Oh, how I wished I could have faced down the gropers when I was a kid. I wish I could have said something. Anything. But way back then, silence was the order of the day. You didn’t tell. Not your mom. Not your friends. Nobody.
But that doesn’t mean you didn’t stew about it. Or obsess about what you’d want to do. My obsession, strangely enough, was not to have the courage to tell my mom, but to tell the groper’s mother. She would then lecture him, shame him, punish him for his behavior. At least, that was my fantasy. Reflecting on it, I realize that I was looking to turn the table on my tormentor. Let him be disgraced. Dishonored. Mortified. Let him feel what that’s like. Yeah!
I was not unique. All women have stories about stuff that boys did that made them feel uncomfortable. The boys who wanted to get a peak under your skirt; those who rated your looks, taunting you if you were less than a 10; those who yelled or whispered affronts that made you ashamed; those who told dirty jokes that you “had to” laugh at; those who dumped on you if you didn’t like what they said. Kid stuff, right?
Yup, that’s where it begins. But it’s not where it ends. Not for me, not for any woman I have spoken to. It continues into the adult years.
My first job after college was working for a major corporation. I was happy to get that position. After giving me tests, most companies claimed that I was too smart to work for them. (What message does that send to a young woman?)
Learning my responsibilities was easy. What wasn’t easy was moving away from the sleazy guys who goosed me on the subway, maintaining my dignity as construction workers whistled, leered and shouted obscenities at me, ducking the co-workers who rubbed up against me, and nervously smiling at my boss as he leaned over my shoulder “to get a closer look at my work.” And I cannot forgot an unfortunate experience with a “flasher” whose leering grin still lingers in my mind.
It wasn’t too long before I realized I had a choice; this was not the path for me. So on I went to graduate school to become a psychologist. It was a better choice but not easy. In those days, I was asked whether I planned to get married and have children. When I answered in the affirmative, I was told that I would be taking a man’s spot in the graduate program so I shouldn’t go. But I persisted. And I will be forever grateful to Temple University for their affirmative action admissions policy before there was such a thing.
Still, I never said anything about what made me feel uncomfortable. Why not? In those days, women were reticent about so much. If I spoke up, my assumption was that I’d have been peppered with rebukes. “What did you do to provoke it? What were you wearing? How were you sitting? Too much make-up, perhaps?” People believed that such incidents occurred because a woman did something “unladylike” or went somewhere you shouldn’t have gone.
Hence, the solution was obvious: Narrow Your Existence. Don’t take that job. Don’t dress like that. Don’t go out at night. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Any wonder why young women were fearful of telling anyone of their experience with sexual harassment?
Today, we are in a war over values. Both men and women have much to learn.
Men must learn to restrain their aggressive, offensive behavior. Just because they find a woman attractive, they don’t have the right to say or do things that make her feel uncomfortable. If they’re in a position of power, they must play by the same rules. “I am powerful; you are not,” no longer exempts you from the rules.
Women must learn to speak up, speak out, tell someone. Not to make men’s lives miserable but to own their power. They shouldn’t tolerate offensive behavior or overly aggressive actions — or suffer derision or demotion if they say “no.”
I want to believe that we have broken the chain of silence. That the truth will emerge if we ensure that everyone has a chance to have their say.
I want us all to live in a world where it’s great to be a boy and it’s great to be a girl; not a world where “it’s great to be a girl but…”
©2017 Linda Sapadin, Ph.D.