We are experiencing a watershed moment in regard to sexual harassment in this country and I can only hope that we can make permanent progress in how men view and treat women, for we are not soft playthings for the taking but human beings with equal rights and value.
I cannot identify all that propelled our nation to this moment of change but the #ME TOO movement on the social networks certainly had an impact. When I first read the stories that women shared, I thought, “I am one of the lucky ones – I have never been harassed, thank goodness.”
But of course I have. Fortunately I have never been raped or otherwise violently assaulted, but I definitely had to deal with unwanted contact. When I was in my 20s-30s in particular, I was slim, pretty and vivacious, and whether at work, in church or volunteering for a cause, there seemed to be men about with poor impulse control.
The most egregious example happened when I was 35, a newly-divorced mother of three sons. I had gone to work as a paralegal in an Arlington law firm, and while there was office gossip that the senior partner could be a little flirtatious, that wasn’t much of a warning. Back then, we Texas girls seemed to accept that Texas men were a bit pushy but since there was a strong Christian culture here, we also expected appropriate behavior.
Not long after my divorce, the senior partner asked me to bring a file into the law library for a phone conference with a client. When I walked in the room he motioned for me to shut the door. The client was on speaker phone and describing his problem as I handed the file to the attorney. Swiftly he grabbed me, pressed me against the wall with his body, and kissed me aggressively.
He knew I would not make any noise and embarrass the firm within earshot of the client. As quietly as I could, I dis-entangled myself from the attorney’s clutches and left the room. That began a cat-and-mouse game where I did all I could to stay out of arm’s grasp, but the chase had not ended. He made it clear he wanted me. He paid cash bonuses for my trial prep overtime; promised gifts, a car; dogged me at a weekend legal conference attended by attorneys and staff.
Of course the critics today would say “why didn’t you speak up,” but it is not so simple. We did not have anti-harassment laws in those days, but even if we had, who would I have complained to, and without witnesses, would I have been believed. He was the senior partner of the firm and a scion of the local Baptist Church. He could have fired me; could have blackballed me within the small business community that was Arlington at the time.
My main responsibility was to my sons. Like most young divorcees, I did not have a financial safety net. The cat-and-mouse continued until I was finally able to find other employment, but this was not the first nor the last incident. There was the Dallas attorney who asked me point blank, “What does it take to screw my paralegal,” the preacher who offered me “the right hand of Christian fellowship” while patting my hip with his left hand, the date who bit me on the shoulder because after he wined and dined me, I would not sleep with him.
There has been progress over the 50 years since I was a young thing, but not nearly enough. This current shift in public opinion is promising but the change needs to be permanent. It will take all of us to accomplish this goal. Some reminders . . .
- Rape and harassment are about power and/or violence, not sex
- There are typically no witnesses to prove up this kind of abuse
- Stop blaming the victim; there is no excuse for aggression against women
- Good men should call out predatory male behavior and talks of conquest
- Women can break the silence, support each other, build confidence
- Parents can teach boys and girls about equality, respect and behavior
— Jonnie Martin