half a lifetime away, and now

Twenty years ago last month, I thought I had put the newly identified (to me) behavioural world of sexual harrassment behind me. I had found a letter in my campus mailbox signed by the chancellor regarding a case I had brought against  one of my TAs, confirming that yes, not only had all reported incidents happened, but that they were in fact sexual harrassment and were not acceptable behaviours in our community.

The letter was a surprise; after the university panel issued its decision in my favor two months earlier, the TA filed multiple appeals at the urging of his attorney (known professionally as Dick, I kid you not). Little envelopes would appear in my mail slot, with resolutions that took a few bits off the remedy (the university, not the defendent, would pay for my lost wages to attend the hearing, for example), but the decisions and conclusions remained intact.

In spite of this “victory”, it left me skittish, and with one particular point of uneasiness. My advocate, a strong and warm woman, told me that as a warm and outgoing person, I would continue to face occasions where people would feel they could touch me, or otherwise reach out to me. It would be up to me to handle it, and how to handle it. And, also, a sane reassurance that when you said no, most people would stop.

I’ve had a few incidents since, in the workplace, but could handle them effectively… though admittedly with anger. (If I could have said “I smite your stupid scabby head” while waving a scimitar, I would have.) But that was my 20s.

Later, I managed with diplomacy, a little bit of understanding, and a philosophy I learned from MIT ombudsperson Mary Rowe of “the elegant out.” The elegant out is obvious to most people – if your goal is to punish the person, you take one path. If your goal is to change the behaviour, you think of ways that get the behaviour to stop – ideally globally. I found it opened me to a variety of ways to be more effective in work and family matters. I also learned that warmth and kindness (with an occasional sprinkling of snark) was always a net asset.

So imagine how I might have felt to have been the subject of obsessive abusive behaviour at my advanced age. I couldn’t have. Approached multiple times when the person was both drunk and sober, I was at a loss for a solution to the problem, except to use the power of positive thinking to teleport him to a waiting jetliner, out of the country. Also, to give him my back.

Gender, education, ethnicity, culture – all these came together to enhance facets of a set of behaviours that were essentially about power; who should and shouldn’t have it, what can be done to usurp it. I found myself 20 years back in time, trying to understand what happened, what name it needed, where my responsibilities might lie, and how to get it to stop.

The support I received was lightning fast, firm, entirely validating, and a tremendous professional and personal relief; I had to seek out specially trained people to get that support 20 years ago, so I am unspeakably grateful for the level of enlightenment in “regular people”. But now I wonder how to get that knowledge and understanding more globally distributed and accepted, person by person, connection by connection.

Could it be possible that progress in communication and mutual respect can still carry the day? I say, and must believe, yes.

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Filed under 40th Birthday, awkward, civility, exploitation, Friends, Grieving, harrassment, Learning, men, naming, personal, public discourse, sexual harrassment, socially awkward, women

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