All the recent hoopla surrounding Harvey Weinstein has my attention. Not because a rich man in a powerful position has abused his station and sexually harassed women. I’m certain that has been going on since the beginning of time. What has my attention is that one woman decided to risk it all and speak up. She could have lost her career, her reputation, her family, everything. Even though she didn’t do anything wrong. Because that’s the way it goes. But then another woman spoke up. And another. Until there was a veritable landslide of them; too many to deny. “TIME” magazine had his face on the cover last week calling him a pariah and a predator. Them’s fightin’ words. It kind of feels like society has her back. That’s new!
In my personal life, over this past week these recent events have opened up conversations between my female friends and me. Women are starting to feel like it’s ok to share their stories. To say something. I’m seeing one woman take a trembling breath and say, “So you know all this stuff that’s been happening lately? Well, I had this thing happen to me…” and it gives confidence to me or the friend next to her to share a similar story.
One friend was 18 when she worked for a sexual predator. It was well-known that he would harass and even sleep with the young girls he hired when he could. She used to ride her bike to work. She went back to the bike rack one day to find her boss and the other men taking turns sniffing her bike seat and making comments about her person. She’d never been so embarrassed or humiliated. She was 18 and needed the job. What could she do, her against a whole group of men?
Another friend had a recent experience in a work meeting. She was the only woman in the group. The leader of the meeting asked if anyone would mind if he started out the training session with a little humor. No one objected. Who doesn’t love a funny cat video? Instead he proceeded to show a video called “The Universal Hot vs Crazy Matrix” which describes women on an x-axis and y-axis hot being a scale of 1-10 and crazy from 4-10 because “as we all know, there’s no such thing as a woman who’s not crazy.” He goes on to talk about not dating or hanging out with women who are “not hot enough”. The rest of the class chuckled nervously and shifted in their seats, glancing at my friend, uncertain how to react. She sat there, totally outnumbered, very uncomfortable. She went to her boss to complain and the boss did nothing.
When I was a kid, we had a family friend, a single man in his 20’s or maybe 30’s who went to our church and lived maybe a mile down the street from us. He used to hang out with a group of us little girls. He would take us shopping and once offered to buy one of the girls a bathing suit but only if she modeled it for him. He used to come to our house once a year to plow under our old garden in order to prep it for a new planting. My brother and I loved to help drive the tractor. One year, when I was maybe 10 and my brother 7 or 8, this man said we could help him drive the tractor home. We begged my parents and jumped up and down with glee when they said ok. We could just walk back home through the apple orchards. I was wearing an oversized Hawaiian shirt of my dad’s for some reason. As we chugged down the road the wind caught my shirt and blew it part way open. I grabbed at it to close it. “What? Why are you embarrassed?” he said. That made me uncomfortable. When we got to his house, he told me he had candy but that I would have to come to his bedroom to get it. I was 10. I liked candy. I followed him. (Warning Will Robinson!) He grabbed me and threw me on the bed and started to pull and grab at me asking didn’t I like to be tickled? I was very frightened and shrieked and kicked. My little brother burst into the room shouting, “YOU LEAVE MY SISTER ALONE!” attacking him with the fury and little fists of a 7-year-old. We both bolted home. Thank God he was easily dissuaded. I didn’t say anything for years. I don’t know why. I guess maybe I thought I would get in trouble or he would get in trouble and in the end, nothing actually happened. Years later when I did say something to someone I was told I probably misunderstood the situation. I accepted that at the time. But now, being a little older, a little wiser, and a little more cynical, I think probably not.
A few months back I read a book called “Secrets of the Talking Jaguar” by Martin Prechtel. It’s an autobiography of sorts revolving around the author who moves to Central America and ends up becoming a shaman in a remote Mayan village. As a young man, travelling through Guatemala, he falls in love with a young Mayan girl who works at a hot chocolate stand. Soon they are courting. But one evening, he stands her up for a date. The next morning he shows up at her chocolate stand as if no big deal, sorry about that, and where were we? To his surprise she dumps the whole vat of scalding chocolate across the counter sending all the men tumbling backwards out of their seats. She starts to climb over the counter, ladle in hand, shrieking like a banshee. The other local women join in the fray and they literally chase him out of town. I laughed out loud to picture him running for his life, being pelted by carrots and corn cobs by a mob of angry women, hoisting their prolific skirts in order to run through the mud and give him a run for his money.
But then I was overcome by a wave of profound grief. We don’t protect our women that way.
When I was going through my divorce I started dating someone, a friend I had known for several years. The last words my (ex) husband spoke to me were, “No one will ever love you again.” When this friend told me he loved me, I grabbed onto those words and that hope like a ship wrecked sailor would a life ring. See? You’re wrong. Somebody can love me. Does love me. Turns out it was all a funny game to this guy who was cheating on me and lying to me from day one. Taking advantage of my vulnerable state. When he finally got bored and dumped me for one of the various other women he’d been seeing, I cried and complained loudly to our community and mutual friends. I don’t know what I expected. I guess I hoped the women would rally to me and throw hot chocolate on him and pelt him with carrots. But instead, I became the pariah, I was “crazy”, I wasn’t invited to parties anymore, several people physically and literally turned their back when they saw me or turned their head and refused to return my “hello”. I broke the code. I wasn’t supposed to have said anything. I was supposed to keep smiling, just be cool. The betrayal by my lover was compounded 100 times by being rejected by our community. Every morning when I woke up I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach as I remembered.
I think this is why women don’t speak up.
On the flip side, I have witnessed the financial, relationship and emotional distress caused to a male friend when he was untruthfully accused of sexual harassment at work. All I can say is, “Girl, that’s not cool.” Not only is lying wrong, but you do a disservice to him, to you, and ESPECIALLY to all the women before and after you who really did suffer and were fearful to speak. You are like the boy who cried wolf. You made it harder for women who really should speak, to do so and be believed. Shame. On. You.
I guess this whole thing really has my wheels turning. This is America. Land of the free, home of the brave. We are a paragon of forward thinking and equal rights…aren’t we? Maybe we aren’t. Maybe that’s just a shiny skin covering up a rotten apple. I always thought we were pretty progressive. Looks like we still have some work to do. But at least we are talking about it. Even a little step in the right direction, is still a step in the right direction.