I was 21, newly married, and had just nailed my first leading role as Maria in The Sound of Music at the local community theater. I have never once felt that the hills were alive with the sound of anything, so I tried to better understand Maria’s motivation for singing the famous opening number. I know. I’m a dork. Please keep reading.
There was a balcony adjacent to the music room at the community college I attended, and it was one of the first bright days of spring. I was early for choir practice, so I stepped onto it to gaze at the clouds, feel the warm breeze, take in the bright green baby leaves, and try to step into Maria’s mind. That’s when I heard a sound behind me. I turned around and was suddenly awkwardly close to my choir director’s face.
“What’re you doing out here?” he drawled.
“Just trying to get into character for Maria.”
He moved closer; backing me up against the iron balcony railings.
“You’re going to be just fine in that show,” he said as he stepped even closer. He grabbed the railing on either side of me, penning me in—his body in front of me, the railing behind me. “You know,” he began softly, “You’re awfully young to be married. It’s a shame, really.”
I was scared. I wanted to scream. I wanted to hit him. I felt dirty. What have I done to make him think he could do this to me?
“Well, I am married,” I said. “And he’s supposed to meet me here any second.”
My lie had the effect I hoped it would. He let go of the rails, and I made a beeline down the balcony steps.
I skipped choir that day and every day after.
As it turned out, he had made inappropriate advances to many female students. When we discovered this in conversations with each other, we confided in a trusted female teacher who advised us to file a formal complaint.
We took her advice and filed it en masse. It was scary and intimidating. We had to recount all of the instances he made us feel uncomfortable—from comments about our legs, to inappropriate sex jokes, to overly rubbing our hands when correcting guitar chords, to that day on the balcony. It was a terrible experience, and we felt cheap and dirty telling it all—like we had brought it on ourselves by being young and attractive. We were scared he would find out and take it out on us somehow. We were scared we were upset over, “nothing.” What I mean to say is, we were afraid that this is just the way the world worked, and we needed to have a thicker skin. Then, the dean spoke up.
“I’m so glad y’all are doing this,” she said, “We’ve had people saying this about him for years, but no one has filed a formal complaint. This is what we need to hold him accountable.”
I’m not sure what the college did to hold him accountable, but I do know he continued working there for years, up to a decade after.
A year or so ago, I had a discussion with another professor who said my old choir teacher was still up to his old tricks of hitting on students.
Nothing ever happened to him that I know of. No consequences despite half-a-dozen female students filing formal complaints.
We never received any sort of assurances or closure. In our minds, he got away with it.
Why am I telling this story of futility?
Because the same exercise in futility could happen in our state legislature.
Dude, No One Wants That Candy
In case you haven’t heard, Tennessee State Representative, Jeremy Durham, is under investigation for sexual misconduct and harassment involving nearly two dozen women. But don’t take my word for it, read the Attorney General’s full report here. Fair warning though, it can be triggering for those of us who have experienced this type of behavior from men in positions of authority. I’ve only been able to read it in short spurts.
What I have gathered from the report and news articles is this: Jeremy Durham allegedly used his position to prey on women. He allegedly hit on them, sent them inappropriate text messages, touched them in an unprofessional way, tried to kiss them, and even gave alcohol to an underage intern and had sex with her in his office. One gave Durham the nickname, “Pants Candy” after a seedy altercation with him involving his hand, his pants and a piece of candy.
Durham, like many lecherous men, apparently masked his advances with humor, and called women, “cold as ice” when they de-escalated situations to get out of them. You see, the majority of the women Durham allegedly harassed reported being afraid to come forward—the bills they were lobbying for and their careers in politics hung in the balance. Durham had the upper hand—he knew it and used it to the advantage of his pants candy. If they came out and reported his conduct, they risked retribution that could affect their career and the people of Tennessee who would be affected by any law they were working to pass. They also risked the possibility that their accusations wouldn’t be believed. After all, there were a few brave women who went to other Representatives and legislative leaders with the dirt on Durham—and much like my college choir teacher—nothing happened.
Yes. you read that right. Durham’s behavior was apparently known by lobbyists, legislative leaders, and by other Republican representatives. They knew and did nothing.
Wait. Let me rephrase.
They knew and they passed a law that would protect Jeremy Durham.
Let me say this again, just so you understand this situation fully. The Republican supermajority, including my opponent, Pat Marsh, voted on a bill that would PROTECT Jeremy Durham over the women he was harassing.
Yes. They knew what they were doing and who they were protecting. Several Democratic representatives spoke in the session about this specific case and its investigation. You can watch the video of the session, read the bill, and see how all the legislators voted here, here but I’ll give a quick explanation.
House Bill 1679, or, “Jeremy’s Law,” effectively forces victims of sexual harassment to pay the lawyer fees of their sexual predator if they lose the case. What this means is, if you’re harassed, you’d better be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, or you could end up paying your lawyer fees and the fees of the sleaze who harassed you.
This is problematic on so many levels. For one, sexual harassment is so nuanced. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been touched or rubbed by men in ways that made me uncomfortable, but if and when I called the men out on their behavior, they just acted as if I were super-sensitive, and they meant nothing by it. Also, most sexual misconduct happens without any witnesses. It really is your word against theirs.
Allow me to tell you another personal story.
Creepy Dude Alert!
Several years ago at work, I walked into my supervisor’s office.
“Hey, can I ask you a question?” I said.
“Yes. Yes, I want to f*ck you right here on this desk,” was his immediate response.
“Ewwwww!” I responded. “That is NEVER going to be something I’ll ask!”
Like many other sexual predators, he laughed and passed his inappropriate and unprofessional conversation off as a joke.
The thing is, he made jokes like this a lot—with many women at work. But no one was around to hear them, and it would be our word against his. So, you try to ignore it, laugh it off, or change the subject. We de-escalate the situation. We don’t want to be the troublemaker, lose our job, or be retaliated against.
Despite all that, I later heard one woman actually did file a complaint. However, nothing happened.
That’s not entirely true. He received a promotion.
This nuanced sexual harassment, disguised as, “I’m just kidding! Learn to take a joke!” is oftentimes too slippery to nail down in a courtroom. And as Jeremy’s Law reads, you have to be able to nail it down, and win your case, or you’ll be responsible for creepy dude’s law fees.
Another problem with Jeremy’s Law is the technicality of the law and how it’s presented in a courtroom. How many times have you heard that someone got off the hook, “with a technicality”? What this phrase means is that someone WAS GUILTY, but because of some small filing procedure, or some misprint the case got thrown out. I mean, this happens so often, entire TV shows revolve around it. I think Showtime’s Dexter was based solely on the main character’s ability to stock his kill room with bad guys who’d gotten off on technicalities.
The biggest problem to me, though, is how Jeremy’s Law will impact women. I mean, what do you think the chances are that a college intern will file charges against her harasser her when she could be held fiscally responsible for not only her law fees, but his law fees as well?
Yeah. I agree with you.
But tell me again how the Republican Supermajority wants to protect women from bad men in bathrooms?
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.