Discussing Sexual Harassment
In 1991, I was asked by a university to speak on the subject of sexual harassment. It was a topic that emerged from the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush. After his nomination, Anita Hill, a former employee of his, came forward citing numerous examples of ways he had sexually harassed her. There were hearings and she testified. In the end, he was appointed.
In preparing to do the speech, I chose two definitions of sexual harassment. One was the legal definition and the other was the common, lay definition. I had notes of what I wanted to cover on sheets of paper.
When I walked onto the stage of the auditorium, I was shocked to see hundreds of people in the audience. Public speaking is comfortable for me, so I had not given thought to the audience beforehand. I entered the auditorium from the backstage door and noted the seats filled and people standing all around.
It was a topic many wanted to hear about. Many were disturbed by Thomas’ appointment and it became a hot political topic.
I began my presentation by letting the audience know I was comfortable with questions being asked during my speech; I invited them to raise their hands. I said my opening line and a man’s hand went up. I nodded to him, and he asked me to define sexual harassment before proceeding further.
I told him that I had planned on doing so, but would gladly do so at that time. I looked through the papers on the podium and identified both definitions I had written down. For a moment, I paused to decide which to begin with. And then I stopped and looked up at the audience.
“I do not need to give you a definition. You know what it is. You have felt it.”
There was silence for a second, and then two things happened: applause and crying.
In the moment I had paused, I reflected on my own life and the times I had been sexually harassed. I knew the feeling. I knew it without being able to label it at times, but I recognized the discomfort and often the power play. And I remember the momentary ambivalence. I hated the man’s approach, and I was flattered by it because he found me attractive and sexy. Women are conditioned to seek that type of attention.
I went on to describe that ambivalence and the women knew what I was talking about.
One may question how much men can identify with sexual harassment. Those who have been harassed know the feeling, and, as current news stories reveal, those who have harassed have known they were doing so.
It takes many years for the victims to reveal their experience. The fear of being blamed or of angering the harasser are common explanations offered.
Let’s hope the latest news and discussions are serving to educate people.