They say you always remember your first time.
The first time I was sexually assaulted, I was sixteen years old.
I had not long started a job working as a kitchen porter at a third-rate pub-restaurant and had been moved from the kitchen to the restaurant floor to wait tables, in which role I had a new manager.
My manager liked the shape of my ass in the tight black pants I had to wear and let me know it with a spank as I went about my work and an explicit comment as if her behavior needed any explanation.
This was my first job; she was my first manager, and that was my first direct and personal experience of sexualized abuse of authority. It came with all the typical feelings of being demeaned and undermined.
Like everyone else who’s ever held a job for a month or more, I learned that people use their position to get what they want, sometimes at the expense of those over whom they have some power. But then, that’s all too obvious: what else do people try to get but what they want, and what else would they use to get it but what they already have?
Fortunately, while technically and legally an assault, no real harm was done. It was somewhat disgusting – to an extent that could be called crass. It was ignorant. It was selfish. It was unprofessional. And by any reasonable definition, it was offensive. But the world is full of people – let alone behaviors - to whom all those adjectives apply – and I can’t say the act was actually malicious, meaning done with an intent to cause harm.
It certainly wasn’t the kind of thing that would allow me in good conscience to say “Me, too” in a room of people who have experienced true sexual assault or even sustained harassment.
Sexual harassment is a real thing. Sexual assault is a real thing. Rape is a horrific thing. And it all goes on in Hollywood because it all goes on everywhere. And it’s important to distinguish all of those things from what I was on the receiving end of, because it’s important to draw a clear, thick line between crass oafs like my manager and those who use sex – and therefore people - in a knowingly harmful way for their own gratification.
I feel that deeply, because my second experience of sexual assault – while rising only to the level of “attempted” because it was thwarted – involved much, much greater malice and an obvious attempt to victimize.
This second experience happened about eight years after the first, and again at a place of work. This time I was in my first “grown-up” job - in my second year at a prestigious corporate strategy consulting firm in London. As a junior consultant, I shared the services of an assistant, who booked my flights and hotels etc. The company had just taken on a new assistant, whom I’ll call Lisa. She was assigned to me and a few of my peers and it soon became clear that she wasn’t up to the job. Some essential things weren’t getting done and, very much contrary to the company culture, whenever she dropped the ball, she’d look for excuses or someone else to blame. Her aggressively defensive demeanor made it obvious to me that there was something in her personal life or history that was affecting her deeply and driving some of her strange behaviors.
A few months after she joined, the time came for professional reviews. The company had one of those “360 degree” review systems, meaning that each employee reviewed the people with whom he or she worked as a peer, as well as those above and below in seniority. I was sufficiently concerned by Lisa’s unprovoked animosity that before I was supposed to sit down for my mutual interview with her, I visited the Head of HR and expressed concern that Lisa may not be in a fit state to do it productively. In fact, I suspected that the outcome could be unpredictable and negative to say the least. The Head of HR knew what I was referring to, made sure I knew I had been heard, and then explained that it was important that we nevertheless go through all our normal procedures.
And so I did. At the end of the table in the conference room overlooking the beautiful Green outside, I deliberately communicated with Lisa with kindness, carefully avoiding anything that could be misinterpreted as condescension. As we began to broach our experience of working with each other, and without my laying out one criticism or making one accusation, her verbal attacks were launched. It quickly became clear that Lisa had already decided that I was there to make her look awful. The louder she got, the calmer I stayed. It was as if she was feeding off herself. I was young, and this was a new experience, and a fascinating one. Eventually, she reached her crescendo, swore at me, and walked out.
Not long afterward, I went to HR to let them know what had happened.
And the Head of HR told me that she was not in the slightest bit surprised. She told me, in fact, that Lisa had gone straight to her after our “review” to tell her that she had heard me make a sexually explicit and harassing remark to one of the other female employees of the company.
This was an assault much worse than the groping I had received eight years earlier. It was a concerted attempt by an individual to use sex – think about that - to get whatever it was she wanted in the moment by exerting power over another at a cost that could potentially last a lifetime. In its malice and intended harm, it felt to me, much closer to a true “sexual assault”, than what I had experienced at the hand (literally) of my manager eight years earlier.
Lisa was a predator and if she had succeeded, I would have been her victim. She failed only because I was lucky and she had been stupid.
Fortunately for me, Lisa didn’t know how well the woman whom she claimed had been my “victim” knew me. She also didn’t know how sensible our Head of HR was. My company was sufficiently small that people could use their common sense to take into account all relevant evidence, including my reputation and past behavior, and those of my “accuser”.
But would any of that have even mattered if Lisa had been smart enough in her deceit to make it a he-said-she-said thing by making herself the supposed victim, rather than another woman who could easily defeat the nonsense by refuting the lie, herself?
This is not the only time I have personally been involved in a situation in which a woman has used an explicit claim or suggestion of sexual impropriety to victimize an innocent man for a particular purpose with potentially devastating consequences. I have read that such false accusations are rare. That may be true, but since #MeToo is about bringing personal experience to bear on, understand, and solve a problem, this seems like the time to share it.
Am I saying that any of those incidences reach to the level of a physical violation? Not at all. But if we want to protect, and then reduce the number of, victims, I am concerned that we remember that our focus should be on real victims - meaning people who have experienced real harm.
Based my personal experiences, I’m not surprised to read and watch with increasing frequency stories of men who have been accused of horrific crimes, attracting resources and attention that should be directed at real victims and predators - only for the accusers’ stories to fall apart either in the media or in the courtroom not much later.
But why is that happening? It’s directly harming innocent people, and indirectly but indisputably harming real victims of real assault. Why is this particular flavor of false accusation a go-to move for (usually) women, who would do massive harm to another person for some personal gratification or, perhaps even, emotional convenience.
As a culture, we get what we incentivize. On the one hand, a real sexual predator victimizes (usually) a woman because not only can he not be found out in the moment but also he is protected from being found out in the future by the power he may hold over the woman’s career. On the other, another type of predator victimizes (usually) a man because not only can she not be found out in the present but also she is protected from being found out in the future by a weakened evidential standard and a culture that may have become all too quick to label all kinds of not-explicitly-invited sexual advance (as was made to me when I was 16) a matter that demands punishment or, at the very least, the recognition of an abomination.
In short, predators of both types do it because they can.
If the goal of #MeToo and similar efforts is to stop sexual assault, predation and exploitation – and surely it should be – let’s make it about exposing the truth at every turn. Yes, that should absolutely start with making our culture a safer environment for true victims to come forward. It also means being more careful about the words we use: not less so; considering as much evidence as possible when accusations are made: not only some of it; taking an approach to consent and gender relations that admits all of their biological, situational, personal and (often) communicational complexities: not simplifying them because we’ve already decided that people are probably victims or predators merely by belonging to one or other group.
But most of all - and this is why I have shared two personal stories here - it means being very careful about the meanings of words like “victim” and “predator”. The more we use the same words to describe very different people, with very different intents, doing very different things, the harder we make it to identify and help those who’ve been genuinely harmed and to identify and stop those who’ve been doing that harm.
Why do I feel this needs to be said at all? And why now?
Well, first off and most immediately, simply because a lot of people are attending to the issue, which is great: so if we want to talk about it, let’s address all the attended issues so we can stop everything and everyone that needs to be stopped.
Second and more critically, there has been a concerted effort in some Western countries to lower the evidential requirement in matters of alleged sexual crime – standards that have been evolved ever so carefully against test after test for the good of all members of society.
For example, there is even an enforcement paradigm that all such claims should be believed by default. (Question: why would anyone make up the story of an assault, after all? Answer: fundamentally, for the same reason another commits one.) And so on.
The critical point is that making more people victims by broadening the definition of victimhood doesn’t help victims in fact, but harms them. Similarly, making more people predators by broadening the definition of predator doesn’t stop real predators in fact, but abets them. And perhaps most importantly of all, making more people predators by definition doesn’t help victims in fact, but harms them.
If we want to stop the Cosbys and the Weinsteins and to protect the women whom they prey on – and I do - let’s not pretend that the manager who slapped my ass when I was 16 is anything like either of them. And let’s also be clear that Lisa - the woman who tried to destroy my career for her own edification - has something important in common with both of them.