Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shine a Light

Last night a young woman told me she had just experienced sexual harassment in the work place and did not know what to do. It's her right to speak up—but it could mean losing her job. The law? This is about life and how things go. You can't prove someone grabbed you too tight and whispered "wear something sexy to work" in your ear, when it's you that offered a friendly good-bye hug at the end of the day.

She felt disgusted, sick, furious. So did I. Why would anyone feel they are entitled to express their un-requited desires? It's difficult to comprehend. But we have to.

My personal opinion is that silence is to blame. If we spoke more freely with the young men around us about the impact of this type of intrusion they would learn to respect women more. I told her to speak up. Tell him he can't talk to her like that. She won't stand for it. "Apologize to me right now and never even let it cross your mind to behave like that again." There's no second chance. No gray area.

I'm going to tell you a personal story that changed my life. And it is as a result of this story, and thousands of stories - excuse me - millions of stories like it, that I feel that silence is not a response, it is an offense in itself.

When I was 5 or 6 my uncle visited us and stayed in the basement of our big house in Montclair, New Jersey. He was in his mid 20s at the time and between jobs. One week-end morning my father was cooking blueberry pancakes and sent me downstairs to wake my uncle for breakfast.

My uncle woke up in a state of arousal and forced me to pleasure him with my little hands. I was just as scared to not do what he said, as I was scared about doing it. He was forceful. I can still remember the feeling of how fast my heart was beating and being conscious of it, as if I had never felt that sensation in my heart before. He threatened to kill me if I told. I seem to remember mention of a gun, but I never saw one. It may even be that I imagined he mentioned a gun because my young mind could only associate the word kill with a gun.

When I ascended the basement stairs into the kitchen no one noticed me. No one noticed I had been down there too long. No one noticed I had not been eating blueberry pancakes. No one saw that my life had just changed forever. That it would now take me ten years to experience pleasure with my husband. That I would never be able to speak up for myself or fight back when bullied. No one saw that my face had lost its innocence and fear had taken its place. No one noticed me at all.

In my thirties I remembered this incident in therapy. At first it was the nightmare I recalled. A wolf came into my bedroom and snatched me from my bed, carrying me all through my house screaming, and I was shocked that in spite of my screaming, no one awoke. Then he boldly carried me in my nightgown right out the front door and down the street, screaming the entire way. No one noticing. No one rescuing me. I dreamt this many times growing up.

When I eventually remembered the incident it was crystal clear. Every detail. Sensation. Emotion. Touch. Smell. The rapid heartbeat in my chest. And now, hearing that a man whispered into that young woman's ear - it all races back. A man just yielding to impulse without using his brain.

What if my uncle had known the impact that those few minutes would have on an entire lifetime? Would he have mustered a little self control?

You may find it surprising that I write openly about such a personal issue. But there is a method to this madness. Although I have worked hard to become a healthy adult, I live with the fact that up to 70% of women have suffered sexual harassment (http://www.ahealthyme.com/topic/harassment). Most never overcome the debilitating effects of it. Sexual harassment in the work place costs millions in lost productivity. Imagine how many more millions have gone to therapy and healthcare, and I'm sure it has cost marriages. I have no tolerance for the inevitable continuation of this cycle. I believe that by throwing off the cloak of mystery and revealing the very personal, perhaps humiliating truth, we can fight this epidemic of selfish entitlement like the insidious enemy it is.

Are you one of the 70%?

Tell your sons what happened to you. How it made you feel. What long-term impact it had on your life. Tell your sons the consequences of selfish behavior, of impulsive, un-welcomed remarks. All young men should be helped to understand the consequences—sleepless nights, nightmares, mistrust, poor life choices—that result from cloudy judgement when, with even just one incident, your self esteem has been sacrificed to the whims of a powerful force of nature you can't anticipate, understand, or defend against.

And notice your little girls, dammit. Pay attention to any change. Don't be scared of the truth. Be brave. Be bold. Be curious. Be mindful. Be inquisitive. And pay careful attention to what a child may not be able to say. Open your eyes and notice for yourself. Truth will make you strong, don't fear it. Truth will shine a light and guide you through the maze of difficult consequences that it brings. Consequences that are far, far worse if the truth is ignored for thirty or forty years.

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