and place.

What do I remember about it? I asked myself.

A surreal moment came back to me. I was in the department copy room, trying to explain to a professor—a long-time colleague and friend of Professor X, a person who spent her life building atmospheres out of words—that language can create a hostile environment. Somehow, she seemed not to understand. "I don't get it. It's just language," she said. "It's not like he raped you with a broom handle." She stopped short, "Did that language offend you?"

What else do I remember? For the next half hour, I jotted down all the incidents that came to mind, surprised how vivid the details were.

Wasn't there some article about it in the Times? I recalled. It was probably among the papers I burned.

Curious, I found the opinion piece online. In it, a nationally-recognized writer, who had served as a character witness for Professor X, lambasts the graduate students who testified against him. She buffoons the vulnerability we showed while testifying. She harpoons the now widely-accepted notion that sexual harassment includes behavior and language that create a hostile workplace. She suggests that the people who spoke out about Professor X's behavior took joy in ruining his career. While acknowledging that Professor X behaved poorly, in the end, she suggests he was suspended merely for using inappropriate language at off-campus events.

No wonder I burned it.

*

That opinion piece gnawed at me for days. Why did it bother me so much?

Well, for one, there's the writer's characterizations of the young adults who testified. But while I don't exactly enjoy being depicted as a melodramatic, powerless prude, I know who I was then, and I know who I am now. That's all that really matters.

For two, in the article, the writer refers to herself as a feminist. Sure, that might have galled me decades ago, but today I understand the complexities that rise up between women of her generation and mine. Hers was the generation that gained a professional foothold by playing by the men's game. I can only imagine what she had to endure in her early adulthood. My generation? We built our careers on the foundation her generation laid. We didn't have to play the men's game; we could start rewriting the rules.

Then there's the writer's unfounded assertion that the people who testified enjoyed damaging Professor X's career. You know what I would have enjoyed? An appropriate and productive professional relationship with the mentor I'd traveled 3000 miles to study with, in a program that had promised an enriched educational experience. Instead, I had to settle for testifying in a sexual harassment case, in the hopes of changing the environment for future students. Frankly, it sucked.

Beyond that, there's the opinion piece's utter lack of accountability for Professor X's behavior. While I understand that it must have been difficult for the writer to watch her friend slog through that awful time in his life, it must be said, Professor X's behavior—not the people who spoke up about it—damaged his career.

But what really bothers me about that piece is this: my Internet search revealed that, over the years, this opinion piece has been taken up as an authoritative account of the case of Professor X. It has been cited, in books and articles, to make the point that a man who shares a few off-color jokes—and outside of the workplace no less—could lose his job.

Please. There was so much more.

*

I don't want to kick a hornet's nest here. Professor X already has suffered the consequences of his actions, and I have no intention of taking him to task. This is why I'm not naming names.

But I do want to call out a particular dynamic that I see playing out in the wake of the #metoo movement.

In a culture that historically has questioned, maligned, blamed, or silenced women who report sexual harassment or assault, we've reached a point where "Silence Breakers" are named Person of the Year by Time. Great.

One need look no further than the President's on-air confession to sexual assault, or the campaign of Roy Moore (thank you, black voters of Alabama, for saving us from that nightmare), to see we still have a long way to go before women can feel as safe in this world as men do.

Still, as one titan of industry after another falls victim to his own bad behavior, we seem to be experiencing a momentary turn of tides: now some men are saying they're scared . . . of being accused and fired.

I understand why men are scared. The cultural shift we've seen in the workplace over the past 30 years has created a gulf between the working generations. The men of the old guard fear the new guard's rules; they claim not to know how to behave in today's workplace.

Further, many of the high-profile men fired for sexual harassment have claimed they don't remember their actions, or they didn't understand the impact of their actions, or they experienced these incidents in a different way than their accusers have. They sound beleaguered and confused by it all.

On top of that, for many reasons—some practical, some legal, some nefarious—media accounts often oversimplify sexual harassment stories, as the opinion piece about Professor X did.

As a result, some men are living in fear that they'll be fired for inadvertently saying or doing something they may or may not remember, or may or may not know to be wrong.

In response to men’s fear, I've heard women say, Let them be afraid. We've been afraid our whole lives. I feel ya, sisters. At the same time, let's not forget that fear—particularly the fear of privileged white men—has a tendency to be manipulated by politicians and whipped up into enormous backlashes with far-reaching consequences.

We need to bring some reason to this conversation, fast.

Fearful men, listen up. I have some suggestions for you:

If you're fearful because you have a pattern of acting like an a-hole toward women, good. Be afraid. Oh, and stop acting like an a-hole toward women.

If you're not sure if you're acting like an a-hole toward women, check your company's sexual harassment policy. Do any of those descriptions sound like you? (Be honest.) No? Okay. You're probably cool, then. If some of those descriptions do sound like you, apologize, ask how you can rectify the situation, and then, most importantly: knock it off.

The rest of you guys, if you're afraid your illustrious career might unravel due to some inadvertent slight, relax. It doesn't work like that. When you read a story about a powerful man taken down because he made a few distasteful comments, or he inadvertently grazed a woman's butt cheek while posing for a photo, imagine those incidents are like cockroaches: if you see one in the middle of the room, it's a safe bet you'll find more in the walls.

Still worried? Taking action is a great antidote to anxiety. Google: How to End Sexism, do some reading, then join the movement. ICYMI, among other agenda items, we've got a sexual predator we're trying to oust from the White House. We could use your help.

This post originally appeared on Medium.com.

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