You cannot turn on the news or scroll through social media right now without encountering another story of a woman being sexually harassed. With each “explosive” new allegation, the dialogue ensues about the reality of the world women live in, and why so many stay silent. Shocking as some of these stories are, they are not at all unfamiliar to most women. Some stories are far more extreme and offensive in nature, yet none are particularly uncommon. What may be surprising is just how young we are when this becomes a routine occurrence in our lives. Grown women are not the only ones being sexually harassed - our daughters are, too.
As I have listened to story after story come out, and have chimed in on the #metoo movement, it has caused me to reflect on my own experiences. I had considered myself fortunate that none of my encounters have risen to the level that many in the news portray. Clearly, this is a systemic problem in our society, and it is not new - as evidenced by the many accounts now coming out and spanning decades. The culture of cat calls and offensive comments is so commonplace that it is a daily occurrence for most women, and something we have learned to quickly overlook. I found myself thinking back and wondering when the first time was that I experienced some form of sexual harassment. To my surprise, it began as a child.
DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR FIRST TIME?
In middle and high school, I remember often being harassed by male classmates for being small-breasted, called a slut for reasons unknown to me since I had not yet had sex, and a variety of other insults that were deemed customary for nearly every girl at school. My experience was not unique, as all of my friends had similar undeserving comments and insults hurled at them, as well.
My most notable memory, however, was of a young, male teacher that taught English and was a baseball coach for the school’s team. He was 26, and I was 16. His young age made him easy to relate and popular among the students. My senior year, I became a teacher’s assistant for his class. This role exposed me to frequently being alone with him grading papers or preparing class materials. At first, he seemed friendly and to just be taking an interest in me as a student. As time went on, however, he began sharing about marital troubles, and inquiring about my own relationship (I was dating a boy from another school). Eventually, he became more assertive, and flirty. At one point, he actually asked me “when are you going to fuck a real man?” I was shocked and taken aback, and in no way sophisticated enough to know how to properly respond. I told a few friends, but never uttered a word to anyone in administration. A couple years later, I learned that another teacher’s assistant of his had also been propositioned by him, and rumor was he had been asked to leave the district, likely to offend elsewhere.
Thinking back to this encounter and how young I was, I thought of my daughter, who is nearly the age now that I was then. Sadly, at her young age, she has endured harassing behavior, and is already dismissive of it as “just something boys do.” A couple years ago, while she was trying on dresses for an event, I learned of her own experience with harassment by classmates. She is blessed with a figure that is beyond her age, and apparently it invited commentary regularly at school. As we bickered in the fitting room about an appropriate dress (an ordeal any mother of a teen girl is all too familiar), she made a statement about one of the dresses she tried being cute if she “didn’t have boobs.” I inquired whether that was something about which she is sensitive. I was outraged to hear that she and one of her friends endure comments about their breasts almost daily from boys at school.
In that moment, I explained to my daughter that the behavior she was describing is sexual harassment and is in no way acceptable and, in fact, illegal. I encouraged her to report the boy(s) to a teacher, counselor, or administrator, but, of course, she was mortified by the thought of speaking out about it or getting anyone in trouble. And so the cycle begins.
I am ashamed to admit that I also told no one. I had no names or specifics, and conditioned as I have become, I also did not want to make trouble. Looking back, I wish I had said something in spite of her protest that I not. At the same time, I pride myself on being a parent that encourages my children to address and resolve problems themselves. I gave her some suggestions for how to handle it, and explained to her the very same thing I have heard countless times over many years in new-hire orientations: you are entitled to an environment where you are not made to feel uncomfortable by unwanted advances or comments.
What I did not tell her is that, as a woman, I have learned that such an environment does not seem to exist for us. I also spared her the harsh reality that, more often than not, reporting it does little to help, and frequently results in causing more complications and difficulties for the accuser rather than the offender since people in positions of power are often the culprit.
I wish I could say that the comments she shared with me were the only occurrence of harassment she has endured. It is not. In fact, just last weekend leaving the varsity football game she cheered at, as the visiting team’s bus pulled away I watched as the young football players leaned out the window shouting out comments and come-ons to our girls as they walked through the parking lot. The girls simply laughed it off and dismissed it as the common occurrence it already is in their young existence as women. Perhaps we stay quiet because the problem is so pervasive that we do not know any differently because we learn to tolerate it at an early age.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS?
It is important to note that this is not just a daughter problem. It is a son problem, too. As the mother of a 17 year-old boy who currently has his first “serious” girlfriend, I am painfully aware of this. To effectively eliminate offensive behavior, we must first teach what it is and end it where it starts - with the offenders. In a culture that has been complacent in how it regards talking to and about girls/women, I have been particularly vigilant with my son, and am explicit in what is and is not acceptable to do and say to a woman, despite what he sees modeled in society. Complicating matters, my son has Autism, which introduces an additional degree of difficulty with interpreting social cues and appropriate social behavior. Already, there have been challenges with conveying to him what he should and should not say or do, but it is equally, if not more important for me to teach him this than it is for my daughter to have to learn to speak up.
With the recent allegations of a young boy (at the time) against Kevin Spacey, and many other stories shared by men or boys, it is abundantly clear that sexual harassment has become so prevalent and tolerated that almost no one is immune to its reach, making it all the more imperative that we encourage our sons and daughters to speak out early. Alyssa Milano’s recent #metoo campaign was so effective in highlighting the prevalence of harassment among women, and exposed the magnitude of just how many of us have a story. What if we lend our viral voices to demonstrate just how early it begins? I would be curious to see how many who read this have daughters that have also already had their own story. I encourage you to share this using #hertoo in hopes that we realize that stopping the harassment of women starts with our sons and daughters. #hertoo