Sexual harassment is very complicated.
I need your help. I heard this story recently about a young, attractive teacher in a middle school. I’m interested to know what you think about it.
An inappropriate note was found on the boys’ bathroom wall about her. Her department head, who was male, told her that she had to learn to set limits in these kinds of situations. “She has to learn how to handle that and set limits.”
Luckily, I was on hand to consult this well-meaning soul. I thought it was an opportunity to sit all the boys down with all the male teachers and have a talk about how this kind of thing makes women feel and why it is wrong to do it.
He said, “Wouldn’t it disempower her if a man had to save her?”
Who’s problem is sexual harassment?
The man was not to save her but to show these young boys how to treat women with respect. Learning how to be a Stand Up Guy comes from man to man.
For sexual harassment, the school administration ought to be notified anyway.
I wondered why was this woman left to fend for herself as if it was her problem. This is what a woman hears:
Sorry, you are beautiful, you have to deal with this!
I am not for a minute advocating that she do nothing. I hope that she could gather her power and react in a way that helps her feel good about herself. And I hope people around her, namely this supervisor, can notice and honor her response. But, I am just saying that it is not her sole responsibility.
But this is a community problem, not only her individual problem.
Sexual harassment happens too often
Let me tell you a story. Once I was running on well tread path here in Rochester, I ran past two teen age boys, who immediately made a disgusting comment about me that they thought I could not hear. I turned around and spoke to them as a mother. (Since I could be their mother.)
“What did you just say?” Came my mama’s-angry voice. Shocked and tongue tied, they tried to tell me they weren’t talking about me.
“That is NOT how we treat women.” I stared them down to check comprehension and punctuated with, “Don’t do it again!”
Though I was shaken and embarrassed, I knew this was not about me.
I let them go ahead of me so I was no longer in front of them. All along I was aware of two middle aged men walking behind them and I matched my step to theirs as if being in a group could protect me. They acted all oblivious, even though I knew they heard. They were right there.
Even though I was powerful enough to handle the situation, I was hurt that they didn’t say anything. Not hurt for me, but hurt for women. Did they think this was OK? I knew they were fathers themselves since we were at a sporting event. What would they say if it was their sons?
A sexual harassment story from the 1970’s.
In a large corporation, there was a beautiful secretary. Men from all over the organization went out of their way to traipse past her desk to have a peek. It made her uncomfortable as a parade of men went past her each day trying to get her attention, or looking at her creepily. She told her male boss and he thought he was being understanding by suggesting she take her work in to the conference room. It wasn’t until he spoke to me some 40 years later that he realized that no one addressed the men’s behavior, and this must have made her feel horribly invalidated.
But she was probably so used to being invalidated, she might not have noticed it, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, it affected her. It affects all of us.
Not much has changed in 40 years. The more we say that “boys will be boys,” the more we allow the situation to stay the same. Respect is taught by the elders. We are the elders to the next generation.
It is up to us to model it. We have to teach respect in every action we take.
What you can do about sexual harassment
1. Be integrous.
There is a huge continuum of thinking it is OK not to do the right thing. You can’t teach one thing and then be inconsistent with another. If the waitress forgets to add your side dish to the bill, do you think you get away with something, or do you tell her? These little times are very important lessons for our children. Also, respect means not stealing, cheating or lying.
2. Keep your anger in check.
Anger is not an excuse to lose your values. Another person’s limits do not justify being mean. Anger is OK, violent behavior is not.
2. Treat people as you want to be treated.
We expect this means that they will treat us back the same way, but this is not always the case. We don’t treat people nice just so they will treat us back nice, we treat them nice because it is the right thing to do.
3. Be accountable for your own electronic use.
And then monitor your teenagers’ electronics. The anonymity of the internet allows people to be less respectful since they don’t have to be accountable to it. Adults and kids play with this freedom and are increasingly inappropriate, (e.g., Middle school boys ask girls to send them naked pictures.). This makes people hurt and uncomfortable.
4. Never talk about people in front of your children.
It’s nice after a hard day to come home and complain to your best friend: “Can you believe so and so did such and such?” But when you do this in front of your kids, you are teaching them this is OK.
5. Fathers, take time to talk to your boys about how to treat women.
Boys feel very uncomfortable and unworthy when they begin to like girls. Unfortunately, this causes them to tease girls to hide their true feelings. This makes me so sad because I was a victim of this in grammar school and I felt horrible.
6. Mothers talk to your daughters.
Let them know they can come to you to discuss anything. Tell them boys who treat them bad might like them, but that this is NOT OK. Talk to them about their friends and their friends’ boyfriends. You will get an earful of how some middle and high school boys treat girls. Help the girls stick together. Again, notice your daughter’s skills in setting limits with boys. Honor them.
The happy ending: The male department head went back the next day with a new plan to address the situation in the boy’s bathroom. The teacher appreciated that the administration handle it. Also, she felt valued as a human being.
Do you think I over reacted? Or do you think these men under-reacted?
Thanks, Harleena, for including me in the 20 Inspiring Women Bloggers of Aha-now!