If you have seen the TV series “Mad Men” you would have some idea of my work life in 1970.
When not yet 20, working in Philadelphia, my daily commutes through the downtown streets were filled with hooting construction workers. My office life was either being over-looked for advancement because that guy had a wife and kids to support or being looked over by too many men. It was regular leering and even man-handling.
I didn’t think myself naïve, but I was. My experience with sexual advances were from the man/boys my age. I could accept or reject these without any cause for concern or wonder about motive.
But when the president invited me to his office under the pretense of delivering a monthly report normally sent by circulating office envelopes, I had no experience for imagining an ulterior motive… at least not the first time.
My ego jumped to the “he must think I’m an important asset to the company and this is my chance to show how efficient I can be”.
His secretary granted me permission to enter his giant corner office outfitted in walnut and leather. He met me at the door and quietly closed the door as I entered. My antenna buzzed, but I was still hopeful.
He offered me a chair as he leaned on his desk asking me harmless questions about the day and myself. Then the awkward pause.
I rose to excuse myself and he followed me to the door where he placed his hand firmly to keep me from opening it and with his other arm wrapped me up and hauled me in for a kiss.
This, my friends, is sexual harassment. Full stop. Had I not been me, the next thing to happen would be unwanted sex; yes rape. And even if I had raised holy hell about it, he would have gotten away with it. No question.
And, what pray tell, was the secretary guarding the door thinking at the time?
We’ve come a long way, baby.
In some ways, maybe too far.
Anytime there is an encounter between two people of an intimate nature, I believe both have a responsibility to choose how that encounter progresses. The glaring exception to this rule is when the two parties are mismatched in maturity or economic status.
These thoughts came to mind while I was watching a story unfold on the TV series “Last Tango in Halifax”. The scene was two characters whose names I’ve forgotten; a lesbian head of school (Joan) and a teacher (Mary) whom Joan has been given the plum assignment to interview a famous children’s author in front the whole school. Mary was chosen for the task because it is widely known that she is a super-fan and eminently qualified. The second reason was that the author now lives with Joan’s ex-husband.
Joan was married for many years and has two teenage children with her ex who is still sniffing about. She knew she was a lesbian before marriage, but “in those days” one just carried on.
More back story, Joan had married Lilian two years prior and Lilian conceived a child via an old friend. The day of Joan and Lilian’s wedding, Lilian while eight months pregnant died in an accident. The child survived.
Back to the story of Joan and Mary. Joan invited Mary to her home to discuss the details of the interview. Joan thinks she picked up “gaydar” and is anticipating an evening that might turn into something.
Mary arrives with flowers in hand and the two of them have a delightful evening that moves into the living room for more wine and conversation. There is much discussion about Joan’s unusual relationship with the author and her ex. Quantities of laughing are involved.
Mary becomes lubricated enough to question why Joan is the mother of a Black child. Joan does not hesitate to show Mary a picture from her wedding day and tell the story briefly.
Mary hackles rise and accuses Joan of sexual misconduct. Mary declares that she was invited under false pretenses and will not be doing the interview. She leaves in a huff.
The thing is; Joan’s invitation was primarily for the purpose of giving Mary the backstory on the author and to help organize the interview. Yes, Joan also thinks Mary is gay.
During the pleasant evening Joan made no advances, sat too near, touched Mary in anyway other than a normal hug at the door to say hello and welcome.
No words on Joan’s part could assure Mary that she was not a predator… mostly because Joan really thought (going in) that Mary was a kindred spirit and began to question her own role in the evening and if she was in fact, a predator. She is not.
I believe that Joan did nothing wrong. Mary reaction was over the top. A better response was “oh, I didn’t know you were gay”. Joan would have modified her thinking and the relationship would have remained in tact.
It left me wondering about many of the accusations currently flying through the media. People who work together often “test the waters”. Some people are more inclined to touch a shoulder or hover more closely. It doesn’t take much to modify the behavior of another who is getting too close for your comfort when the gesture is innocent.
Hourly workers who can be easily replaced are the most vulnerable. Even if these workers know how to push back, they risk losing their job. Most NEED their job.
However, in the case of a public official, it’s fair to say that the people working in close proximity these officials are highly employable. If you can put “personal assistant to a senator or mayor of a large city” on your resume, you are going to get the next interview.
So if that elected official is behaving inappropriately, just say so. The official has as much, if not more, to lose when you stand your ground.
Running to the papers two years after the fact smells fishy to me. Sitting before a Senate hearing 30 years after the fact does not…. those were very different days. The Me Too movement put a lot the crass behavior out of style… and that’s a good thing.
Before closing out this highly edited piece; I’ve been poking at this for days…
I am reminded that I continue to have the benefit of being me. I’m certain it colors the opinions expressed here. The root cause of the daily re-visit to this post is because I have no clarity in why I can tell the world to go away or please stay without saying a word.
An example is this experience from two years ago.
The pottery studio where I have gone for several years to “potter about” has gone through a series of studio managers. Josh was the latest. I was not impressed. His own work was uninspiring, his teaching skills were unimpressive, and he made no effort to keep the studio clean. Pottery dust is highly toxic.
The next semester came around and Josh was gone. The new studio manager (delightful) was not forthcoming about his reason for departure. I’m a nosey bugger so I kept niggling the new gal for why Josh left. She eventually caved and told me had been making numerous sexual advances to the other students.
Josh is around 30 years old. The average age of the women in these classes is closer to 60. It turns out he was hitting on many and had been pursuing one so aggressively that she finally reported him to the college.
At no time did Josh take a pass at me.
In all confidence I can say it wasn’t because he didn’t want to “hit that”. It was because he is a sexual predator and he knew without even trying that he would get no where with me.
I take…. pride in that truth even though I don’t understand why it is true.
I am left with this.
It’s unsettling to know we are more animal than we want to admit. Anyone receiving a report of inappropriate behavior must begin by assuming it is true. Further, there is no point in starting an investigation by asking the accused. Lies will ensue. The peers of the accuser will get you to the truth.
There will always be victims. There will always be villains. We are animals.
The best we can do is listen to the victims when they find their voice.