I have attempted to write this for weeks now. Every morning when I wake up, I make coffee (crucial), snuggle up on the sofa, and read the local and national news online. For the last few months, my eyes have scanned the names of more men who are being blasted and losing their jobs over previous or current sexual behaviors and missteps. It’s getting a little old, yet I find myself having very strong reactions each time my eyes cross the pages.
I have been waiting until I felt some sort of inner resolution before writing on the subject, yet I have come to realize that this just may not happen. The more I read and listen and converse with people from all walks of life in all different situations, the more complicated and murky these waters become. The #MeToo “movement” first resonated with me, then confused me, then left a bitter taste in my mouth. The current American Political and Hollywood Blacklists remind me of the Cold War Hollywood Blacklists I learned about in American History classes. I have found that it is time to wrestle with where I stand, and my attempts to empathize with others.
First, permit me to present the stripped down facts of where I stand in my own shoes today. I am a 34-year-old woman. I am a white, American woman most likely of European descent. I received a stellar education while growing up in the American South, and have a bachelors and a masters degree. I am heterosexual and married to a white man of European descent who also received a good education and went on to institutions of higher learning. I don’t have children. My faith can be classified as “Christian protestant”.
So that frames the basics of what my life looks like, at least on paper. That basic information doesn’t include the facts that I have been sexually assaulted on a number of occasions. I have also received unwanted and unsolicited sexual comments, gestures, proposals, and assumptions countless times over the years. I have slapped a man across the face for putting his hands where they don’t belong. I am also guilty of looking at men in a way that sexualizes them, and of administering unwanted and unsolicited sexual comments, gestures, and assumptions over the years.
One could say that, in my early to mid-twenties, I could have been accused of harassment. But no one ever will. Because I am a woman. When a man attempted to kiss me in a bar because of misread non-verbal communication, he was called a pig. When I tried to kiss a man in a bar because of misread non-verbal communication, I was called naive or at worst, a fool.
As I read about the ongoing repercussions of poor choices men have made, I can’t help but notice that the conversation about sex in our country is all wrong. Abuse, assault, and harassment are ALWAYS wrong, no matter the gender, orientation, profession, wealth, office, or status of the offending person. When a man, or men, in a truck shout comments about my backside when I am out walking or jogging, I consider walking up to the window and asking, “What were you expecting out of this interaction? Were you expecting me to go on a date with you? Or were you just trying to make me uncomfortable? Or, did you think at all, before invading my life with your words?” I want to do this for several reasons, but mostly to understand. What was I hoping for when, as a young twenty-something, I would comment on a man’s butt? It was purely selfish on my part, as I was completely unaware of how my words and actions would impact someone else. I was usually trying to impress a friend near me, or just be entertaining at someone else’s expense.
So who is asking these questions? Who is entering into Harvey Weinstein or Al Franken or Kevin Spacey’s life and saying, “Hey, what was going on there? Is this a real struggle in your life? Do you need some help here?” Are we making martyrs for the sake of martyrs like a modern day Salem, or are we actually trying to change the conversation about sex and human rights in this country?
Men and women SHOULD be talking. We SHOULD be saying, “Me too”, and empathizing with one another. And we should also be relating to those who are sitting on the other side of the court room. They are just as human, and just as vulnerable to sexual brokenness as I am.
When I put out a request for men to offer their feedback to me via social media, I did not receive many responses. I wanted to know what this environment is like for men right now. One man wrote to me about risk. As a victim of assault himself, he talked about the risk of telling the truth, and the risk of false accusations and lives being ruined in the process. Another man wrote about his fear of now saying anything to women at all, even with the most noble of intentions, because he isn’t sure what will be received as a compliment and what will be received as harassment. My own husband weighed in, saying that all women are to be respected and honored, and that anyone who is being wronged should speak up. At the same time, he cautioned that no one lives in isolation, and there is always a community of people who are impacted when serious allegations are made.
I work with a lot of women, and some men, who have been abused, assaulted, trafficked, and traumatized sexually – both by men and women. I have also worked with perpetrators – men and women who have abused, assaulted, trafficked, and traumatized others sexually and otherwise. What I have learned is this: that hurt people hurt people. And we need to help hurt people.
I remember teaching a seminar on trauma informed care one weekend, and I thought I would lead the participants in an experiment on empathy. I read the story of a man, whose name I did not reveal. This man, as a child, had been abused, abandoned, and terrorized in the worst ways imaginable. He had been neglected, raised himself as best as he could, and left to his own devices to shape his view of the world.
As I read the details of this man’s story, I saw eyes begin to water and people’s faces soften. I could see genuine compassion, concern, and empathy for this person in the faces of the men and women who were taking the seminar. Then, I put the man’s face and identity up on the large screen behind me.
When the seminar participants saw the face of Charles Manson, they recoiled in fear and disgust. The compassion, concern, and empathy were gone. This man, who was actually born without a name to an unwed 16 year old girl and with no known biological father, would become one of the most infamous murderers in American history. So much so, that just saying his name can cause absolute fear and disgust when heard by total strangers.
Charles Manson committed horrific acts of murder. There is no gray area there. My hunch is that the only people who were lined up to understand him better were doctors, psychologists, fanatics, and guards who were on someone’s payroll. Over time, Manson became inhuman in the eyes of society, as many perpetrators do.
I know plenty of professionals and organizations lined up to help victims of sexual abuse and assault, and that is good and necessary work. I don’t know many people, or any non-profits for that matter, who are lined up to help pimps, johns, rapists, and sexual deviants become healthier people so that they may contribute to their communities as opposed to terrorizing them.
As we continue to call out those who cause harm against others, let us remember that each of us – myself included – is just one breathe away from making a similar poor choice. We all have pasts of which we are not proud. The details may look different, but those of us who live as “healthy” adults, adequately functioning in society, probably had help in doing so. We received the care, resources, community, and accountability required to become who we are today. And we have all made mistakes.
I have had to come to grips with the fact that at any given moment, I have been both the victim and the perpetrator. I am just as capable of harming someone as the next person is. May I take responsibility for my own choices and behaviors as I continue to speak out with those who have been wronged as well.