“Why didn’t they report their sexual harassment sooner?”

An erstwhile friend said to me, “I don’t get it.  Where were these women 20 or 30 years ago?  Why didn’t they report this sexual harassment when it happened?”  And followed it up with, “Isn’t someone supposed to be innocent until proven guilty?”

A Sexual Harassment Story

My face must have shown my displeasure because she quickly said, “Don’t get me wrong.  I believe them—well, some of them.  But here’s what happened to me.

“I was 25 years old, a commercial real estate broker.  A potential client, who couldn’t meet with me during the day, suggested we have dinner.  So, we met at a local restaurant.  He immediately started coming on to me.  I said, ‘Look.  You know I have a boyfriend.  You’re 20 years older than me, and I don’t find you attractive.  And I know I’m not going to get your business.  So, good-bye.’  And I got up and walked out.”

What Lies Underneath

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I told her I admired her courage and changed the subject.  But the story nagged at me afterwards; both her remarks and my willingness to shove our disagreement under the rug.

What bothered me later, after I’d had time to reflect, was her claim to moral superiority.  And her implicit question:  why can’t other women be more like me?

Fear and Doubt

With the benefit of hindsight, here’s what I think I should have said:  Women who have been sexually harassed typically don’t feel angry.  They feel fear.[1]

Can you remember—or even imagine- what it’s like to struggle every day to build your self-confidence and your career?   Have you ever made use of your personal assets—whether they be talent, brains or beauty—in order to fulfill your dreams and aspirations; only to be confronted by a powerful and unscrupulous predator all too willing to take advantage of your ambition and naïveté?  Have you ever been lured into a situation under false pretenses and coerced into compliance with an unwanted sexual initiative by someone who has the power to make or break your career?

Yes, some of these situations are ambiguous.  Many are not.  Many are out and out sexual assault.  But even the ones that fall on some borderline involve a young and vulnerable woman whose circumstances are taken advantage of by a powerful, connected and highly protected older man.

Innocent Until…

And what about the issue of “innocent until proven guilty”.  That’s the message of someone who sides with the predators, not the prey.  It says that those who have the power to protect themselves can continue to operate with impunity.

Do we really want to send our children the message that everyone should just shut up and let this go away?    Is our self-regard so precarious that we must maintain it by building a wall of indifference against those who lack the assurance we claim to have had?

The Message of Pain

But that brings up another set of issues.  How do you respond to someone whom you feel is deeply misguided without exacerbating the issues which already divide us?  How do you be true to yourself without making an enemy of someone who could be a friend?  What do you say that isn’t just a mirror of their emotions; a reaction grounded in your own resentment, anger and fear?

Does it help to recognize that her claim to the moral high ground covers up some hidden insecurities, some pain from which she is seeking to distance herself?  Does it help to understand and empathize with her pain?

We all feel pain.  The pain of disappointment, the pain of frustrated ambition, the pain of misplaced expectations, the pain of unwise choices.  The pain of lives not lived, of roads not taken.  The pain of lost idealism, the pain of a broken world.   What can we do to ease the pain that doesn’t involve closing doors, building fortifications, projecting it onto others, or blaming it on ourselves?

The Lens of Blame

It is easy to argue that shame is a weapon that cuts both ways; that it has been used for too long to protect the perpetrators against women who have turned the lens of blame upon themselves; that the time has come to turn the lens of shame against the harassers, not the harassed.   But, as Dale Carnegie pointed out, “You can’t win an argument.”

What Would You Do?

Which brings me to the question:  does politics trump friendship?  Or is it the reverse?   Can two people be friends who disagree profoundly on our ways of being in the world?  Can we find ways to maintain our human connection without sacrificing our integrity?   What would you do?

Comments appreciated.

[1] Recent research shows that women faced with a hypothetical situation of sexual harassment are likely to express anger.  However, when faced with an actual situation of sexual harassment, their predominant response is fear.   https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-many-sexually-harassed-women-remain-silent-1512156275