A Senior’s View of Sexual Harassment

I grew up in an interesting era – one in which young women were just beginning to realize they had power of their own and started burning bras and openly discussing sex before marriage. But I also had a mother who sent mixed messages. She told me I was smart and could be anything I wanted to be but then turned around and insisted I take cooking and sewing in high school because I would need them when I got married. I was taught that you never ask for more money in your career because you should just be thankful you have a job. I guess that’s the old “respect authority figures” message from the Baby Boomer generation. So parts of me maintain the old “keep in line” attitude and parts of me vehemently support the “stand up and speak your mind” attitude. That said, as a 65-year-old, card-carrying AARP member with roots in the Southern 1950s, I’m nervous to stand up and speak my mind to strangers on such a personal, sensitive subject as sexual harassment and yet pissed off at the comment I heard last week from a Meet the Press female panelist. The subject was about the Harvey Weinstein debacle and she commented that she didn’t think it was OK for famous actresses to pitch in their two cents about sexual harassment decades after an incident by using the hashtag “MeToo.”

So I’m going to speak my mind. Any time you’re in a subordinate position to someone who has the ability to squash all your dreams and career ambitions when you’re at the bottom of the food chain and they’re at the top, it’s very difficult to speak up. Shame on her for not being savvy enough to realize that. It’s easy for people to say, “Well just get another job” but getting another job is never a simple process and may end up setting you back professionally and financially. Maybe you can forget about it; maybe you can pretend it never happened; maybe you can pretend it doesn’t matter. You worry that your voice will be dismissed because: 1) he’s got far more clout than you; 2) his title confers more weight (because, really, doesn’t a big title mean you’re smarter and more powerful?); 3) he’s got a wife so why would he risk that; 4) if his boss is a man, you haven’t got a chance (boys will be boys and all); 4) lots of people’s careers depend on supporting his every whim so they’re not likely to support you even if they believe you; or 5) it’s your word against his, etc. Any one of those is enough to have you rationalizing that it was just one little incident so maybe you should write it off and try to stay out of his way, a small price to pay to keep your job and not have to go searching for a new one with an accusation of sexual harassment in your file.

Too many men equate physical strength with mental superiority and, afraid of being shown up, they constantly attempt to force “the weaker sex” into smaller, safer roles. I’ll bet an anonymous survey would reveal a high percentage of men who still believe the “little woman” should be happy to be supported and that her “place” in life is cooking and cleaning. I’m just eternally grateful that this country’s history managed to sidestep keep-the-woman-in-her-place practices like “honor killings” and “clitoral circumcision.” I feel pretty safe in saying it wasn’t a woman who came up with those. I’ve tried to imagine what it must be like to live with dreams and ambitions and never be able to pursue them and I’m pretty sure that if I’d been born into those cultures, I wouldn’t be alive today.

I recall an old boyfriend who once told me I should change the sheets on the bed more often. When asked why he couldn’t change the sheets if he didn’t like it, he responded, “Because that a woman’s chore.” Oops. Picked the wrong woman!

And back to surveys – I would find a second one interesting: How many women who are seniors get sexually harassed? I know. You probably think it only happens when you’re young, svelte and gorgeous. Oddly enough, in the years that I was a professional dancer in Las Vegas, I would get the occasional inappropriate comment from strangers in the casinos, but I didn’t work with them and they had no say-so over my career so they were easy to dismiss. So once I retired, got into a totally different field, put a couple of decades behind my dancing, lost all my muscle tone, and gained 40+ pounds, I was surprised to find myself verbally harassed by a man with more status in the organization. Having spent years in backstage dressing rooms, I was not unaccustomed to salty language or even explicit comments but none of them had ever been aimed at me. But this time, here I was in my 50s, thinking “What’s the matter with all those women who get harassed? Why the hell don’t they speak up?” and then this man called me over in the hallway (I’m sure he thought a public place would make it appear less like harassment because there were people around who could witness the fact that he didn’t touch me) and told me he dreamed that I F’d him (I’ll let you fill in the letters) with a giant dildo but it didn’t hurt. I found myself taken utterly aback. You’d think I’d have run right over to HR to report him, right? Nope. It took me another couple of weeks and I was losing sleep over it, wondering who else he was harassing and if his behavior stopped at verbal comments. This is why I understand how difficult it can be to speak up, even for women who appear to have reached the pinnacle of their careers and have everything going for them, like the ones involved in the Harvey Weinstein mess. I think the female panelist who made the comments on Meet the Press has probably never been harassed and did an injustice to every woman who has.

Having said all that, let me just add that I may not be young and gorgeous and famous, but I’m adding my name to “#MeToo” because, as a senior, I’m proof that it can happen to anyone.