Tuesday, July 22, 2008

no, really

This was written in response to
I'm very fond of wrongplanet as an interactive set of writing prompts. . . it's full of charming and stunningly opinionated people, some of whom are quite smart.

With the understanding that things can indeed be blown out of proportion, creating an unfair and legislatively hostile environment for men, I submit my bid that sexual harassment is a real and serious problem.

One of my tutors when I got my CELTA certification told me about the harassment she experienced fully veiled as an English teacher in the middle east. Recalling the coupling of mandatory veiling and gender segregation (implying woman's responsibility for ambient male lust and failure to restrain themselves) with pervasive, constant, extreme harassment was clearly still difficult for her more than twenty years after the fact. I believe two thirds.

I think a the threatening/blaming environment sexual harassment creates for women is probably not uncommon around the globe. It was rampant at the public high school I attended. At the start of each school year we spend days reviewing a ream of paperwork about the behavior, objects, and language that weren't allowed in school, as they would be disruptive to the learning process.

For a full year, there was a boy in the lunch hour I was required to attend who would sit near me and spew graphic, violent, sexually demeaning language directed at (and often about) me for the entire period. The teachers, who guarded the door three feet away against anyone's exit, would respond to my complaints with "ignore him and he'll leave you alone" or "boys will be boys."

I didn't attend my senior prom because as a preface, all seniors were required to attend an assembly devoted to telling the girls how to dress for the event--how, if you bend over and we can see everything, your neckline is too low. Anti-social being that I was, I sat alone in the back, which worked fine until a group of boys came and sat directly behind me. They decided to amuse themselves by laughing loudly close to my ears, closer and closer till I could feel their breath on my neck. Ignoring them didn't work; asking them to stop didn't work. I was not permitted by the rules of the place to get up and move, and indeed there was a teacher/guard only a few feet away.

Telling them to shut the f**k up and leave me alone didn't work either. When they started reaching over my shoulder and grabbing my shirt, I stood, crumpled the paper I was holding, and threw it with forceful impotence at the nearest offender at hand. For some reason this caught the attention of our jailer, who also wanted to know why I was about to leave unless someone physically restrained me. She berated me for having thrown the paper--if not for that, she could have done something about their behavior. (even today, I can't help but think--WTF?)

As an adult, I've faced incidents that came upon me for such un-toward actions as walking down my quiet, college town street at night (followed slowly by a carload of shouting men) or answering my phone. . . incidents that were not just annoying, uncomfortable, or invasive, but which inspired substantial and legitimate fear.

While I don't feel I should have to point this out, I am not spectacularly beautiful, nor do I dress immodestly. All of these incidents took place with strangers. This isn't about flirtation; it's about some combination of pigheaded boorishness and casual abuse of power. I suspect that in the times when harassment runs the other way along the gender gradient, the causes are the same.

The most insidious part of this scenario by far is the strong underlaying message--that a woman's place is to be a good sport, to ignore it so that it will go away, to let boys be boys. We have those reams of paperwork everyone hates, but they exist to be hated and maybe ignored--except by wounded men who complain at having lost the freedom to tell their co-workers that that's a nice sweater.

If you are one of those men, well meaning, possibly just unaware, I am sorry that harassment legislation has made your social burden greater. I still feel the need to beg of you the following:

Please, be a gentleman. Don't complain. It doesn't take many bad assholes to create an environment where (in one of many possible contexts for an example) it's not paranoia to wonder if I've been hired because my boss likes looking at me, or if I'll be fired should I complain about his frequent "friendly" compliments. Competing on equal grounds that are all about competence is not as simple a problem as it may first appear, and particularly for those who really don't want to rock the boat--most people--legislative protections are not nearly as strong as they appear.

And when you flirt--and I hope you do, because flirting can be fantastic, even as an end in its self--try to be careful about what it might feel like from the other side. Remember that that threatening atmosphere you've probably never been on the wrong end of can color your gestures into what they were never meant to be. Be non-threatening, be non-invasive, be gentle, and be excruciatingly careful to respect the woman you're trying to seduce. That's probably more what you'd want a relationship to be about anyway.


Anonymous said...

Quite smart people on WP? I tend to doubt *that*. :) ... Ok, I will admit that your love of Simone de Beauvoir can help clear up ethical questions.

The major issue is setting up rules for such instances. Certainly, I think women should have some recourse other than to accept cruelties, but cruelty should not be met with cruelty. If we act wrongly when folly faces us, people's lives can be ruined for stupid trifles, and that is the fear I have of modern society.

What I do counter with though, is that everything is about power. The issue is how this power is and can be directed. The world is made up of broken shards of people, no matter how we act, the wounded will always cry out, perhaps for mercy, perhaps for apology, and perhaps for vengeance. The question is never what good you want to do, but what evils do you accept.... I am cynical to the law though.

Day said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Day said...

um. . . thanks. :)

First, I didn't say Everything was about power. I said that this particular trend was about some combination of pigheaded boorishness (the stupidity that leads some men to believe really frightening and invasive things can be good flirting) and power.

I think legal hare-triggers are hardly the least frightening thing about modern society.

You may also note that I did not sue the school where I was legally required to be, the teachers, or the other students. I posted a blog on the internet asking people to be nice.

I'm definitely not saying that my choice is always the best choice, but one of it's advantages seems to be that it's pretty damn hard to attack.

May I have a context/elaboration for "the question?"

Logan said...

Jesus, what is the deal with high school being so routinely nightmarish? I'm sorry.