By Lisa Falkenberg
Fair warning. You will disagree with some aspect of this column. If you don’t, I’m not doing my job.
I toil in the gray, the nuance, the squishy middle of tough issues that make some people break out in hives.
But after weeks of watching a painful procession of sexual harassment allegations crash the news pages like a freeway pileup, I’m worried the conversation — the outrage and the pushback — is becoming too black and white.
The obvious truth is that there are some monsters out there, some men who for too long have used their power and influence to abuse women sexually. The fact that women were afraid to come forward with accusations against film producer Harvey Weinstein was a tragedy, and the fact that they somehow found the courage to speak out, and in doing so opened the floodgates for multitudes of other women to share their stories about Weinstein and others, is profound progress.
So, too, is the fact that alleged victims feel empowered to call out some of the most well-regarded celebrities and politicians in the country for a range of sexual indiscretions — from pinching rears, to exhibitionist masturbating, to propositioning minors for sex.
Even average women have found a voice to speak out about through the #metoo hashtag.
All of this has the potential to be as healing and as constructive as it is painful and stunning.
But here is some gray.
The other night, a dear friend who is about as gentle and sensitive in his demeanor as any man I’ve ever met, sent me a text that read:
“Is there any man in America that has not harassed women? Al Franken, for God’s sake. I hope there is no woman ever in my life that could accuse me of such behavior … ever,” he wrote. “It must be tough to be a woman out there in the world.”
Part of me was glad for his recognition that it’s tough to be a woman, especially since he’s got a teen daughter who will soon be headed off to college. But part of me was sad to see him doing what other men I know are doing these days: questioning their perceptions of right and wrong and scouring past experiences with women for anything that might border on inappropriate.
To some degree, this self-assessment is healthy, for anybody, even the good guys. The risk, though, is creating a hostile environment, an insecurity among men that erodes trust, communication and some if the progress we’ve made toward equity with women. The risk is generalizing or demonizing men, and responding to the string of allegations, big and small, with false equivalences.
This conversation shouldn’t be so toxic that it taints the act of simply asking a woman out.
The proper context
In looking at these cases, we need to ask a few questions: Is there a pattern, an element of control as in a superior propositioning an employee, or did the incident involve children or threats or a cover-up? I’m not urging triage so much as context.
Rape is not the same as a forced kiss. A U.S. Senate candidate and former state supreme court justice propositioning minor girls is not the same as a former president pinching rears. None are OK. All should be discussed and addressed as the victims see fit. But they should not be lumped together.
In the past week, I’ve seen men remain mum in groups where women are discussing harassment. I saw one shot down and criticized when he tried to do so. This is not healthy and it is not productive. Like race, sexual harassment is an uncomfortable topic that requires people to listen to each other’s experiences. It’s how we learn. We will get nowhere excluding men or dismissing their honest questions and concerns.
Yes, there are plenty of men in America who have not harassed women. There are plenty of men who respect the word no, who wield power responsibly, and who teach their sons to do the same.
At the same time, I don’t believe we should teach our daughters that this is merely a man’s problem, and that women have no power in solving it, or in mitigating risk. In the past week, I’ve had passionate debates with women on this point, including a close friend who is the mother of two young boys.
She seemed to feel that even talking to my daughters about responsible behavior around men would somehow leave them with the impression that women are to blame if they’re assaulted. Of course, I’ll be careful to avoid sending that message.
Knowing the dangers
But to me, teaching a girl to watch out for herself at a party, or in the work place, is akin to teaching a teenager defensive driving. No one would blame the teen for being hit by a drunken driver, but that doesn’t mean we can’t encourage our children to be on the lookout for swerving cars or to be extra vigilant, waiting a few extra seconds at intersections, while driving at night.
I don’t begrudge those who want to join fraternities and sororities, but by the time my daughters hit college, they will be keenly aware of rape culture and how to spot an organization that promotes it. They will know the dangers of alcohol and the importance of the buddy system.
They will know how to say the word no, clearly and firmly — a skill they already practice daily on me.
That word has little power over a sexual predator, but it can help avoid misunderstandings with other men.
Still, there is only so much that women and girls can do to protect themselves. The rest has to come from men, from those who raise them, and from society as a whole.
That includes organizations that must establish policies on harassment and recourse for victims. That includes governments and political parties that must stop protecting serial harassers and pedophiles. That includes bystanders who must stop looking the other way and start supporting the victim.
And yes, it includes uncomfortable conversations where both men and women are welcome.
And so is the gray.