I can’t look away from the falling dominos that are the famous and powerful men who have committed sexual improprieties.
The phenomenon, though welcome, is unpleasantly mesmerizing mostly because it stirs up the memories of how I have become who I am—someone who fundamentally distrusts men.
I became cautious, even suspicious, through early training. I was molested by a brother from the age of 11 to the age of 14. I was propositioned by men twice my age (and more) at my first job when I was 17. I was harassed by bus drivers on the 7-hour bus ride to and from college, me a tender 19-year-old trying to make my way in the world. I was pushed up against a wall and fondled without my permission on a first date in college. At a workplace, I was subjected to shocking sexual suggestions by the IT help desk guy sent to fix my computer. At a work conference, I was invited to the hotel room of a male in a position of power over me, with whom I had to work. My husband (now ex-) accused me of being manipulative if I declined his sexual overtures.
I am not unusual.
Women have become inured to a world in which men have power, both physically and economically, and we manage our lives around their physical and emotional needs.
I was not surprised, therefore, when I reported the IT help desk guy’s disgusting comments to the HR department and the reply was, “It is your word against his, and so there is nothing we can do.”
If the HR department had taken the time to inventory the women of my company, they would have discovered that this man was a predator who spent much of his day leering at the women whose computers he was to fix. Many of them had signals to co-workers to rescue them from his unwanted attentions. (“When you see him at my desk wait two minutes then call me on the phone”.)
A few years later, I saw this man (let’s call him Walter) in deep discussion with an 18-year-old intern on her first day of work. I saw her smiling uncomfortably, and trying to deflect his attention. After 45 minutes I approached him and asked him if he needed something. He turned to me, clearly irritated, and asked me why I wanted to know. And I responded more aggressively than I had when he had turned his attention to me.
“You’ve been standing here a long time, and I’m sure she has work to do.” He shot me a look of extreme dislike, and proceeded to ignore me.
This young woman was powerless in the face of his aggression (which I am sure he thought was friendliness). But I was older now, and the mother hen in me saw my daughter in this young woman’s face.
I marched down the stairs, shaking with anger, and into the HR office. “Walter has been standing there talking to the intern for 45 minutes. He won’t stop bothering her, even when I asked him to leave.”
On my way up the stairs after my complaint, I met Walter in the stair well.
“What did you do?” he demanded
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. I was standing in a little used stair well with a man whom I had just reported to HR. And he was angry.
“Well, someone from HR just called me down. What were you doing downstairs?”
The idea that I needed to explain my actions to Walter, the epitome of inappropriateness, was ludicrous.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said again. And I ran up the stairs, my heart pounding.
Three days later, I sat in the airport lounge with a senior member of management on our way to a meeting. We spoke idly for a while, and then he asked me what I thought of Walter.
So I told him of my prior experience with Walter, the one not addressed by HR. I told him that many women were creeped out by him and avoided calling the help desk because they were afraid of him. I told him that Walter spent hours chatting with women instead of working.
A few hours later, after I landed at my destination, I received a text from a coworker: “Walter was just walked out of the building!”
I’d like to think that I had something to do with this. I’d like to think that Walter was walked out because he was bothering women who felt powerless to stop him. I suspect, though, that the reason they fired him was because he was not working for much of the day.
When I reported Walter’s inappropriate comments to HR, I was completely ignored. However, when I reported Walter was not working and was bothering an intern, I was believed. I could speak up for others, but not for myself.
Now that it seems that the world has decided that sexually predatory behavior is unacceptable, my world has shifted, too. As I have relived all the moments of life where I felt powerless in the face of male sexual aggression, what really has come to the forefront of my mind are the men in my life who behave impeccably.
My former boss, Mark. My former colleagues, Jeff and Mark R. My good friend Larry. Barry and Eric who regard me with genuine respect and courtesy. Markus and Ken and Ben and Chris.
The news of the men who have fallen at the hands of those they abused has allowed me to process my own issues related to men. My distrust and outright fear of men served me well--until now when I have become self-aware enough to know that this distrust was conditioned into me by some—but certainly not all—men.
Most men seem to understand that the world is not a man’s place, where women are singled out as interesting interlopers. I’m hoping that these men become the champions of a world in which whether or not a coworker has breasts is about as relevant as the color of his or her hair.