Monday, February 8, 2016

A tale of the times (2)

"What did they call sexual harassment back then?"


I had a hard time writing A tale of the times (1) and I'm not sure I ever succeeded in saying what it was I wanted to say. I think it shows how complex these issues are.

I began to write this story because of the news — not just today's news, but yesterday's news, and last year's news. I wanted to bring clarity to the complexity but I'm pretty sure I've just added new layers of confusion.

Two things I wanted to make clear: I liked Mr. J. He was a nice guy and I enjoyed his company. I get really impatient when reading the news of sexual assaults and harassment and I see the perpetrator described as a "monster" or a "jerk" or a "creep." My experience — and I have quite a lot — is that the men involved in these cases are not monsters. They're regular guys. That's part of the problem and that's what makes it so difficult.

But the second thing is, no matter how hard I tried and after all these years, I still couldn't find a way of saying that I liked him without feeling that I was taking responsibility for what had happened. I felt I would be admitting that this was, indeed, my fault and my nursing superiors were absolutely right to burn me at the stake.

(Cartoon by David Hayward)

The third thing is, Mr. J. was genuinely surprised at my rebuff. He obviously felt entitled and he truly believed I would welcome his advances even though I had been very clear about where the line in our relationship was.

Mr. J. and I continued to see each other on the ward. There was no way I could avoid him and I didn't really want to avoid him. I wanted, as Lucy DeCouture said about Jian Ghomeshi after he attacked her, to "normalize" the situation and thus, to make it seem that it had never happened. (I want to acknowledge that what I went through in this case is nothing like what Lucy and the others went through with Jian.)

When you have been raised and socialized in a certain way, not to make a fuss, this is a natural way to behave.

The incident with Mr. J. happened in the mid-1960s, just before women's liberation was about to break through into the mainstream. The question that still needs to be answered is this: why are the reactions of women facing this today so similar to the reaction I had 50 years ago? Why have we not moved beyond women trying, on some level, to placate, to explain and excuse and protect the men who attack them?

Stay tuned.

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