She was an exceptional legal secretary, a regal beauty, and an independent woman who repeatedly tried to ignore her boss’s advances. One day, upon his return from a foreign business trip, he presented her with a string of French pearls and a litany of love. It was the 1930s so the secretary saw no way out but to quit her job. That woman was my mother.
She was a motivated professional who took her work seriously. The first time it happened she worked for a medical board that certified physicians. At a formal dinner one evening, a doctor rubbed his hand up her leg under the tablecloth. She pushed it away. Later the doctor invited her on a trip to the Caribbean. She rebuffed him.
The next time, she was working in a different city when, standing next to her seated boss as he reviewed a document she’d handed him, he put his hand up her skirt. She slapped it away.
The time after that, she was on assignment in another country. Her work finished, she approached the local director to say goodbye. He grabbed her, kissing her on the lips. Repulsed, she pulled away. But once again she told no one, because it was a time when women didn’t speak of sexual harassment or sexual assault, there being no words for it She was silent because she didn’t want to lose her job or be accused of “asking for it,” and she knew nothing would be done about it anyway. That woman was me.
It isn’t necessary to cite other times it happened to me because by now everyone sort of gets the picture. And I was one of the lucky ones: I was never raped.
Now, thanks to a growing number of brave, bold, truth-telling women, we are finally talking about the rampant sexual assault and harassment taking place in just about every workplace you can name. We are naming names. We are outing a pervasive culture of sexual abuse that exists in this, and most other cultures. We are refusing to be complicit via silence, choosing now to raise our collective voices in order to press charges so that we can put an end to the madness of male power and its concomitant sense of entitlement.
We thought Anita Hill’s dignity and truth-telling all those years ago might have been the beginning we see now, but it didn’t happen then. Thankfully it’s happening now, because of a growing cadre of women who will no longer submit to second-class status, silence, or male prerogative.
Many of those women now hold public office. But they no longer hold their tongues. By telling their stories in the halls of power, they are starting to bring down men who insult them, trivialize them, accuse them of being liars and sluts, physically assault them, and once made them feel small and afraid.
There are men standing with us now too, taking up the fight against sexual harassment and abuse. Perhaps they heard playwright Eve Ensler when she said, “I am over the passivity of good men. Where the hell are you? You live with us, make love with us, father us, befriend us, get nurtured and mothered and eternally supported by us, so why aren’t you standing with us?” To those men, we say, it’s about time, and if they really kick in, thank you.
Rob Okun is one of them. He is a writer and psychotherapist who edited a collection called Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement. In a recent blog on www.counterpunch.org he wrote, “For decades, men who have never battered or raped would offer excuses for not standing up for women who faced harassment – and worse – offering this lame rationale: ‘I don’t engage in these behaviors, I’m a good guy, these are women’s issues, not mine.’ Those days are over. Sexual assault is not a women’s issue; it’s a community issue, and men, ready or not, we have to break our silence.”
In his piece, Okun credits women with “dragging domestic and sexual violence from society’s shadows” as they created rape crisis centers and shelter for domestic violence survivors. He credits the few men who stood with them initially as allies while coming to grips with their own passivity in the face of violence against women. He calls upon more men to act. He also calls out Donald Trump, who “has yet to pay a price for his sexual assaults.”
The work of Okun and other men working independently and alongside women is encouraging. But like gun violence, the problem of sexual harassment and assault will not simply disappear. It will take concerted group effort, and individual brazen acts. It will require telling our stories. It will take laws and enforced regulations in various workplaces. It will call for zero tolerance.
Can we get there in the age of Weinstein, Spacey and Trump? As one good man said not long ago, “Yes, we can!” But only, it seems, if we raise our voices, tell our stories, press charges, and vehemently declare Enough!