For the past month since the Weinstein Effect began, one small thing has been bothering me about the way we frame sexual harassment. Sure, sexual harassment is gross and a horrible offense. Most of us absolutely get that right. But in centering the conversation on adult women and men in professional environments, we overlook the fact that our exposure to sexual harassment starts in childhood. Girls endure sexual harassment in varying degrees from boys their own age. However, we didn’t call it that — many still consider schoolyard booty squeezes as harmless fun. Such boys grow up to be men who may “grow out” of groping girls for kicks. Some of them even consider themselves “nice guys.” Still, they have more in common than they think with the men who never left sexual harassment behind.
They Teach Women to Keep Silent About Sexual Harassment
At one of my old jobs, my coworker was sexually harassed by a guy from another department. Bolstered by his all-male lunch buddies, he would make inappropriate comments about her eating pickles every day and what else she could do with that mouf. Finally, she decided to go to HR to help him shut up. HR snatched him up posthaste and he stopped bothering my coworker. His friends didn’t take too kindly to that, however, and cornered her demanding why she had to rat him out like that when he was just joking.
Where did he get the idea that sexual harassment is benign and should be brushed aside as humor? I know exactly where.
When I was in the fifth grade, I lived in Belgium as a military dependent. I attended a NATO-run international school for Francophone Belgian kids because my mother wanted me to learn French by immersion. Our school was full of European kids from Portugal, Italy, Canada, and the U.S.
I remember one day I came in from lunch and this Italian kid named Antonio swatted me on the butt with his lunch box. I don’t think I had much butt to swat back then, but it was there, and he did it. He laughed. I glowered.
But what could I do? Tell? Kids of a certain age have a code to swallow grievances if you cannot solve them with barbs or your fists. I am about as brolic as a wild Jigglypuff. So I bottled my anger.
Tony was generally a nice kid. I knew he meant no harm—at least, this is what girls are socialized to categorize 1,000 small indignities against their bodies from the age we realize we are prey. Girls should save our indignation for “real rape,” for boys and men who attack with growls. We are to save our softness for our bodies and not our pride. This is why my coworker’s harassers felt bold enough to chide her for reporting their friend. One shouldn’t threaten a man’s livelihood over laughs, right? Girls and women weigh daily whether it is “worth it” to “waste” raising a hue and cry over a “joke.” When did girls first learn our bodies were punchlines? When did boys?
I got back to my desk and shouted the only way I have ever achieved loudness: in writing. My pencil pressed deeply into the paper the way my fist ached to indent Tony’s face. I got home and wordlessly showed my mama the note I wrote. She wisely told me not to ever write the word “kill” next to anyone’s name again. But she didn’t chide my choice of words.
One Man’s Joke Is Another Woman’s Indignity
I share this because it happened half a lifetime ago. It took place half a world away, with a boy whose culture and native language is different from ours. Yet I know men, nice men, who were once nice boys who swatted, palmed, pinched, squeezed, grabbed, and groped girls and women, and laughed. Boys who extended palms under a butt approaching a chair. Boys who stood in groups and egged each other on to touch a girl’s breast without her knowing. Or they would do it obviously and run away laughing, pelted with slaps that did not hurt. Boys instinctively knew they never faced physical danger or lasting consequence from a girl for violating her.
(This, by the way, is why men saying “I wouldn’t mind it a woman sexually harassed me” means nothing. Most men do not fear violence from women.)
The culture that makes sexual harassment a social activity for boys slightly wanes with maturity. But some men never grow out of surreptitiously touching women or graduating into coercion. And they learned that behavior among the modern-day nice guys who would pretend they have never and would never. Men fear the erosion of their fun into “sexual harassment” because they will find themselves defined by it. They saw and sometimes still see a joke in the invasion of women’s bodily autonomy. The only thing my male acquaintances share in common with Tony from Italy is toxic masculinity and rape culture. My head spins at the magnitude.
So if it seems like the chorus of women speaking out about sexual assault and harassment is loud right now, consider that we have bottled a lifetime of screams for such a moment as this. I hope your blood curdles. The witches are doing the hunting now.