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.)
“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.
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.