Pushing Back on Sexual Harassment

By Chris Barton, Editor-in-Chief

The week before spring break, I attended a meeting. During the conversation, there was an offhand comment made about a shared physical feature of two of the women in my class. It was just a passing mention – I don’t even remember the context – but it caused the two other men at the table to cast a knowing glance at each other. They each had that far-too-familiar look in their eyes that indicated they were searching for an audience to witness their impending performance of machismo. For a second, the two of them communicated with raised eyebrows and smirks. It wasn’t subtle. One of them turned his glance to me, back to his friend, and then proclaimed – for whose benefit, I don’t know – that the three of us were “on the same page.”

The two women at the table rolled their eyes and went back to their conversation. I think I laughed uncomfortably. The whole thing was over in a few seconds. But the moment has stuck with me for almost two weeks. I’ve been playing it over in my head, over and over, trying to determine whether I read the situation right – and if I did, what I should have done. Because I’m pretty sure that this otherwise charming fellow made a fantastically inappropriate and sexually charged comment about my friends, whom he knew only by a single physical feature. And he implicated me in it.

#MeToo has been a welcome and necessary addition to the conversation in this country. However, I can’t help but feel like many of the men around me are missing the moment, and missing the lesson. They offer sympathies to the victims and reproofs to the perpetrators, but they see #MeToo as someone else’s battle. Men who aren’t creeps like Harvey Weinstein or victims of sexual assault themselves have a hard time recognizing their place in this moment.

But we do have a place. Because the problem isn’t just Harvey Weinstein or Lawrence Krauss — it’s all of us. It’s everyone who thinks it’s okay to make comments like the one I heard at that meeting. And it’s people like me, who sit there and allow such comments to be made.

The lesson from #MeToo, as I see it, is that sexual harassment isn’t an isolated problem. It’s not just a single action; it’s a pattern of behavior. It’s not perpetrated by a handful of bad individuals outside civilized society; it’s encouraged and enabled by our society. Our culture’s long history of condescending to and sexualizing women has led us to a place where sexual harassment is a commonplace – even expected – part of daily life.

A recent episode of “This American Life,” which unwound the stories of several women who were harassed by their boss at AlterNet, highlighted how much they had to deal with before their boss’ behavior was recognized as a problem. A thousand little gestures, remarks and actions were let slip before he was held accountable. The mountain of harassment was allowed to build until even the most willfully blind had to acknowledge its existence. It was the same story with Weinstein, Krauss, Nasser, and all the other men who have proved to be predators.

Why do we let the little things slip? Why did the people at AlterNet allow their boss to get away with so much? Why didn’t I say anything at dinner two weeks ago?

We could say it has to do with respecting the privacy of others, or the bystander effect. I attribute much of it to the way we men were taught to behave around each other and toward women. But I could talk for days about how we got here, bring in bell hooks and Foucault; what it comes down to is that inaction has become normalized. We’ve learned to ignore all but the most egregious forms of harassment and assault. We’ve managed to convince ourselves that an off-color remark in a casual setting is categorically different than a violent assault. The former is a harmless joke, the latter a crime.

But the difference is one of degree, not of type. The unwelcome statement at my meeting and the crimes of Weinstein & Co. spring from the same source: both have, at their root, a feeling of entitlement to the bodies of women. A feeling that a woman is to be understood first and foremost as a sexual body, one that is available for comment, speculation or use with little regard to the wishes of the person who owns it.

Sexual assault is a cultural cancer, not an individual crime. People like Weinstein, Krauss and Nasser are the tumorous symptoms of a deeper issue. We can cut out the tumors when they get too bad, but a better approach is to make sure that they don’t grow at all. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If we care about our society – if we care about our fellow humans – we have an obligation to push back against this disease, and to do what we can to prevent it from spreading.

At my meeting, I had the opportunity to push back against sexual harassment. If I had called out that comment as what it was – creepy and inappropriate – I could have helped de-incentivize, for those two men, the words and actions that are the start of every #MeToo story. Maybe they wouldn’t act that way in the future. Maybe they would push back when others act that way. We could have contributed to a world where the next #MeToo story stops before it even starts; where the disease of sexual assault stays in remission.

Unfortunately, these kinds of actions – disrespectful comments, unwelcome touching, even full-blown assault – are everywhere. I see them in meetings, on the street, in places of work and places of relaxation. I saw them during my undergraduate at ASU, while I was working as a teacher, and I see them here, at Thunderbird. So it won’t be long before I once again have the opportunity to push back. And this time, I’m going to take it. And the next time, too. And the time after that.

It will probably be uncomfortable for everyone. I’ll probably ruin a networking session or two. I might even lose some acquaintances. But I’ll never again have to feel the regret that I’ve been harboring for the last two weeks. I’ll no longer be implicated in the dehumanization of my friends and my colleagues. And rather than feeling impotent in the face of the cultural cancer that is sexual assault, I’ll know that I’m doing my part to push back.

You should too.

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