Silence Breakers and the Spectrum of Harassment

It feels like a bit of a reckoning is happening.

I like it.  It’s long overdue.

Time magazine named the “Silence Breakers” as their 2017 Person of the Year. 

Women are speaking up and saying loudly and clearly that things have to change.  And institutions seem to be listening.

Men in positions of power are being held accountable for their actions in sexually harassing and assaulting women. 

Progress is being made, I hope.

But I fear that we are going to go through this massive “awakening”, we’re going to start listening to the women and condemning, finally, the disgusting behavior that harassers have too long gotten away with without addressing the real root problem, which, to me, is the patriarchal society in which all these incidents occur.

If that happens, we’ll be stuck in an endless cycle of accusations and retribution without ever moving forward to a world where sexual harassment isn’t the pervasive cancer that it is today. 

Women have scornfully pointed out the ridiculousness of the reactions of some men who claim that in this “new atmosphere” where women are speaking out and men are being held accountable, they don’t know what behavior IS acceptable.  These men fear that harmless flirting will be interpreted as harassment. This movement to address a widespread culture of abuse is labeled a “witch hunt”.

It’s true that that reaction is laughable; there is a difference between telling someone they look nice at work and literally taking out your penis and showing it to them.  Grown ass men need to know the difference.

Yet those statements by those men — how will I know what behavior is and isn’t appropriate? — come from an actual lack of understanding of what is and is not appropriate that has perpetuated a rape culture for, well, ever.  Because those men were taught from infancy that their behavior was acceptable.  And women were taught to deal with it in silence.

Some men seem literally not to understand that it is not okay to grab a woman’s ass (it was just a joke!) or comment on the size of her boobs (don’t take everything so seriously!) or provide unsolicited shoulder massages (I didn’t mean anything sexual by it!). 

While there are few men who don’t understand that rape is a crime, there seem to be many, many who do not understand that those lesser infractions – the ass grabbing, the uninvited shoulder massages, the comments and looks – those are the foundation upon which rape culture is built.

There is certainly a spectrum of sexual misconduct, but tolerating the minor incidents enables the major ones.

Men are absolutely and unequivocally to blame for unacceptable behavior.  That behavior, however, stems from a larger problem: the patriarchy in which we live.  It is the underpinning of most of society’s ills.

We live in a society in which gender norms are so ingrained that colors and activities and even children’s toys are assigned to certain sexes.  We teach children that boys wear blue not pink and they like trucks and tools and sports and girls like dolls and dress up clothes and dancing and baking.

We don’t tell boys to keep their hands to themselves and to ask permission before they touch someone, we shrug our shoulders and say “boys will be boys” when they roughhouse and wrestle and we turn around and tell little girls that if a boy chases her on the playground or pulls her hair, it means they like her. 

Then we wonder why men grow up not ever fully understanding what physical contact is acceptable and women believe that harassment is a normal part of dealing with men.

As with everything, the solution to this problem will be education.

In order to prevent women from being sexually harassed, we have to start by teaching young boys and girls what harassment IS and what behavior is appropriate.  We have to break down the gender rules that reward boys for being aggressive and physical and unemotional and reward girls for tolerating discomfort and taking responsibility for other people’s misbehavior.

As for the men who have grown up not realizing how their actions have contributed to this society in which almost every woman has been harassed or assaulted at least once, we have to understand why that is and anticipate the stage of denial society is going to go through on the way to enlightenment. 

Then we must continue to, for the first time ever in some cases, hold men accountable for their actions and refuse to accept excuses or explanations in place of apologies and changed behavior.

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2 thoughts on “Silence Breakers and the Spectrum of Harassment

  1. Jerrold Foltz

    Great challenge and revealing. And when Congresswoman Barbara Comstock (VA 10th CD) votes against equal pay for equal work for women, we will continue to have the power differential of men over women, financially and socially. Then Barbara becomes a champion of young women who are paid off secretly with our tax money to keep them quiet about their abuse by Congressmen. As you said:
    “without addressing the real root problem, which, to me, is the patriarchal society in which all these incidents happened.
    I agree.

  2. Mish

    now working in a company full of millennials. .. the patriarchal society seems to really be changing. i think it cannot help but change based on the mindset of most of the 20-30-somethings i work with. Granted, it takes time, but i see the change for sure.


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