Every day seems to bring more accusations of and discussion about sexual harassment, as women everywhere are emboldened to speak out and men begin to realize that sexual misconduct of any type (whether theirs or someone else’s) is no longer amusing or acceptable.
It is not hard to pinpoint the exact moment when this thinking changed. Anita Hill testified in 1991. Since then there have been numerous accusations, but until the New York Times and The New Yorker broke their stories about Harvey Weinstein (little more than a month ago) nothing seemed that different. Now the dam has broken.
The more important issue is: how can we put an end to it? Given that predatory misbehavior derives from the confluence of three powerful forces – sex, power, and ego – it will not be easy. But it is not impossible.
It requires at least two things.
First is knowledge: that sexual harassment, male misconduct, sexual predation, violent misogyny, objectification, dehumanization – call it what you will – is far more prevalent and serious than most men realize or are willing to acknowledge, and that it is utterly wrong.
If you doubt any of this, ask your female colleagues, a third of whom in a 2015 survey said they have been the target of unwanted sexual advances at work. I asked, on my Facebook page, and got immediate and shocking responses. One of the my correspondents, a North Shore woman, after detailing numerous episodes of egregiously bad behavior, concluded, “All of the foregoing is quite ordinary; more or less the norm for what my female colleagues and I put up with. I doubt there is a single business or institution in which the casual harassment of women is not business as usual. Especially given the example offered by our current Predator-in-Chief.”
Another told me, “Each time it happens we’ve had to decide whether to say anything. In that sense we’ve all been complicit.” (Both women gave me permission to quote them.)
Thanks to the recent outpouring of such stories, that knowledge is now seeping into the general consciousness.
Second is the harder step: how to make it stop.
One problem is that the image of women as flesh-and-blood people – as mothers, sisters, daughters, friends – is distorted beyond all recognition in the violent lyrics of gangsta rap, salacious ads in glossy magazines, titillating stories that air on cable TV and R-rated movies, even in suggestive games on the devices where boys spend so much of their time.
Maybe it is time to say these depictions of women (produced mostly by men) as exciting, dangerous, voluptuous, and eagerly available are totally inappropriate, as offensive and barbaric as racism.
The way to fix that, as Hemingway said about how things change, is gradually, then fast. Gradual would be the teaching of ethics, responsibility, and proper behavior to boys and girls throughout their school years. Fast would be things we can do now: training classes in the workplace, pressure on Hollywood and Madison Avenue to change the way they depict women, insistence that organizations advance women more quickly until they reach parity with men in pay, responsibility, and in numbers proportional to the population.
Perhaps most importantly, men need to ask themselves: am I to blame in ways large and small? Can I do better?
Many men will object: “Not me, I’ve never done any of these awful things!” But even acquiescing silently in locker room talk when another man makes a lewd comment or a dirty joke – and face it guys, who among us hasn’t? – is reinforcing the “boys will be boys” culture of disrespect and intolerance that can lead to harassment and violence.
It is time for men to stand up and strongly support an end to these practices.