Like many women of the Baby Boom generation who’ve worked outside the home, I’ve experienced the full range of sexual harassment and attempted abuse from absurd comments to unwanted touches or gropes to absolutely scary assaults.
I’m delighted that we women have won the right to declare our bodies off limits to attackers and to call them out is a victory. That the men who engage in the full spectrum of sexual harassment from the juvenile to the criminal are being brought to account is good. That those called out have lost their right to a fair hearing and self-defense is not.
I am disturbed by the mob mentality that seems to have overtaken the nation in addressing the problem. It is one thing to accuse, quite another to equate accusation with guilt.
While old enough to catalogue decades of the harassment, I am also old enough to remember or know about parallel periods in history that are stains on the nation. Those who are calling for and enacting summary judgement — particular those who consider themselves progressives and liberals — might want to consider their actions in the light of history.
As a young woman working in the film industry in Los Angeles, I experienced first-hand the many faces of sexual harassment and discrimination. But what also stayed with me were the lessons I learned from the screenwriters, directors and producers who had been victims of McCarthyism. While history has recorded the plight of the most famous among them — the “Hollywood Ten” — hundreds of others were summarily banished from the industry on the suspicion that they were members of or had sympathy with the Communist Party. Writers like Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner and Lillian Hellman. Directors like Abe Polansky. Singers like Paul Robeson and Lena Horne. Some moved to Europe, others worked under assumed names and still others were simply unemployed. They and more than 500 others were fired by the studios just as their counterparts in the federal government were fired from their jobs.
One need not look only at Hollywood or Washington for example unjust summary justice. No one should forget the hundreds of black men lynched, not by the decision of any court but as a result of accusations that they had assaulted or whistled or looked the wrong way at a white woman. One can also harken back to the Salem Witch Trials where 14 women and 6 men were executed on the accusations that they were possessed by the devil.
I suspect that, if asked, those who are calling for immediate firings and resignations of accused abusers would heartily condemn these prior events.
We, as women and as a society are strong enough to create a process that provides justice to the perpetrators as well as the victims of harassment and abuse. Women have long fought for the acknowledgment that they are to be believed. And all should be glad that this is finally happening. But just as it is time for the abused to have their voices heard, we must allow that the accused, rather than being summarily condemned, have theirs heard as well — be it as an apology or a defense or a denial. And then we must weigh the evidence.
As important, we need to move forward in a manner that distinguishes the degrees of harm we have endured. While we women rightfully call for an ending to all unwanted sexual overtures, we also know that there is a difference between the unwanted pat on the butt or the unasked for kiss by a coworker and the unwanted pat on the butt or the unasked for kiss by someone who has power over our jobs or our futures. Similarly, there as a difference between such harassment and attempted or actual rape. To blur the distinction and just use the term “survivor” exaggerates the impact of the former while diminishing, unwittingly or not, the trauma inflicted by the latter.
We can do better. Just as we begin to define what is acceptable behavior, we can enact workplace policies that protect women (and men) — both from harassment and as important, from retaliation from bosses and supervisors when inappropriate behavior is called out. We can — indeed must — establish or strengthen review processes so that the rights of both the accusers and the accused are protected.
We can use the power of the vote to expel those who trample women’s rights and promote those who champion women, and the economic and social policies that empower us.
And finally, understanding that sexual abuse is more about power than about sex, we can place more women in the board rooms, in the producer and director’s chairs, in the House and the Senate where power is wielded and held.
One of the things that struck me during the women’s marches of this past January is the strength and leadership of women. As I looked at the assembled speakers here in Chicago, it was clear that virtually every struggle — from the Fight for $15 to immigrants’ rights to the Movement for Black Lives is being led by women. At this critical juncture, it’s time for women to lead on the issue of sexual abuse, modeling the kind of leadership that will bring both an end to exploitation and a model of resolution with justice.