Today’s guest post was written by Donita Dooley of Slight Southern Accent
Reading through my newsfeed this week, I am amazed to see how many women in my social media sphere are participating in the #MeToo campaign, an online petition of sorts against sexual harassment. This is yet another layer to the Harvey Weinstein story, which finally saw the light of day thanks to some stellar reporting from Jodi Cantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times.
A few of the names in my feed surprised me, others did not — particularly those of us who have worked in male-dominated industries like film, television, or music. I imagine many of those executives are shakin’ in their boots hoping the protective veil that has shielded their own secrets all these years won’t be lifted. But the sexual harassment that is so rampant in our culture right now is more about power than sexual desire.
This week Reese Witherspoon, an exceptionally accomplished actress and producer revealed she had been sexually assaulted at the age of 16 while working on a film. She was told by her agents to not discuss it, that the scandal would overshadow her performance. Further, producers of the film insinuated that her silence was a condition of employment. Reading through the very long list of women who have spoken out against Weinstein revealed the same modus operandi: keep your mouth shut.
Regardless of where we came from or what our upbringing was, women have historically been taught to keep the peace, not rock the boat and largely ignore unwanted sexual advances. We were taught to not make waves from an early age and by the time we were working adults, that sentiment was already ingrained in our DNA. Instead of speaking out, pointing a finger or rocking the boat, we kept it to ourselves. We felt lucky if we got out of a room without enduring further unwanted physical contact or worse, and some of us were lucky. Others were not.
It seems like everybody has a story.
My own sheltered upbringing in a very patriarchal environment taught young girls to “know your place” and that place was absolutely second to the man in the room. Silence was encouraged, often enforced, and anytime I tried to speak my mind as a teenager, it was identified as backtalk, rebellion, disrespect. This was particularly true when it came to interacting with men and I grew fearful of speaking out against any man, especially those held authority over me.
It has been decades but I remember clearly the first time it happened to me. I remember driving to my job at the local Pizza Hut shortly after my 16th birthday. I remember being so excited to get my name tag and the red apron required for all wait staff. It was fun, easy work and it gave me a sense of ownership, of adulthood. As first jobs go, I was thrilled to have mine. Until one afternoon a few months in when I reported for my shift after school.
The thirty-something day manager “Dave” was in the break room as I was putting on my apron and name tag. When I reached around to tie the apron behind my back, I felt a presence behind me and my skin prickled. I turned around and Dave was RIGHT THERE and we were alone. Without asking, he took the strings of the apron out of my hand and said, “Let me help you.” I felt that flight-or fight-response flair up but my immediate, corrective thought was something along the lines of, “Don’t be so dramatic, he’s just being nice.”
Dave tied the strings of my apron and then oddly, he knelt on his knees behind me. I felt his hands run slowly down my ass, past the length of the apron, all the way down my legs. Adrenaline shot through me like it had been injected. It took an eternity for my body to react but when his hands reached the back of my knees, I took a defiant step away from him, my back still turned. Neither of us said a word but I broke the spell by moving away from him. It was not romantic, it was not wanted. It was pure intimidation.
I was terrified and confused – I had never even heard the term “sexual harassment” and even if I had, I would have been unclear if that moment even qualified. In that moment, I felt trapped and if it had escalated, I would have been powerless. I said nothing. I didn’t tell my parents, or a friend or a teacher. I had been conditioned to respect my elders, to not make a scene, to be a nice girl. So I just got out of the room as fast as I could…and Dave never got the message that it wasn’t allowed, that there would be consequences. No telling how many 16-year-old waitresses he touched inappropriately but there may have been fewer if I had said something.
While that story pales in comparison to what other women have faced, it was a big moment for me. I needed that job; my family didn’t have money, nor did they believe that a girl “needed” to go to college but I was determined and in that moment, Dave represented yet another barrier to a college education.
I don’t recall the days after the incident, how I dealt with it but my pattern would suggest I simply avoided working with Dave. It never occurred to me that I had the right to say something, to file a complaint – in essence, to “tell on him.” I soon found another job and vowed to forget all about Dave (you can see how well that has worked out!)
That would not be the only time I would encounter unwanted physical contact, far from it. But it was the first time and the first time is the one that really matters because the first time informs us what to do the next time. The first time we learn what works, it’s when we solve the riddle. We get the message that whatever got us out of that situation the first time will work the next time. “Let it go,” we tell ourselves. “Just avoid him.” We heed the warnings – this will hurt your chances, your reputation, your brand, your future. It’s not worth losing your job. And so we let it go, time and time again.
There is a gray area at play here — what can be defined as the first time you encountered sexual harassment? Was it that afternoon with a sleazy boss in the break room of a Pizza Hut? Or, was it the time an older cousin took you for a walk and touched you very inappropriately, then warned that you would get in trouble if you told because “you should know better than to take a walk with a boy.” Or was it the time your track coach reached over to correct your stance before you ran the relay and he stood a bit too close, his hands on your hips lingering a beat too long. Or was it the first time a boy pushed you against the wall after sixth grade math and jammed his tongue down your throat just because someone dared him?
I don’t recall giving permission to any of those acts on my body and yet they happened. It’s hard to say what that first moment of unwanted physical contact was but because we didn’t know better, we went along, we kept the peace and convinced ourselves that those little moments were “no big deal.” And every time a boy got away with it, when there were no consequences, he got bolder and bolder because he too was learning.
But the sexual predators of today seem to feed on power, not lust. When the keys to the kingdom, or the corner office, or the room where they keep all the Oscars are behind the big, powerful movie mogul it’s a power play. The junior executive at Miramax Films who wrote an internal memo documenting sexual harassment allegations said it best: “The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10.” Power is why everybody knew but said nothing, they wanted access to the power. It’s why many women keep silent, for fear of losing the hard-earned power they have garnered.
But the upside to all of this is that there is a seismic shift underfoot; women are stepping up, leaning in and speaking out all over the world. When a misogynistic power-crazed bully slipped into the White House through a technical loophole, millions of women marched in protest. High profile cases of sexual misconduct are front and center in the media.
These women that are stepping out and sharing their stories have dealt with shame, guilt, fear, humiliation and a whole host of emotions but they are lighting a path, blazing a trail. We may not have gotten a woman into the White House but women are making a difference in the zeitgeist if for no other reason than they are setting an example. Women around the world are watching, and so is the next generation.
Today on CBS This Morning, Oprah Winfrey called this a watershed moment. “I think this is a moment where no matter what business you work in…the women who feel that in order to keep my job, my position, in order to keep moving forward…I’ve got to smile. I’ve gotta look the other way. I’ve gotta pretend he didn’t say that. He didn’t touch me. Those days are about to be over.”
I hope “these days” are over soon because the next generation has better things to do than to keep fighting this battle. Last November at my voting poll in Brooklyn, a little girl walked up and handed me a brochure. She looked up with big brown eyes and said, “Please vote for Hillary.” She seemed nervous and at first, I thought it was because she was nervous talking to adults but on second thought I think what I really saw was someone who understood to her core how easy it was to lose to a boy.
The next day a good friend told me that after the results had come in, she had crawled into bed with her sleeping 12-year-old daughter and cried. The next morning, she had to tell her kids the news, that Hillary Clinton had lost the election. Undaunted and not nearly devastated as we were, her daughter retorted, “Don’t worry mom. One day I’ll be president and I will fix all the mistakes.”
She already has my vote.