The nuances of assault, harassment, sexual advances and responsibility.
I can say #metoo to being exposed to inappropriate, power driven, sexual behavior. I have had a man masturbate in front of me on a remote beach, and another who said, “There is nothing to stop me from raping you” when I said no to sex. I have been grabbed inappropriately by a total stranger on a bus when I was thirteen, and as an adult in a crowd. I have been subjected to catcalls as I walked down the street, and have been in situations that were unsafe because the men were not trustworthy. There has not been a day when I did not think about my protection and safety, and take steps to avoid sexual predators.
However, I also realize there were times when I violated myself but not saying no when I wanted to. Not acting no when I was saying no. Not removing myself from an unsafe situation. By going into a room alone with someone I didn’t know that I could trust. By getting involved with someone who was already involved with someone else. By thinking that giving in was easier than explaining my no. By not knowing my own true self-worth such that I confused sexual attention for any attention, or worse yet, for love. I sought my value and validation outside of myself, rather than from within. That deficit alone put me at a disadvantage when it came to standing up for myself or making wise decisions.
The current state of affairs is deeply bothersome and I find myself, all of us actually, in a quandary. I believe the majority of the women who say they have been treated inappropriately. After all, every woman I know has been. However, I also know there is a difference between assault, harassment and an unwanted sexual advance. There are times when we need to exercise personal responsibility. For instance, if someone tries to kiss me on a date, that is not abuse; it is a sexual advance. If my boss or coworker try to kiss me at work, that could be considered harassment. If someone continues to kiss me after I have said I’m not interested, that is crossing the line into assault. If I keep kissing after I have said I don’t want to kiss, I am violating my own personal responsibility. However, there are a lot of variables involved even then.
I have heard men ask, Why didn’t she just leave? Why did she stay when he was being a jerk? And I find myself trying to explain something so viscerally difficult to explain. I consulted with relationship expert, Dr. Maryanne Comaroto, and she pointed out the challenges inherent in trying not be a victim in a society that has been run with a patriarchal imbalance of power for thousands of years. We also discussed how that imbalance coupled with a society of people desperately seeking outside of themselves for validation, security and control is a recipe for the problems we face.
I look back on my own life and ask myself, could I have stopped this from happening? Why didn’t I? The issues at play when it comes to sexuality are so much more than one can easily name. Safety, security, hormones, attraction, the need for approval, control, embarrassment, shame, guilt, religious morality, protection, finances, self-worth, all play into the answer.
Confusion plays into our choices as well. Our minds may say one thing, our emotions may say another, and our involuntary bodily responses may behave in full opposition to our thoughts and feelings confusing the matter. Security also influences what we do. When one’s livelihood is at stake their actions will be affected.
Safety also plays heavily on the situation. Sometimes just saying yes and getting out of there feels like a safer option than what might happen if one says no. This was especially true in the days before cell phones, when you could not so easily call for help, or an alternate ride home. So this begs the question, was it consensual? Sort of. Was it desired? No. Was it threatening and inappropriate? Yes. It can get pretty messy when trying to sort it all out.
There is also a difference between a man who does something once, is corrected, realizes his error, apologizes and never behaves that way again and someone who continuously abuses power over others. Every circumstance and every transgression cannot be equally compared to another.
We are in the midst of an upheaval of negative behavior with renewed prejudice, judgment, and the exposure of the sexual power play. All I can hope is that the light is being shone on these behaviors so that we can better do something about them. When these behaviors are secretive, it is harder to address them.
We are also in the midst of a great teachable moment. We get to teach our children right from wrong. We get to teach boundaries and make our children aware that their rights end where someone else’s body begins. We get to teach our kids how to make the safest choices possible, to avoid dangerous situations as best as they can and to love and respect themselves—and others. We get to hope that that in the future our children, as adults, will be able to say “Me Too” when someone says, “I respect myself and treat others with respect.”