Jane's personal reflection: old memories confound in the present.
It was a simple request. We sat in a resort bar in Mexico in January which was the only place we could watch the NFL playoff games. We cheered our Green Bay Packers who didn’t look so well against the Atlanta Falcons that day and toward the end of the game several people, couples, came in to await the next game and they sat close to us. We chatted back and forth a bit, Jerry and I lamenting the Packer’s status. One gentleman said he was a betting man and I asked him who he liked.
“I don’t bet with emotion, just stats. I’m not an emotional kind of guy. So I’ll probably go with New England, the team playing next.” He was chatty, maybe had already imbibed a bit; friendly. His wife smiled next to him.
As we prepared to leave I stood he said to me, “How about a hug to cheer on my team.”
It was an inappropriate request, really. What startled me is that I complied.
I mean, he’d already said he wasn’t an emotional kind of guy. I could have said, “I’ll shake your hand” or “I salute your potential success” or any of a dozen things. I have friends who would have been much more direct in their refusal. But I didn’t refuse and that has bothered me for months until now.
I think my action stems from a desire to please, to not raise a ruckus, to be diplomatic to the extreme. It’s why I didn’t report an inappropriate advance made to me when I was in my thirties, by a man in a powerful position. I made light of the advance and said something like “A man in your position ought not to suggest such a thing.” He responded with “What position would you like me in.” There were three other men also present who chuckled. Later, I left the room still making light of the man’s words but feeling awful. I stayed awake wondering what I’d done. Had I led him on in some way? I worried about the fact that I needed to interact with this man as a part of my job. I didn’t tell my boss.
Of course, I had done nothing wrong. But that’s what sexual assault makes one feel like – that the victim is somehow at fault. And that was exactly how I felt afterwards when the stranger asked for a hug. Had I done something to suggest I was a hugging kind of person? I mean I am, but not to cheer on a stranger’s wager on a football team.
I had wanted to please so complied. And this is dangerous. Awareness is the key.
There were other days in the work world, other experiences I didn’t report. One man I rebuffed later called me at home in the middle of the night. He’d been drinking and apologized but it didn’t feel like an apology. I did tell a colleague about that and she said I had to tell his superiors. “I’m single, he’s married and very influential. He’d mock me, say I misunderstood and I took things way to seriously. It would be his word against mine. Who would you believe?” I made sure I was never alone with either of those men and I laughed off their comments but I didn’t laugh off the feeling I took home with me. That has taken years of work and then see, just this year, caught off guard, I felt the struggle all over again.
Though sexual assault is not limited to women nor to men and women in a workplace setting only, I’d like to say to the fathers and brothers and husbands out there that what may look like a joke or perhaps a woman being “overly sensitive” is very often what the beginnings of sexual assault looks like: the diminishing of a human being to an object, present for someone’s personal gratification, for someone to feel powerful over. For sexual assault is more about power than sex. So when your niece or daughter tells you what has happened, believe her. Don’t dismiss her story with belittling because she “can’t take a joke.” I celebrate girls and women who are strong enough to recognize that standing up for oneself is more important than pleasing others.
I’m so fortunate to be married to a man who treats me with the utmost respect and whom I can’t imagine ever demeaning a woman in the way these men did. So this is an encouraging word for all of us to thank the men in our lives who know what sexual assault looks like and choose not to participate. But it’s also to offer support to those who do speak up, who make the reports, and to help educate others to take their stories seriously. If you want to find a listening ear, here’s the national hotline: Call 1-800-656-4673.
I never saw the football guy again. I didn’t have to work with him. I had Jerry standing beside me to whom I could express my wondering at why I’d complied. I had someone to talk to who reminded me that it wasn’t my fault.
I did think, though, of that guy again when the New England Patriots won the Superbowl, He had bet on the winning team.