Sexual harassment and the danger of silence
As a psychologist and a father, I’ve been heartened by women coming forward and telling their stories of sexual harassment. I remember well, in 1991, the hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice. Anita Hill courageously came forward with her stories of Thomas’s inappropriate behavior. It was a clarifying moment for many women. Several of my close friends revealed their accounts of being groped, propositioned, or manipulated by men in power. It was liberating for women to bring these experiences out of the closet into the light of day.
It’s sad that 26 years later sexual abuse in the workplace is still in the news. But even worse, women still feel unable to tell their stories. Why do we have to wait for famous actresses to come out of the closet to realize that sexual exploitation continues?
As a man, I feel ashamed that so many of my gender have looked away or remained silent when they knew that this was going on. But I also understand the inclination for silence among the victims and in the workplace.
In my early 30’s, before I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I had two experiences with female supervisors that were uncomfortable and inappropriate. I also remained silent. One boss made it clear to me that she had affairs with married men and intimated that she would be more than willing if I was one of them. Needless to say, I felt extremely uncomfortable with her inappropriate suggestion. Her comment was made during my weekly meeting with her at her office. But I didn’t say anything to her superiors. I was a new father and I needed the job. And it would have been easy for her to deny what she said. In another job during those years, my boss put her hands on my shoulder or legs when she met with me. It made my skin crawl and I would avoid meeting with her or find ways to put barriers between us. I remained silent. I was worried that I would be seen as the problem if I brought this to the attention of her boss. Bringing these stories out might have threatened my career and my livelihood.
There is no question in my mind that there are far more women who are victims of this kind of inappropriate behavior. But I suspect that this is not just because of the way that males are socialized or how men are constituted. It’s also because there are many more men in positions of power in the workplace than women.
Indeed, I have met many men that have experienced sexual abuse as children perpetrated by females. These encounters have been just as damaging and disturbing as those experienced by their female counterparts.
Taking advantage of others, abusing one’s position of authority, opportunism, and acting without regard to its impact on others are all aspects of human failing. Indeed, it’s not a new idea that power corrupts.
But another feature of our human flaws is silence. Fear keeps us from speaking up. Silence allows others to go unchecked. Silence condones unacceptable behavior. Silence maintains the status quo. Silence keeps us from being the individuals that we hope to be.
Let us celebrate the voices of those who are speaking up. Let us find our own voice when we see something that is wrong.