The #metoo movement has begun and has brought up emotions for many people. I’ve heard shock from many of my male friends at seeing the extent of sexual harassment, to which my response is shock that they are shocked at how prevalent sexual harassment is. I assumed that more people knew that almost every single woman is affected by sexual harassment culture. Men are too, I know this, but for the purposes of this story, I am going to talk about women because I am a woman and that is the experience I know. Since the #metoo movement began, I’ve heard embarrassment and timidness from my female friends, I’ve heard outrage, confusion, shame, love, righteousness, bashing, and caring. I have had so many thoughts and feelings swirling around inside myself that it has taken me days to sit down and write about it, and here it finally is:
First, I want to say: if you haven’t experienced sexual harassment as a daily part of your existence – you just don’t know. Like many things in life, your mental idea of what an experience would feel like can only shadow the actual experience. You have no idea what it is like to constantly be in a fearful awareness of who and what is around you. If I am walking to my car in the dark, I get on the phone with a friend. If I’m going running on an infrequently used trail, I arrange to check in with someone at my expected return time. I keep my doors locked and look around my car in parking garages before I exit. I consider what I wear to go out running or drinking. I let my husband know when I am seeing male clients in my office if others have already left the building. The other day a leering male plumber came to fix my shower, and as I led him upstairs to show him the problem, I made sure to keep my exits clear (made him walk in front of me) so that I would not be trapped from escaping if I needed to. I look men in the eye as I pass them on the street because I was taught to in my Jr. high school self-defense class that this will reduce my chances of being a victim. Fearful awareness is a part of my daily life. It is part of me. If it is not a part of your existence, you can’t possibly understand. These examples are just about the situations that could possibly be dangerous, we (women) also experience daily the annoying non-fearful parts of sexual harassment culture.
The annoying daily-life experiences include being looked up and down, being catcalled, told to smile, hit on persistently, not having “No” heard (even around non-threatening things like, "Can I order you a drink?"), having to uncomfortably laugh off harassment from our co-workers, bosses, strangers and friends of the family. Having to ‘put-up’ with the subtle forms of harassment or be labeled a “bitch”, a “prude”, be told we are “over-reacting”, “paranoid” or my personal favorite, “You must be on the rag” as if our emotions are invalid because of our monthly cycle. As if the threat is not from men, but from our own blood. Often as a female, the cost of standing up for yourself is being put down.
When I was an early tween and teen, the attention I received from men rapidly increased. I remember how angry it made me when I got an extraordinary amount of attention for my looks. For me, it felt fake and insincere. I wanted people to like me for who I was on the inside, my brilliant mind, my funny nature, my caring ways – but in my life, I was getting attention for something that (in my mind at the time) was so incredibly stupid: my looks. To rebel, I grew dreadlocks. I wore baggy clothes. I became unattractive to fight it and to gain some of myself back. As I got older, I realized that this too was unfair. I enjoyed being a beautiful female. I wanted to celebrate my beauty and my body. I wanted my exterior to reflect my lovely interior. So, I embraced my beauty again and with it picked up all the trappings of our culture's acceptance of sexual harassment culture.
Even as I write this now, I experience shame for admitting all these things. I wonder if I am alone in this experience, even though I’ve heard many other women share the same kind of things. I’m scared that sharing this will make others dislike me and make unpopular. I feel that familiar wall wanting to be built to protect myself from being told I’m overreacting, that it’s my fault, or that I must be the weird one for experiencing life this way. That is how deep this issue permeates our culture. That for me, and educated, strong, bold woman who is trained to work with people around shame still experiences this closing down inside when I discuss this issue. If you are experiencing shame, I highly recommend the work by Brene Brown on shame resilience. It's okay to feel shame, in fact it is part of life. The good news is that you can learn to 'bounce back' from it rather than have it close you down in fear of further pain and disgrace. She has a wonderful book called Daring Greatly that touches on this subject, as well has an entire 12-step curriculum.
Because of the depth of sexual harassment culture, it’s not just assholes that are part of the problem, it is the problem itself. I think many nice guys don’t realize they are doing and saying things that make women feel uncomfortable. I think much of it is innocent and naïve in a way. Throughout the last couple days, my heart has gone out to the many men I imagine are cringing and thinking something like, “Oh crap, I’ve done that… but I had no idea I wasn’t supposed to.”
For example, when we were moving just a few years back and I was at U-Haul getting boxes and asking about moving services and the guy at the counter said to me,
“You’re a cute girl, you could just get a bunch of guys to help you for free. You don’t need to hire movers.”
I’m sure he wasn’t trying to be an ass, in fact, I bet he was trying to be nice and funny - but his comment put me in an uncomfortable situation. I didn’t know how to proceed. If I pursued hiring movers, did that mean I wasn’t cute, or I didn’t know how to get guys to help me, or that I was a prude or an overreacting bitch… did it mean I was doing something wrong? It also was just like being a little girl again – my value was because I was pretty. He didn’t say,
“You are a really nice, funny girl, I bet you have friends that could help.”
I didn’t deserve help because of who I was but because of how I looked. I could tell you a million more stories like this. Of guys being “nice”, “flirting” with me or “complementing" me… where it just didn’t feel good to receive. It’s so subtle sometimes, it’s difficult to talk about and hard to describe.
So, what did I do in this situation, standing at U-haul feeling unsure of myself? I did what 95% of women in these situations do, I giggled femininely and brushed it off, because god-forbid I made him feel uncomfortable.
Other times, I've had men enjoy the power of making me feel uncomfortable. I remember one time I was staying with a family (husband, wife, and child) in Santa Cruz. These were friends of friends who put my boyfriend and me up for the weekend. One morning the husband/father and I went out to pick up coffee and pastries for everyone and bring them back to the house. I drove in his car with him to the bakery. When we got there he suggested that we sit down for a few minutes. He then proceeded to explain to me over coffee that men were biologically bigger than women so that rape was possible and the human race could continue. I was 5'2” and 100#, can you imagine how it felt to get back in the car with him? Can you understand how difficult it would have been to not get back in the car with him?
Once I worked for a business where the owner systematically programmed his female employees to accept his sexual harassment and it became less and less subtle as it wasn’t rejected. It started with a hand on the upper thigh at the job interview, a charming smile and something disarming said like,
“We are all family here, you can just think of me as your crazy uncle.”
Then during training a few weeks later when he asks her to come sit next to him to go over the training manual he quickly slides his hand on the bench, and when she accidentally sits on it, (and he feels up her ass) he laughs and says,
“Oops you sat on my hand!”
As if it was a mistake. As if it was her fault. Days are peppered with comments about how close he is with his team, how no one on the team is a prude, how everyone on the team is so open and loving… all statements to make it less and less popular to stand up for yourself. Then it graduates to comments about her body, appreciation for her breasts.., and then oops –he ‘accidentally’ touches her breast one day. And it continues. You can imagine how this story goes.
As the manager, when I stand up for it and demand it stops – I am fired. Oh, did I mention that this man is a respected member of the community with a reputation for being a philanthropist? This even makes it harder for the young women he hires to trust their own feelings that what is happening is wrong, or to take action to make it stop.
In fact, I think many women are programmed to think they like it, and that makes it all the more confusing. It DOES feel good to get attention, it DOES feel good to be complimented and appreciated. I’ve had men say things to me like,
“I can’t help it, you’re so hot, you make me so crazy”,
and as a young woman I thought this was empowering, I thought I held the power; I thought this was a compliment about me. When I was in my 20’s, these kinds of things would make me think,
“Wow, I guess I’m so pretty that men can’t control themselves around me”,
and the strange thing is that thought made me feel good about myself and my struggling self-esteem.
Today as a 38-year-old woman, if I a man I was not in a consensual relationship with said this to me I would see him as a weak man or a man manipulating me to get what he wanted. These kinds of statements are acceptable (and great) within the context of a relationship, but never from a stranger, a boss or a coworker. In those settings it is inappropriate. If my story does anything, I want it to help you understand how deeply complicated this issue is.
I don’t have the answer, but I think we need to talk about it. I think the first step to finding the answer is to bring it out into the light, to no longer allow for this to be a hidden thing that lives in the shadows. We need to hear from women and from men. We need to hear the stories of all the subtle ways sexual harassment permeates our culture. I don’t owe anyone my story, and neither do you. The telling of my story isn’t because it is owned, but because it is a truth that I want to speak.
Mindy Amita Aisling
ICF Life Coach,
NFPT Fitness Trainer,
OMA Certified Mediator
Mindy Aisling is a certified life and business coach in Bend, OR, exceeding all of the educational requirements & training set forth by the ICF.
She has worked with such organizations as St. Charles Hospital, Soroptimists, The Dispute Resolution Center, Olympic Medical Center, Americorps, and Juvenile and Family Services.
Mindy has been featured in the New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Bend Bulletin, The Peninsula Daily News, KOMO 4 TV, The Oregonian and many more. You can learn more about Mindy here.
Mindy offers professional, affordable online coaching to clients around the world, and local coaching to clients in Bend, Oregon.
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