#MeToo: Harvey Weinstein, the Pervasiveness of Sexual Harassment, and Why Women, Like Myself, Sometimes Choose to Remain Silent
Like Terry Crews, reading about Harvey Weinstein makes my stomach turn. It makes my stomach turn because Harvey Weinstein is a royal piece of sh*t and I have absolutely no sympathy for his fall from grace (like none. Whatsoever.). It makes my stomach turn because of the abject perversity of using one’s power and influence to coerce women into sex. But the real reason these allegations make my stomach turn is because it happened to me.
The hashtag is heartbreaking. It’s trending on Twitter like #yesallwomen. (My goodness gracious. smh.)
Every time someone mentions Harvey Weinstein I think about my life.
It happens to all of us — male and female alike.
Last week, my sister frantically texted me that a man was stalking her on her way to work. He waited for her at the subway station to harass her. A few weeks prior, a man in a truck shouted obscenities at her, licking his lips, and then turned his truck around, jumped out, running after her, clutching and rubbing his genitals. My sister had to run into a store for safety (thank God for that store manager who locked the doors and made sure my sister was safe).
I’ve always dreaded walking past construction sites. To this day, I still get anxious. I’ve had taxi drivers make me feel uncomfortable in their taxis. One demanded that I give him my number, after looking me up and down in his rear-view mirror. On New Year’s Day this year, I took a cab to the place where I was staying at 3 am in the morning (I thought buses were running all night, but I was apparently wrong). The taxi cab driver asked me to sit in the front seat with him, and then proceeded to ask me how old I was and if I was attached…
I can’t remember my first experience being harassed on the street because it was too far back. I must’ve been eleven? When I was walking down the road in Sherwood Content, Trelawney, Jamaica on vacation one day, I remember one guy yelling after me, “Ey, big batty gyal!!”
There was another Jamaican man who lived on our street growing up in Scarborough who would constantly harass my sister and I — ask us for our number, follow us home. One time he too even followed my sister to work.
Harassment has been part of my existence as a woman like having a period is part of a woman’s existence. In fact, I would argue that I was harassed before I even had my first period.
Sadly enough, I have come to expect very little from men I pass on the street. I had, however, at least expected that I would be treated with respect at work.
I’ve had one male boss greet me by saying, “Oh… too big body. You’re apple-shaped just like me” and bring me into a hug. I replied to a male boss about my work availabilites and he wrote back, “Best wishes to you, lovely Simone.”
I used to think (erroneously) that because I wasn’t “classically” beautiful (at least, in my eyes — I’m beautiful, yes, but not “blonde-haired, blue-eyed, hourglass figure” beautiful), that I would somehow be inoculated against sexual harassment at work. So when three colleagues on three separate occasions warned me about another male boss (one called me and said, “_____________ is a piece of sh*t”), I was on my guard but I wasn’t incredibly concerned.
Antennas were raised, however, when I had to give my first presentation. I could tell he had his misgivings as to whether I could pull it off. He obviously didn’t know me well, and didn’t know that I have spoken to audiences of a variety of sizes. He noticed and questioned the fact that I enjoyed being in front of people (anyone who knows me knows that this is my gift — I’m good with and in front of people). He told me, “You can’t just go there and be like, “’Look at me. I’m pretty. Look at my clothes.’ You have to have something of substance to say.” He then added that he was talking about himself, but I thought it to be a weird comment to make about oneself…
As my time there wore on, he would often tell me how great I looked. I quickly got the message that he would rather have me seen than heard. Many times I’d walk into his office and he would exclaim, with inappropriate enthusiasm, “You look great!” He’d comment on my clothes. He’d comment on my shoes. He’d comment on my hair. He’d comment on my general appearance. One time he told me “you look good every day, Simone” with a smirk on his face. He’d often tell me that I was beautiful. I sought his approval for an assignment I was working on and he called me “a beautiful genius.” I asked him for career advice and he proceeded to tell me how I was a “beautiful Black woman.” He told me on another occasion that I was “smart, beautiful… you’re an amazing person.” He told me that I was amazing quite often actually. I was writing something down one time and when I looked up, I noticed he had been staring at me. He came to and said, rather randomly “Remember, you’re amazing!” He’d flirt with me. He told me that he liked me. He called me his “dear Simone. You are my favourite person.” He’d tell me that I was one of his best employees. He’d take both hands and gently squeeze my shoulders or my arm. He picked lint off of the shoulder of my cardigan. He’d offer me apples or muffins or any other treats in his office. He’d often (as in, almost every day, for two months straight) invite me on his trips to the coffee shop, where he’d buy me tea. I never asked, and I was always willing to pay, but he’d insist on covering it. When I had a disappointing event occur to me at work, he gave me a heart-shaped Lindt chocolate and told me that his “heart was with me.”
He was married.
Then he’d chastise me for my lack of professionalism or tell me that I had some “growing up” to do.
I brushed many of these signs of attention as innocent compliments and niceties — as things that he would do because he was a “nice guy.” Everyone else in the office thought he was a “nice guy” after all.
I was in denial. I could not believe that I could be, or that I was being, sexually harassed at work.
All of my friends agreed with me that his comments were inappropriate, and they also agreed that it wasn’t much use to rock the boat and report the man, especially given the employment situation.
I also didn’t do anything about the attention that I received because, truth be told, I enjoyed the attention. I was flattered. It didn’t bother me — although it should have and although it was completely out of place and inappropriate. Because it didn’t bother me at the time, and because I didn’t feel like I was working in a toxic work environment, I brushed it off, carried on, and moved forward. He didn’t make any overt advances, I reasoned. He didn’t proposition me. He didn’t expose himself. He didn’t make sexually explicit jokes or have sexual content or media around the office. He wasn’t creepy. He didn’t suggest or pressure me to have sex with him, I rationalized. He never touched my breasts or my buttocks. He never fondled me. He didn’t oogle me… I think… (Actually… well…) It came with the territory of the job I told myself. I knew of other friends in similar positions who had been sexually harassed… Happens every day. I would Google other incidents of sexual harassment in order to see if my experience passed muster (I spent many nights reading about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill). I ultimately downplayed it and convinced myself that the few comments spoken did not meet the definition of sexual harassment.
But it bothers you now? some may ask. Yes. It does. Hindsight is 20/20. Given the circumstances at the time and where I was in my life and my career, I was vulnerable. I also may have had a slight crush on him (boy do I empathize with Monica Lewinsky. That’s another story). I was also very insecure — about myself and my body. I think he picked up on all of that — after all, they call them “predators” for a reason. Add that to the power dynamic, and it made for a completely inappropriate working relationship.
(I would just like to pause here and say unequivocally, for the record, that I never had sex with any manager or engaged in any sexual or intimate contact of any kind, in case you all are wondering. I, at least, always tried to keep it professional).
My heart just broke for her (and made me realize that Bill Clinton should also be added to the piece of sh*t list).
Low self-esteem is a horrible thing for many reasons. Low self-esteem makes you accept back-handed compliments — revelling in the compliments while the words hit you like the back of the hand that dealt them. You find it flattering when men visually undress you with their eyes. You misconstrue sexual harassment for flirting. You find it empowering that you can sexually arouse the other person, even if the arousal is in the wrong context. You reason that any attention is better than no attention at all — even if such intention is inappropriate and degrading. When a man tries to break up with you, you keep trying to crawl back.
But I digress.
My experience gave me a glimpse into the complicated reasons as to why many women do not report harassment, or sexual assault, or assault in general.
Sometimes it’s because we have lost faith in the complaint mechanisms. Sometimes we think it’s not worth it. Sometimes we pick our battles. Oftentimes we are intimidated by our perpetrator. Oftentimes it’s because the person/perpetrator is not monolithic. Oftentimes, the person is not all bad (or so we think/believe). Oftentimes the person is otherwise “good”; this confuses us all the more. Sometimes it’s because we still care about the person. Sometimes it’s because we are attracted to the person. Sometimes we are scared. Sometimes we think things will get better. Sometime we hold out for any improvement in their behaviour. Sometimes things do get better and the person stops. Sometimes the person is nice to us otherwise. Sometimes they make us feel like we are to blame — that we somehow caused the action/intention — a low cut shirt, an errant remark, bad behaviour, stepping out of line — whatever. Sometimes we believe the lie and assume the blame. Sometimes we feel as though we deserve the treatment. Sometimes there is gaslighting. Sometimes we try to retell the story and do so in a comical way so as to ease the pain and deflate the situation of its seriousness and grave nature. Sometimes, because of this, others don’t take us seriously. Sometimes people think we’re joking. Sometimes people cannot handle our truth. Sometimes we trivialize what happened to us as not warranting any action. Many times we don’t think we’d be believed. Sometimes we believe that we would be slut-shamed. Sometimes we say nothing. Sometimes we don’t report. Sometimes our friends and family dissuade us from reporting. Sometimes we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. Sometimes we just want to slink away and disappear and pretend it never happened. Sometimes we did play into it — we responded in kind, we “went along” with it, we enjoyed the attention, our bodies naturally responded to the unwanted touch or stimuli (in the case of sexual assault), sometimes we went back to the perpetrator, sometimes we try to get close to the person because, in a twisted way, we think that that would keep them from hurting us (again). We know that such actions have often been misunderstood or misconstrued by lawyers, by police, by panels, by adjudicators, by investigators, by hearing committees (think Jian Ghomeshi case)… and thus we feel like we have defeated ourselves — we feel twice defeated by the perpetrator and by ourselves. We feel that we have f*cked up. Sometimes we believe that the aforementioned complicated reasons would vitiate an otherwise valid case. Sometimes, they actually do.
And then sometimes, quite simply, they’re our boss.
Why do women come out of the woodworks now? Well, because often the passage of time allows for the development of our profession and platform such that we can stand up now more confidently with (perhaps a little less) retaliation and fear of reprisal.
Why do women come out now? Because the echoes of #metoo #metoo #metoo meld into a chorus and create a critical mass that can’t be ignored. We realize we are not alone. And while it is easy to dismiss the story of one person, it is much harder to dismiss the stories of thirty, or hundreds.
I have two law degrees, and yet even I don’t have faith in the legal system and complaint mechanisms and how sexual assault and sexual harassment are processed and treated. After five years of legal study, my greatest piece of advice to anyone (in any matter really) is to try to avoid the legal system altogether if you can help it.
That said, no matter the response to the sexual assault or aggression, the fact of the matter is that the actions of the sexual aggressor were wrong. The issue should be the action itself, and not one’s response to the action.
And yet we blame women. We blame victims.
So in my case, I cut my losses and started to see a psychologist instead.
Sexual harassment is pervasive. It’s ubiquitous.
As long as toxic masculinity exists, as long as men feel entitled to women — their sex, their attention — as long as patriarchy is embedded in the very fabric of our world (and it is), such will always be the story.
Sexual aggression — assault, harassment, whatever — is all about power. It’s all about power. It’s never about sex (although there is admittedly a sexual element). It’s about men exploiting power dynamics for their personal gain. It’s about disempowering the subject of abuse. It’s about humiliation. It’s about degradation.
The babysitter who sexually abuses the child in his/her care. The parent/step-parent who molests his/her stepchild. The uncle/aunt who rapes. The idiot who slips a date rape drug in the drink of someone intoxicated. The jacka*ss who won’t stop thrusting after you say “no”, even if the two of you are mid-coitus. The boss who asks to sleep with the intern in exchange for her professional advancement. The doctor who prescribes drugs in exchange for sex. The UN peacekeeper who gives candy in exchange for sexual favours. The man who groped Terry Crews. The president who grabs women by the pussy because he “can’t help it”…
There are power dynamics at play.
And anyone who exploits such power dynamics is “piece of shit” personified.
And yes — Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby and all men of their ilk are chief among them.
Originally published at simonesamuels.wordpress.com on October 16, 2017.