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What I’ve Learned from the Sexual Harassment Tidal Wave

The Sexual Harassment Tidal Wave.

Men—and more than a few women—are quietly asking, “Is it safe to say anything anymore?” Many are wondering if it’s okay to joke at work, flirt with co-workers, hug anybody anywhere at anytime.

Maybe it’ll be okay to do some of those things again someday. Not right now.

Women in America are in the middle of a great unburdening, going public with tales of every creepy thing guys ever did to them. At one end are the disturbing, heartbreaking stories of rape and manipulation. At the other end is, um, ogling?, which is gross, but not a crime.

In between is a vast spectrum of behavior including groping, kisses on the lips, masturbation, “dick pics,” grabby hands, hugs that last too long, propositions, uncomfortable comments and unwanted advances. Some of it is illegal, some of it is just bad form. These are experiences women have been venting about over cocktails since before cocktails were even invented. However, the torrent of stories now coming out is breaking news to a few men. “Wait, women don’t like it when I comment on their breasts? You mean they really don’t want pictures of my junk?”

No, they don’t. Most men already know this and behave accordingly, but the small fraternity who thought such behavior was allowed, even attractive, have discovered their world turned upside down.

It’s Complicated

One of the problems in the gray area of sexual relations is that women sometimes think “no” but don’t say it out loud, fearing personal and professional repercussions (young men and teenage boys have occasionally experienced this as well). If you don’t say “no,” then a man may not realize his advances are unwanted. However, some men who gain authority and prestige know a woman won’t say “no,” even if she wants to, because of the power dynamic between them.

It’s complicated. So complicated that even women can’t agree on what constitutes harassment. A group of female friends and I were discussing the accusations against Matt Lauer made by one of his former colleagues. The story in the New York Times alleges that Lauer called the woman into his office in 2001 and asked her to unbutton her shirt. She did, and then she claims Lauer raped her. The woman was in her early 40s at the time. One of my female friends suggested that a woman in her 40s should have enough life experience and confidence to laugh away any suggestion that she expose herself. “She’s not in her 20s,” she told me.

I disagreed. Not all women feel they can turn down a powerful boss. Some have to think about their financial obligations, or they may be emotionally vulnerable due to circumstances. I’ve always said predators survey the landscape and choose someone they can successfully prey upon.

Look, if Matt Lauer was the mailroom guy...

Look, if Matt Lauer was the mailroom guy, or the guy from IT who fixes your computer at work, and THAT guy tried to corner a woman and tell her to open her blouse and assault her, the woman would easily say “no” and THAT guy would be out of a job and in a jail cell. But Matt Lauer wasn’t that guy. He was the guy who had all the power. He knew it. She knew it. Everyone knew it. Sometimes when someone has all the power and the paycheck to prove it, they try to pull things no one else would dare—and they get away with it.

By the way, I’m waiting for the first woman to be accused of harassment. So far...crickets.

Then there are legal questions about more serious claims. Is it a rape when a woman only thinks “no” but doesn’t say it out loud? That assumes she’s conscious, and Lauer’s alleged victim says she passed out during the encounter. Also, is it a crime when the predator rightly assumes you won’t fight back because he has the power to make or break your career? All of this is hard to prove in a court of law.

In the Times story, Lauer’s accuser says she didn’t go to management at the time to report the alleged assault because she felt she should have done more to stop it. How many women in the history of humanity have felt this way? Millions? Billions? For whatever reason, women tend to blame themselves for bad experiences.

Men v. Women

In 1999 the U.S. women’s team won the World Cup in soccer. It was a huge story. I did a report on the challenges of coaching men versus women, and I interviewed a veteran coach—a man—who had done both. He told me something I’ll never forget. “With men, if I ream out the team for a bad performance, each player is thinking, ‘Coach is right, the rest of you suck,‘” he said. “But when you coach women and ream them out, each player is thinking, ‘Coach is right, I suck.‘” I don’t know how much of those differing mindsets can be attributed to testerone, a Y-chromosome, nature or nurture, but that story has always stuck with me.

The good news that is forgotten right now is that most men attracted to co-workers act like gentlemen. They test the waters and accept rejection. Also forgotten are bosses who fall in love with and marry people who work for them. Office romances are real and often lead to happiness. But after everything that’s happened, what now? Will someone who wants to ask out a coworker lower down the corporate food chain first have to move to another department? It’s just a date, not a marriage proposal.

I don’t know the answer. I don’t think any of us do, but it is time to be more careful, to think before we speak or act. Mostly, though, it’s time to lay low, folks. Women have a lot to get off their chests, so to speak. Let them do so.

Nearly a half century after the women’s movement began, it wasn’t until Ashley Judd put her name on the record with the New York Times to talk about Harvey Weinstein that the dam broke. There’s a big flood of news still to come.

The Next Generation

A generation of Millennial women have been raised to think they can do anything, be anything, that they can share power. Their brothers have been raised this way as well. Many of these younger Americans have a hard time believing their mothers or grandmothers had bad experiences and “went along to get along” because the alternative was to potentially lose a job, derail advancement, and be called a bitch. I take their disbelief as a good sign that change is already happening.

Meantime, I expect some men will be falsely accused and their reputations damaged. This is unacceptable. The destruction of an innocent man will only give guilty guys the fodder they need to discredit the #MeToo movement. “See? It’s a witch hunt!” Fake news will dilute the power of the truth, and that will be sad.

Finally, some men fear this is the next step in the emasculation of the American male, that guys can’t be guys. Come on, guys. That’s like saying women will stop wanting to look good. In the end, we are the way God made us. You can’t stop that, and who wants to? We can, however, learn to be more polite and considerate of each other’s feelings.

One of these days, after the tidal wave of accusations recedes, sucking back out to sea the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, things will return to normal. For most men and women, “normal” will be the same old normal. It’ll just be new for a few.

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