Random Thoughts About Whatever Comes to Mind

It Takes "Good Guys" To Help Sleazoids Get Away With It

November 21, 2017

Tags: #MeToo, sexual harassment, academic sex discrimination, workplace cruelty, school bullies

Like all American girls, I endured the usual slings and arrows associated with being born female - catcalls and wolf whistles on the street; strangers trying to lure me into their cars as I waited to be collected at school, laden down with books; boys who wouldn't take no for an answer and who'd persist in calling my house at two in the morning to get my attention; a very adult telephone stalker who for a month when I was fifteen made threatening and ultimately sexually explicit phone calls to my house just as I arrived home from school every afternoon; the high-school guidance counselor who resisted spending time answering my questions about jobs and college because "a girl like you won't have to work - you will always have a man around to look after you"; and even the female sponsor of the high-school science club who talked me out of accepting a state science-essay prize that included being shortlisted for a full-ride science-track scholarship because the club's president (male, of course), who'd placed second, wouldn't have as many chances at getting that kind of consideration and "a girl as young as you wouldn't make proper use of the scholarship anyway".

That casual (and not so casual) dismissiveness sometimes got a lot more specific and the attention from older men more lubricious.

At age thirteen, a freshman in high school, I enrolled in Band, taking up the French horn. The director, a loathsome guy who spent a lot more time with female players than seemed absolutely necessary, required that each student wishing to remain in the Band earn a first letter immediately. This involved the student sitting in a stationary chair next to the director's rolling chair as, together, they plowed through a book of 56 Duets. Whenever the director wanted to provide a note as to a particular piece, he would roll his chair so that he could drape his right arm over the girl's right shoulder and onto her breast as, with his left hand, he pointed to one passage or another in the Duets book. All the students knew he did this, and others did as well. At least once that I personally observed, another teacher came into the rehearsal room while he was groping away. She simply blushed and backed out of the room. He continued teaching for years.

At age sixteen, a freshman in a church-affiliated school that had recruited me with the offer of a Phi Beta Kappa scholarship, I had my breasts groped underwater by an assistant instructor who pushed his hands beneath my suit in a swimming class in the required phys ed program. When I reported this to my advisor, the dean, he made it clear that he considered my reporting of the incident the problem and not the incident itself, which he appeared to think I took too seriously. He certainly had no intention of, as he put it, "ruining the career of a promising young man because a girl became hysterical over what had probably been meant as no more than a joke."

One of the jobs I worked to finance college was as copy girl at a newspaper. There, a whole newsroom full of "good guys" would watch, some disapprovingly, some snickering, as one of the long-time reporters would come up behind me as I was filing in a big, pull-out drawer, press his body against my back, wrap his arms around my arms, and say he was "helping" me with my work.

When - fleeing the sexist church-affiliated school, I ultimately enrolled in the big urban school from which I got my degree, the professor teaching one of my first classes was also my advisor. He put me in one of his classes, and for the last year of undergraduate and year of graduate school made my life miserable with a one-way conversation consisting of how much he'd like to see me in one form of lingerie or another - I recall red garter belts figured prominently. Some of this conversation was carried on in class and some in hallways. After a while, he began following me around, even to the deck where I parked, so obviously that some boys in one of my classes started seeing me to my car. I was stuck with him as advisor because, as assistant department head, he was the one who assigned advisors to students. After a first, bizarre session, I never went into his office without a fellow student accompanying me. He didn't like it, but it didn't stop his harassment. How he was behaving was an open secret - two different professors, independently of each other, voiced their sympathy to me - but the school did nothing. I'm ashamed to say that neither did I. There was no mechanism for filing a formal complaint. Also, my earlier experience at the first college made me suspect nothing would be done and the only one to suffer any penalty would be me.

Degree in hand, I looked for a job. In the days before the 'Net, employment agencies were the primary facilitators in this process. The agency with which I was working sent me to see the HR manager in charge of hiring for one of the biggest banks in town. He was probably only four or five years older, short, chubby, hostile-looking. It quickly became apparent I wasn't qualified for the job they were trying to fill, as it required someone with a specific level of training and experience. As I prepared to leave, he sneered and said I would never know how much pleasure it gave him to reject me, as I was just the kind of girl who would have rejected him in school and, now, look where we were. He had the power, and I was just someone who didn't. Furthermore, he said, he bet I was the kind of girl who would let a boy take her out and spend a fortune on her and then toss a fit when he tried to get his money's worth. I walked out with him still talking, beginning to get really nasty. When I reported the interview to the agency, I was begged not to report him to the HR director of the bank as it might interfere with their ability to place people with the bank.

At one point I was recruited to apply to a famous, recently all-male university in the graduate school of city planning. It sounded like an interesting field. I was one of two females in a class of twenty-five. Every single professor made sexist comments and encouraged our male classmates to do the same. When a couple of the men got hands-y the professors only laughed, leaving us to fend them off on our own. Then, within a month of class starting, the faculty thesis coordinator made it clear that neither I nor my sole female classmate would be allowed to write a thesis because thesis supervision "requires a lot of time on the part of faculty and it isn't worth it to us because we could never recommend a woman to be a planner, which is the point of doing the thesis track." When I pointed out that I had the best grades in the class, he shrugged. "Our reputation is too important to us to recommend women for anything but secretarial posts, so in no circumstances will you be allowed to do a thesis." Then he invited me to lunch, "where we can discuss this more fully." I refused, withdrew, and got a tuition refund. As I was completing the refund paperwork, the administrative clerk asked me why I was withdrawing. When I told her and mentioned the sexual harassment, she said, "Well, what can you expect? Planning is a man's field. You wouldn't even have been there if we didn't have a quota to fill."

At a large business dinner for leading producers of financial products (I had a job by then with a very aggressive financial planning outfit), I was the only female present, there to assist with a presentation. Before I could be introduced to the group with my function stated, the winner of the top award sidled up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said he wanted me for the night. My boss turned bright red, pulled him aside, and in a quasi-whisper explained that "the entertainment" would arrive later, that I was a math wonk, there to answer questions in relation to new production quotas. The inebriated man exploded, griping that it was his understanding that any female present was fair game and he wanted me. My boss sent me back to the office. Afterwards, he apologized again and said that he shouldn't have subjected me to that. It hadn't occurred to him that I'd be confused with "the entertainment" - he'd only wanted me there for information purposes. Anyway, he said, it was only fair that the men know who was coming up with the ideas they'd be using as they went about their work, only fair also that I get credit for what I'd done. He'd taken men who served a similar function before, but he guessed he wouldn't be taking another woman. Which taught me one of the ways that females were being excluded from the "room where it happens," to use Lin-Manuel Miranda's evocative term. "Nice" men didn't want them there because they might be embarrassed or insulted or humiliated, and not-so-nice men didn't want them there, period, unless they were willing to serve the only female function such men accept as entirely legitimate - i.e., to serve their physical appetites.

And so on, and so on, and so on. And I'd be willing to bet that not one of the "good guys" (some of whom were women) involved in these situations, many of whom had more power than the harassers, would accept that he or she had done anything wrong by not standing up for me

If there's a female reading this who can't come up with half a dozen similar stories of her own, I'd be surprised.

When it came down to it, up until now, the old male tribalism has carried the day. In that world view, girls are expendable, but damaging a fellow's career over "what might have been no more than a joke" is simply not done.

The most disturbing thing about the culture that produces the kind of offensive behavior that many famous (and not so famous) men practice without a thought isn't the grubby hands of the grubby bad men who are excited by forcing themselves on unwilling females. Rather, it's the "boys will be boys" / "that's just the way things are" / "don't be a bad sport" attitude of the "good" men who only watch and wait for their offensive fellows to stop, shut up, whatever. They think the behavior of the "bad" men is moderated by good-guy failure to join in the fun when, in truth, the "wrong 'uns" take their silence as an endorsement.

Until that changes, we'll see these same headlines over and over again, and girls will continue to be groped, insulted, disrespected, dismissed, and generally treated as a piece of equipment that is useful for strictly limited purposes from time to time. Girls who are lucky - like me - will never be physically assaulted in any meaningful way, but all girls will be at the least forcibly diminished until we are viewed as valuable partners in this enterprise of life and not simply as support systems or occasionally useful diversions - at worst, as natural victims for the predators that society creates and encourages.