Harassment and speaking up, only to be silenced.

Earlier this week The New York Times Motherlode column ran a piece, Handling Sexual Harassment In Schools. In the piece KJ Dellantonia asks,

“What would you tell a daughter who said she was being “sexually harassed” at school?”

(Sidenote: The scare quotes around sexually harassed piss me off. Seems to me if  teenage girl tells us she’s being sexually harassed at school, we oughta believe her. The quotes seem to offer the idea that maybe her poor female mind doesn’t understand what sexual harassment is, and maybe she’s just being flirted with.)

Dellantonia says,

“My memory of late middle school and high school is that sexual comments, jokes and gestures pretty much defined the experience, and quickly became so commonplace that the question of “welcome” was moot. If I had a nickel for every time a classmate made the tongue motion associated with oral sex at me, I could have paid for college. I never told my mother or a teacher. I couldn’t imagine anything good coming out of that conversation.

No matter how much we profess to be against sexual harassment as a society, we’ve never shown ourselves to be particularly supportive of those who blow the whistle on someone who’s inevitably just trying to make a “joke,” and girls know it.”

Dellantionia nails my experience, perfectly. And she’s right women are taught to be quiet. We observe the take-down of sexual women with slurs, and disrespect. We observe the dismantling of women who speak up – Anita Hill, DSK’s accuser, and just this week, Herman Cain’s accuser on the news, around the water cooler, and even in the hallways of our schools. Why would we say anything?

This piece reminded me, all too clearly, of a very specific experience I had in high school. First, I’m not a shy person. I’ve spoken up about unwanted gestures towards me more times than I can count. This was not my first time complaining about behavior. But it was the first time I was really nervous about the power of the boy I was going to complain about. It was the first time I felt like I might be in danger.

Dellantonia says that she adopted a facade of indifference to cope with unwanted gestures in high school. I adopted an attitude of “fuck you.” Most of the time I was very willing to tell boys to knock off the sexual gestures, or the discussion of who was hot or not, and I smacked more than one boy’s arm for getting too close in the hallway. I’m usually pretty assertive. But this case was different.

I was a junior in a math class with juniors and seniors. I have an annoying need for very sharp wooden pencils, but failed to carry a pencil sharpener in my backpack. So a few times a week, during class, I would get out of my seat and walk to the back of the classroom, where there was a pencil sharpener mounted on the wall. I didn’t wear skirts to school often, but on the days that I did, a boy who sat a few seats behind me, would take his pencil (or pen, the details escape me) and run it up my leg, and lift my skirt with it, each time I walked by. After about 8 times I was scared and pissed. This guy was a senior, but he was one of those seniors who needed to shave every day. He played football, so he was physically imposing, and he was a guy I didn’t know at all. We didn’t have (that I knew of) one single ‘friend’ in common. I didn’t see him anywhere on campus except in this class, and I didn’t feel like I could hit him in class, and not have some sort of retaliatory action taken. He was smug, and just gave off that unmistakable air of entitlement.

So I went and talked to the dean of students. I never felt uncomfortable approaching him, though I’d had him as a French teacher, and was pretty sure he was a sexist ass. He was where the rules said to go first, so I did. (The rules tell us to ask for protection from people who we know aren’t likely to offer it. Lovely system.) You know what he told me? (If you were paying attention to the lead in to this, I’ll bet you can guess what he told me to do. I wrote it into what I didn’t do to protect myself.) He told me to 1.) Go buy a $0.50 pencil sharpener to keep in my bag, 2.) Walk a different way to the pencil sharpener on the wall if “it was bothering [me] so much,” and 3.) Make sure none of my behavior could be construed as welcoming his actions.

DEEP BREATH.

I fought back the tears as I left his office. Because I was SO FUCKING PISSED that I was being ignored. That my concerns about MY SAFETY were being dismissed. And I never did anything else about it again. I got a pencil sharpener that I could keep in my backpack, and counted the days until the class was over. I don’t remember if I ever told my dad about it. I don’t think I did, because I bet he would have been in the office the next morning just as pissed off as I was afraid to be.

So, what’s my point? My point is this – girls, women, trans women, boys, men, trans men, anyone who is facing unwanted behavior needs to be able to speak up AND BE HEARD. Telling people to keep quiet will NEVER change this culture of assault.

There’s a great irony here, too. All around me I hear messages exhorting people to speak up (I’m going to echo that message in just a minute) but all too often when we DO speak up, we get shushed. Exactly as Dellantonia points out. More for the “can’t win” column.

Every time I read about a child, or adult, who kept it all in, who was afraid to talk about it, who feared for their safety if they broke the silence…I cry. I cry for the pain they carried. I cry for the lack of support they felt. I cry because we live in a culture of harassment and bullying.

So, Dellantonia’s question – what would I tell my daughter, or my son, who was being harassed at school? I hope to Maude anyone who told me they were being harassed (my kid or otherwise) would be able to find the courage, and the support, to talk to the school, or the institution. I really do. Because the more we DON’T talk about the shit that happens in the hallways of schools, or around the break table at work, or at the bar in a restaurant, the more power we give it, and the more entrenched it becomes.

 

11 Comments

Filed under culture, feminism, I get pissed, parenting, politics

11 responses to “Harassment and speaking up, only to be silenced.

  1. Thank you so much for writing about this. I had an experience dealing with this type of issue in junior high. I was just starting 8th grade and there was this guy in my grade who would regularly try to hold my hand, wink at me in the halls, and other types of unwelcome behavior. I was really uncomfortable but I really didn’t know what to do and I mentioned it to one of my friends in a joking way. My friendmentioned it to her mom (I didn’t know she had mentioned it to her mom.) Next thing I know I’m in the counselors office with three other girls and the principal trying to get us to talk about how we were feeling. Looking back, I definitely appreciate that they were making an effort but in a way the effect was the same because I wasn’t comfortable talking about my experience in a group and I just dealt with it for a year and a half.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Every time I read or hear a story like yours I want to rewind life so that a nurturing and protective space can be created. I’m sorry for your experience.

  2. bullyingisforloserscampaign

    Aww thank you so much for posting this. This needs to stop!

  3. Thank you for this great post. You’ve said everything here really beautifully–I don’t know what else to say.

  4. I was sexually harassed in high school. I had gone to a private school up through middle school and I was very naive prey to a group of guys at HS. I told my boyfriend what was happening, I told my friends. I was too embarrassed to tell my parents or any authority figure. It led to months of self harming and it took one of my more intimidating friends standing up to the ringleader for it to stop. When my sister was coming up into high school I made damn sure she was “in the know” and that she could always come to me.

  5. mistressofboogie

    It’s just awful, isn’t it? This thing we all go through? Not at all to diminish your personal story; that we all go through it only makes each individual experience more important, more worthy of note. I don’t know about you, but this was sold to me – and every other girl I grew up with – as just what boys do! You know, and it means they like you and that’s good because whatever they do to you it is not as bad as what they’ll do if they don’t ‘like’ you..
    Aah, I could go on all day. I’m sorry for what happened to you.
    As you know I’m technologically defunct when it comes to Twitter, but this could be a hashtag(?) couldn’t it? To help raise awareness, to be heard?
    Just a thought.

  6. Jay

    Late responding to this because I’ve been busy, but also because I’ve been so deeply angry – at what happened to you, at the response, at the Penn State nightmare, at all of it. Anger and despair and it feels as if the words I could write would not be enough.

    You referred to this incident in a comment at my blog over a year ago. I wish I could somehow wash the hurt and residual anger away for you and leave only the certainty that you did the best you could, and that it wasn’t your fault. Your story has helped me talk to my daughter and will help me be a better advocate for all of our daughters. Thank you.

    • Now I want to go find what I wrote on your blog about it…I don’t feel angry or hurt about it anymore, I feel righteously indignant. But I wonder if you’re right. That if hiding under the righteous indignation is some hurt. This shit happens ALL the time…

      This response is getting really long too – I’m going to incorporate it into another post.

  7. Pingback: More thoughts on harassment and silencing | Life V 2.0

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