More thoughts on harassment and silencing

As soon as I published last week’s post on my experience with harassment, I was flooded with doubt. I worried I was telling a story that didn’t have enough “oomph.” Here we are, in the middle of a convergence of stories about big cases of assault, and rape, and harassment, and I chime in with my story. My experience was so very minor compared to some of the truly horrifying experiences other people have faced in their lives, that I wondered if sharing my story would look like I was hoping for a seat on the bandwagon of victimization.

The doubt quickly passed. My experience was minor when compared with the experiences of other people, but I think it’s the perfect story to use when illustrating how systemic, and ingrained this expectation of silence is. I was intimidated, and told to deal with it. The bully/intimidator/asshole who was perpetrating the behavior was given a pass. Par for the course.

I know I’m not alone in these experiences. From the comments on the post:

Rachel said, “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…”

Ashleyvanessa added, “I was sexually harassed in high school…I told my friends. I was too embarrassed to tell my parents or any authority figure. It led to months of self harming…”

It’s been my experience that if you talk to 10 women, you will hear 10 slightly different, but essentially the same stories (my experience with this conversation, as is related to sexual harassment, is limited to women, but I suspect men and trans people will share some variation of the same story). As mistressofboogie (side note – if you all aren’t reading her blog Adventures in Boogieville you should be. Her cultural commentaries make me jump up in agreement) points out,

“It’s just awful, isn’t it? This thing we all go through?…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.”

And she’s so.fucking.right. We are sold this bullshit. As girls, we are told that this attention: the comments, the gestures, the touching, these things are how boys behave. (Actually, we start getting sold on the “boys will be boys” trope when they come out of the womb. I’ve been hearing it applied to my son for a hundred different things since he was a 2 day old infant.) Which, of course, serves to normalize the bullshit. So when we are uncomfortable with the bullshit, and we ask for the bullshit to stop, either directly to the perpetrator, or to an ostensibly protective authority figure we slam straight into this cultural conditioning. If we dislike being touched in the hallway, we are reminded that our bodies are not ours to define, “He’s just trying to be friendly!” or “You know you like it when I do that.” If we dislike a sexual gesture made across a room we’re told that our discomfort is OUR problem, “He’s just being stupid, ignore him.” If we ask for someone to help us feel safe, we’re admonished to protect ourselves because, “You could have walked a different route.” All of these responses, all of these excuses, serve one purpose. To teach and remind women that we are NOT ENTITLED TO FEEL SAFE. Fuck that noise.

I don’t think of this experience I wrote about as being particularly large in my life. It’s stuck with me for 20 years because it’s such a clear case of silencing. But Jay commented, “You referred to this incident in a comment at my blog over a year ago,” which gave me pause. (I’m about to start digging through her archives to see what I said.) For a week I’ve been wondering why it’s the story I bring up whenever I talk about bullying, or silencing, or harassment. And I think it’s what I use to remind me, and anyone who is listening, that the stories we read about in the paper, or hear about on the news, are the big stories. But the big stories don’t do justice to the whole picture. Harassment can, and does, happen to nearly everyone. It’s not isolated to certain areas of the country, or specific socio-economic classes, or some schools but not others. It is EVERYWHERE.

And I hope to Maude that I can create an environment of safety and respect for my son so that he never has a story to tell, and so that if he witnesses his friends engaging in bullying behavior he will have the confidence to stand up and ask for it to stop.

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11 Comments

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

11 responses to “More thoughts on harassment and silencing

  1. I have absolute confidence that your son will grow up to be confident enough to stand up when he sees someone engaging in bullying behavior.

    I’ve had a few thoughts about the “boys will be boys” mentality that I’m off to write about as soon as I hit “post comment.” If you have time I would be so pleased if you could check it out.

  2. Jay

    I won’t make you dig. It’s here http://twowomenblogging.blogspot.com/2010/10/but-he-meant-well-by-jay.html?showComment=1287586899244#c5671338034555657250 (sorry, not so good at HTML). Your comment is more about what the Dean of Students said than the incident itself, which makes sense in response to what I wrote. I happened to look at that post recently because someone asked me to define “rape culture”, and I read your comment, so when I saw your recent post I made the connection.

    • Thanks for the link! I’m fierce about women/girls being heard in situations like these. I also thought the comments after mine were interesting…I have some thoughts that might work their way into another post.

  3. I think being afraid to tell our everyday stories because “it’s no big deal” or “worse things happen to other people” is totally part of the narrative, part of the silencing that allows our culture to see sexual violence, harassment, and bullying as Isolated and Surprising Thing Bad People Unlike Us Do rather than as part of the fabric our our culture.

    Also, from your earlier post: “The rules tell us to ask for protection from people who we know aren’t likely to offer it. Lovely system.” Yes yes. Not just with sexual harassment, either: that was totally my experience of being bullied in junior high.

    Random side note: When I announced my current pregnancy, a family member said to me (in reference to Noah), “Every little boy needs someone to bother!” My gut reaction was A) he’ll be nearly six years older than this child; there’s no way in hell we’ll allow an eight-year-old to spend all his time pestering and pushing around a two-year-old, and B) he’s explicitly looking forward to caring for the baby, helping with baths and crying and bringing me stuff while I’m breastfeeding, not tormenting it; he’s an incredibly kind and nurturing person. But, you know, boys will be boys.

    • You’re kidding! I can’t imagine anyone saying that your son should have a sibling that he can bully. I’m so glad you’re allowing Noah to show his nurturing side :).

    • I think bullying, and sexual harassment, and harassment are all on the same spectrum. And I think we have created a culture that fosters the aggressive behavior by NOT calling it out, and NOT creating a zero-tolerance attitude towards it. It’s everywhere. I’m so sick of it.

  4. J9

    “Fuck that noise”. AMEN.
    I think you’ve heard my story. (Vegas/volleyball tournament when I was 15?) Sadly, I have several others and your writing on this topic highlights just how pervasive this issue is.
    Crazy.
    I’m glad you’re O’s mama.

    • I use your story a lot, in conjunction with my story, because I think they illustrate the same phenomenon, but we approached them so differently. I like your bad-ass approach better, quite frankly. 🙂

  5. MistressofBoogie

    ‘If we dislike a sexual gesture made across a room we’re told that our discomfort is OUR problem, “He’s just being stupid, ignore him.” If we ask for someone to help us feel safe, we’re admonished to protect ourselves because, “You could have walked a different route.”
    Overcoming this ingrained shit is possibly the biggest challenge I face in raising my daughter; I’m half-way through telling her to change her behaviour before I think, ‘Hang on!…Er…’ It’s tricky to say the least. Fuck that noise indeed.
    I really fucking hate the patriarchy.

    • Yeah, there’s a really fine line between self-protection and relieving perpetrators of responsibility. I don’t always walk it so well, either. I think we would have an easier time (hello, feminocracy!) if we shifted our focus from “how to avoid” to “how to create and enforce our boundary when encountering asshole behavior.” Of course, creating and enforcing boundaries takes an enormous amount of self-confidence, and confidence that the ‘system’ will have your back when you are not enough to keep you safe.

      I wanna be able to say, “I asked idiot-head to stop sticking hir tongue out at me, but zie hasn’t,” and hear an authority figure say, “Zie, is that true? Were you asked to stop? Why didn’t you? From now on, don’t do it.”

      Ahh…I can dream.

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