I can still see the sweat beaded on his top lip—can still feel his hot, sour breath on my cheek and ear and neck. He was well over six feet and easily pushing 300 pounds and 40 some odd years, which meant that my 100-pound, 19-year-old frame was no match for his girth or his game. “When you and I sleep together, you’re going to really enjoy it,” he whispered as I waited in the restaurant kitchen for the chef to finish cooking my table’s dinner order. He whispered those words because he knew he was wrong for saying them. And though the small jazz club was full of patrons, two fellow waitresses and a big, burly chef just steps from where my boss and I stood, I never felt more scared, more physically threatened, more vulnerable in my young life. But I couldn’t push him away. Or curse him out. Or tell his boss, the owner of the club.
Because I thought fighting back against my manager would escalate things.
And, truth be told, because I needed the paycheck.
This is how sexual harassment works, you know. Someone in a position of power, usually a man, uses his status, his strength, his position, his bravado, his bone-headed sexist brain, to debase and intimidate his victims, usually women. And though they sear our psyche like hot fire, the harasser/abuser’s advances, their words, their suggestions go unchecked because their victims are rendered powerless by this stupid, illogical misogynistic notion that if it doesn’t bleed or bruise, it’s no big deal.
Well I can tell you that sexual harassment is a big deal. And it’s high time that we stopped pretending that it isn’t. Or at least stopped letting the national discussion on sexual harassment veer off into a raucous accounting on race and political spin and the media.
Yes, I’m looking right at you, Herman Cain. And you, Fox News. And you, too, conservative pundits who use your screwy logic to distract from the real issue at hand: the power and dominion we give boys who turn into loutish men who haven’t a problem lording their authority over women and then dismissing their own nasty ways as inconsequential. Or worse, denying it ever happened, even when there’s paper trails and pay outs to show that someone else believes that it did.
Sexual harassment happens. A lot. We all got stories. The most egregious ones get told. Maybe even dealt with. But all too many of them go unspoken and unhandled. Like when the 5th grade boy snaps the bra strap of the 5th grade girl. Like when the 7th grade boy ogles and points at the budding breasts of the 7th grade girl. Like when the 9th grade boy sends inappropriate, sexualized texts and pictures to the 9th grade girl’s phone. Like when the 12th grade boy tells the whole school that the 12th grade girl puts out, even when she doesn't. Even if she does. Like when the college freshman boy thinks sharing a couple of beers with the college freshman girl means he has license to put his hands down her pants or his tongue down her throat. Like when the 30-something man on the street whistles and catcalls after the 30-something woman sharing the same sidewalk as him, only to call her a “bitch” if she refuses to act as if his “hey luscious, with that fine, fat ass” is the best pick-up line, like, in the history of pick-up lines ever. Like when the 40-something boss tells a 19-year-old waitress that they're going to have sex, and the sex will be friggin awesome. Even when she’s most certain that it will not be friggin awesome at all. And did nothing more to warrant the advance/harassment than be a pretty, young female waitress at a jazz lounge.
Here’s a suggestion: How about when the sexual harassment claims of the Clarence Thomases and Herman Cains of the world surface and researchers report the soaring numbers of teenage boys already launching lewd sexual conduct toward girls, we have a meaningful discussion about how to fix the madness and seek relief from the anguish—emotional, mental, physical, financial—sexual harrassment causes? And how about that discussion begin with how we raise little boys, who learn practically from the moment the sonogram splays his little penis on the monitor that he’s the ruler of the Earth, conquerer of all things—including and especially his female counterparts? How about we stop letting the sexist attitudes of television, film, video games, uncles, brothers, mentors, team mates, coaches—and the inaction of us moms—teach our boys that it’s okay to act like sexist little brutes when girls and women are involved?
How about we start teaching our little boys how to be men—men who open doors and pull out chairs and speak respectfully to women and treat them like ladies? Exactly the way he would want someone to treat his mama? Or his auntie? Or his sister? Or his grandmother?
Even better, how about we teach little boys that little girls are their equals?
Radical, I know.
After all, I’ve got two daughters who are depending on us adults to level the playing field—to make something as simple as walking down the street, or sitting in a classroom, or working in an office a safe place for them to be without some man's unwanted hot, sour breath on their their cheeks and ears and necks.