Sometimes people surprise me.
Not all conference attendees are harassers. We get that. It’s just a few bad apples, right? But here’s why the few bad apples spoil the whole bunch. The experience of being harassed or assaulted by one person forces the person to ask hirself: Will anyone be on my side?
And frankly, I’m sick of asking that question. I’m sick of my friends having to ask that question. I’m sick of anyone in my vicinity having to, even for a second, wonder whether they’ll be blamed for being harassed. But without some sort of overt declaration of support – such as, oh I don’t know, a policy to deal with harassment – all bystanders become Schroedinger’s Victim Blamer.
Now, here’s the story that brought on this epiphany for me. Several weeks ago, I was at a friend’s party. The party itself was fantastic, but at the end of the night, one of the party-goers decided that my saying goodnight was a cryptic invitation for him to unbutton my jacket and grope me.
And the fucking shame of this thing another grown-ass man chose to do, that was in no way my fault, short-circuited everything I knew about feminist theory. But what’s worse, it made me doubt the men I knew at the party so much that I didn’t tell the host about it until last week. I worried that they would say they’d seen me dancing with him(I did, sort of, after he shimmied in uninvited between me and the cute girl I was dancing with). That I was overreacting. That I’d led him on. That it’s not like I got raped. What did I expect wearing that dress? Why didn’t you yell “stop?”
(I was actually asked this last one).
That, plus all this cultural bullshit about how women bring gropage on themselves by being sexy-like, made me question the sincerity of my friendships with the men at that party (excluding Sir Creeper, who was not someone I’d previously met).
Sir Creeper didn’t just undermine my ability to feel safe at a party; he undermined all the work every other man had done to create a safe, respectful and fun environment. And all it takes is a one-man campaign of grab-ass in an environment with no explicit “keep your hands to yourself policy” to make victims feel unwelcome.
The story has a happy ending. The host immediately took my side, agreed that if Sir Creeper didn’t respect the ‘no’ of an indescribably burly, sober 25 year old woman, he couldn’t be trusted around intoxicated teenagers*, and further asked permission to tear him a new one, figuratively speaking.
The depressing part is how utterly astounded getting that response made me. He was ashamed a guest of his had done this, and immediately made an effort to make me feel safe and included. I actually cried. And even though my tears cure cancer, I never cry.
This is the major purpose of anti-harassment policies, writ large. A mind-blowingly high number of women have experiences of sexual harassment and assault and the subsequent disbelief/denial from family and friends. We all have the larger “she led him on/what did she expect?” cultural messages. Like this:
So when harassment happens, and there’s no harassment policy in place, there’s no way of knowing whether reporting it would be useful or if it would just compound the harm.
With a harassment policy, a person is more likely to report, giving us as a community the chance to repair the damage to the relationship with the harassed person. We get the fantastic opportunity to make someone who has just been harmed, feel safe and welcomed again, and of course, a better chance of identifying the offender and sift his type out of the community over time.
*Legal disclaimer: of course, all teenagers were over the age of 21.