Let’s talk about sexual harassment

Anita Hill Testifies on Clarence Thomas Nomination

Anita Hill bears witness to the truth in front of an all white, all male Senate Judiciary Committee.

Like many women I know, I have an extraordinary capacity to internalize anger. Maybe I was born this way; maybe this is how I was trained. As a proponent of the phrase talent gets you nowhere without training, I’m guessing it’s a little of both. 

The point is, I let things wash over me. The daily affronts of being a woman – what I’ve experienced myself and what I’ve seen happen to friends and family, what I read in history and what I watch on the news – get buried under an instinctive resistance to open complaint. After all, why would I want to upset anyone with my opinion? So my anger is kept deep inside, where it is processed and transformed into fuel for an internal oven that keeps me working quietly – though never meekly – toward a better world.

Once in a while, something happens that triggers an overload inside that system. Heat builds and bursts out like a solar flare, and I find I’m no longer able to ignore my anger or hide it from anyone else. I am compelled to speak and to make others listen.

One of my earliest experiences of this sort of conscientious anger was in 1991, when Anita Hill testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the harassment she suffered under Clarence Thomas. I was appalled at how Anita Hill was treated, appalled that so many chose not to believe her – or more cynically, tore down a testimony they knew to be true out of political expedience. Because those senators chose to be complicit in a culture of sexual harassment, we now have a sexual offender sitting on the Supreme Court and deciding on the constitutional rights of all women.

Among my most recent experiences of conscientious anger – and there have been many the past couple years – was the November 2016 election. During that long and torturous campaign, I found no shortage of reasons not to support the Republican nominee for president. But to see sexual harassment come up again – and be ignored again – was particularly infuriating. Now, thanks to every single voter who chose to be complicit in our culture of harassment, we have a sexual predator sitting in the White House and wreaking havoc on our nation.

In recent weeks, we have confronted a multitude of allegations that expose – not for the first time – the environment of harassment that characterizes congress, including a pedophile who may be elected senator in the not-so-distant future. While members of Congress cynically cut investment in education, healthcare and other important public programs, they use our tax dollars to settle claims of sexual harassment.

Concurrent with this, a rash of sexual harassment accusations have rocked the entertainment industry. With each new story that has emerged, murmurings have ranged from “Yup, I figured” to “What? I’m shocked!” peppered by the occasional, “Don’t let this turn into a witch hunt!” I’m sure you can guess, and have even observed, how these comments tend sort out among gender lines.

By the way, if you are at all fuzzy on the difference between a witch hunt and an accusation of sexual harassment, I invite you to read Lucy Huber’s wonderful essay on the topic.

There’s also been a fair amount of teeth gnashing and weeping over whether we can continue to admire the work of an artist once we know the awful things he has done. For examples of that discussion, check here and here. For my part, I’m not troubled by this question. I have plenty of artists to admire without digging to the bottom of the barrel and giving my hard-earned money and valuable attention to sexual predators.

But for those struggling with what to do about the artists you once considered heroes,  remember this debate is not only about where we’ve been, it’s about where we are going.

We are all victims to and participants in a perverse system that for too long has favored this kind of behavior on all levels. It is on us to set the past aside and look forward to a new standard, one of zero tolerance that we all honor and enforce.

The ability to treat every single person – women and men, young and old, of every race, ethnicity, and creed – with respect and dignity should be a point of departure, not an afterthought, in defining the career of an individual. To argue anything else is to cling to a perverse ideology; one that has hurt too many people for too long and in so doing, has undermined our society as a whole.

To reach our full potential in every aspect of the human endeavor, we must support the women at the forefront of this battle. We must make certain sexual offenders meet with justice, and we must put an end to sexual harassment now and for generations to come.

4 thoughts on “Let’s talk about sexual harassment

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