The issue of sexual harassment has been in the news lately and some prominent men have fallen into disgrace because of it. That’s a good thing, as public discussion of the issue is long overdue.
But what seems to be happening is that people are not sincere in talking about sexual harassment. They are being political; none more so than President Donald Trump, who himself has been accused of misconduct by a dozen women.
While Trump has remained silent when eight women accused Alabama’s Roy Moore – who was a candidate for the U.S. Senate – of inappropriate behavior, he leaped into the Twitterverse to castigate Minnesota Sen. Al Franken over a single accusation.
But it was the Franken case that got me thinking about this whole issue.
I told my wife, Sara, that the Franken case was slightly different than the others because he was a comedian and was likely trying to “be funny.”
Sara told me about instances in her life when men have made crude advances or comments and when she objected told her she couldn’t “take a joke” or had no sense of humor.
That opened my eyes – and my mind – a bit as I realized that two people could witness the same event and yet experience it differently.
Franken may have really thought he was just clowning around; the women may have really been offended. It is possible for both things to be true simultaneously.
I don’t think Franken, Moore, Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey or any of the other men that have found themselves in the news lately over this issue are unique. I’d guess that you could randomly pluck just about any man off the street and at some point in his life he has sexually harassed someone.
Part of the problem is the way society works. The man is supposed to pursue the woman, to ask her out, to “make the first move.”
I remember a waitress I had one time that I thought was pretty. I asked her out, she said “no” and that was the end of it. But she could have felt harassed for all I know. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, several other men had asked her out that week and she was angry that she just couldn’t come to work without being hit on.
Now, in my case, if I asked a lady out and she said “no,” I walk away. But I have heard women complain that they turned a guy down because they “wanted him to work for it,” and were disappointed that he never came back and asked them out again.
Sometimes it can be difficult to know when a “no” is a “no” and not a “maybe.”
But I don’t say this to excuse sexual harassment, merely to point out that it’s not always so cut and dried to determine what happened.
Watching CNN and MSNBC and other news shows, I find that all the panelists seem to think that only men commit sexual harassment. That made me look back on my own life to incidents that maybe could be considered sexual harassment.
Some are clear-cut. When I was 16 I was standing on the sidewalk waiting for my friends who were still in a convenience store, when a car with four girls pulled up to the curb and asked me if I wanted to (bleep). I was so stunned I just stared at them with a Hostess cupcake in my hand.
“He’s just a farmboy,” one of them said when I could muster no response, and they drove off.
Imagine now if a car with four blokes propositioned a lone girl like that.
Then there was my first-ever kiss. I was a senior in high school when a girl I knew walked up to me and kissed me on the lips. She didn’t say anything and just walked away after. I was flabbergasted. Not because I was angry, or felt I’d been violated. I’d just never been kissed. Before that incident I thought a kiss was a chocolate candy!
Now, if I went up to some random girl today and did that I’d be accused of sexual harassment. I might even end up in jail – which would be the safest place for me once Sara heard about it! But at least I knew that girl, and we were friendly acquaintances.
That wasn’t the case when I was a sophomore in college. I was volunteering at a diabetes charity event when a girl I had never seen before walked up to me and said, “You look so much like Jerry Garcia, I just have to kiss you!”
She kissed me and walked away. I immediately did what anyone else in my place would have done – I asked my friend who Jerry Garcia was.
I had a female friend in college and I would stop by her dorm room to visit once in a while. One evening I stopped by and she was under her blankets. I sat on the side of her bed as I always did and started chatting. Then she said she had so much homework and got out of bed – in her underwear – and walked to her table. She bent over in front of me as she “looked” for her book.
I just continued talking. She returned to her bed, this time lying atop her covers and commented that she needed new underwear because the ones she was wearing had a tear. When I still didn’t react she said that I was the only guy she knew who would sit on her bed and not be all over her.
I thought it was a compliment that she trusted me enough to walk around in front of me in her underwear. (Yes, I was a tad naive.)
When I told a friend about what happened I remember his reaction: “You fool! She was hitting on you!”
That brings up another problem with sexual harassment. It’s a double standard.
If I tell that story to my guy friends they all think I was a doofus not to get the hint. But what if the situation was reversed? What if a man did that to a woman? When she told her girlfriends about it they’d all say he was a creep or a pig.
Now – SPOILER ALERT! – I was once accused of sexual harassment.
I was editor of a new weekly supplement that my newspaper was starting. The publisher wanted to run photos and brief bios of all the people who would be involved with the new project. It was my job to collect the photos and bios. Everyone complied except for three women in the advertising department. I sent them three reminders as the deadline drew closer. Still, no reaction.
The day before we were scheduled to go to print – with my publisher pushing me to get the information – I sent a final group email to the three women, none of whom I knew. In an attempt to be playful I explained that I needed their bio information and wrote something along the lines of “I know you’re cute but I need to put more than that under your picture.”
Two of the women immediately sent me their bios. The third filed a sexual harassment complaint against me. After a brief investigation I was cleared.
But did I cross the line? Did I sexually harass her?
She thought so. I did not.
But sometimes sexual harassment isn’t so easy to identify.
John Christian Hopkins, an award-winning novelist and humor columnist, is a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. See his writings at http://authorjohnchopkins.blogspot.com.