“Me too.” It’s the latest social media campaign in which women post “Me too” as their status in an effort to raise awareness about sexual assault and sexual harassment by acknowledging that, they too, have been victims of these unnecessary and unwarranted occurrences.
The Facebook statuses appear to be ripe with women offering support, apologizing for the fact that the poster was the victim of one of the two (or maybe both) situations, and reminding the original poster that they are not at fault. For that, I am thankful. I think it’s wonderful when women unite together – after all, the biggest enemy of women, specifically in the workplace, is not men – but other women.
But much like the Women’s March in January, I think we’ve missed the mark.
For all intents and purposes, I’m going to focus on the sexual harassment aspect of the campaign because sexual assault is a different animal and I really don’t believe you can categorize the two like salt and pepper. While one can lead to the other, I just don’t think you can isolate victims of sexual harassment and then isolate victims of sexual assault and say they’re similar.
For almost a decade now, my career – in some form or another – has revolved around politicians, so I’m no stranger to what sexual harassment looks like in the workplace. I’ll also be the first to acknowledge that inappropriate comments, touches on the back that last a little too long, and suggestions for extracurricular activities outside the office are common and I’m not naive enough to believe that it’s isolated in the political world. Suggestive comments and proposals of exchanges of favors – those happen too. I believe that any woman who has worked anywhere ever either knows someone who has experienced pressures such as these in the workplace or has experienced it themselves. It happens all the time.
So what’s my beef with ‘Me too’? It’s two fold and I’ve thought long and hard about how to appropriately put this into words, so bear with me at least until I finish the explanation.
I’ll preface with the disclaimer that I am not saying, in any way, that sexual harassment (or assault) is the fault of the woman. It isn’t – ever. But when we become comfortable in a workplace, we let our guards down. Instead of saying, “Did you have a nice weekend?” the question is “What do you like to do on the weekends?” and then “What are you doing this weekend?” and before you know it, “We should do something this weekend.” When we personalize these working relationships, we allow ourselves to acknowledge that those with whom we work care about us, and so we accept compliments that we ‘look very nice today’ and we take a hug that should have been from the side but somehow shifted to a full-frontal embrace. It’s even worse now with social media, which has emboldened co-workers to comment on the length of your dress or the toning of your legs on the Internet when they might not do that in real life (yet). Social media has normalized an otherwise absent coziness among working peers. We look at co-workers and bosses as ‘friends’ and people with whom we socialize instead of what they really are: co-workers and bosses.
None of these things warrant sexual harassment but they are a breeding ground for an environment in which sexual harassment occurs: a comfort zone. People behave differently in a comfort zone. Men aren’t always that bright – as a woman, you can’t let someone know you’re comfortable, draw them in on a personal level, and then be outraged when they cross a boundary that has continued to move. It does not excuse bad behavior and NO means NO, but cultivation of an environment in which these situations arise almost always precedes the actual harassment.
So what is the solution? Keep everyone you work with outside the comfort zone? Maybe so. I’ve seen both sides of this coin and I assure you that it’s a lot easier to stop before it starts. Is it a hard line to draw in the sand? Sure. Women who share nothing in the workplace, who are closed off, and who avoid socializing with their colleagues are labeled b****es – without question. But which is worse?
I believe that women have an obligation to redirect conversations and working relationships back on track when they veer off course because we are strong. Arguably stronger. I know that women’s rights activists will say that the responsibility shouldn’t be on the woman and men shouldn’t be making such advances in the first place. But why isn’t it considered powerful and an exhibition of strength when a woman asserts herself as the reasonable one in the room not driven by only sex? I can’t think of anything that would put a woman ‘on the same level’ as a man more than taking control of a situation and keeping a man within the lines of professionalism.
I look at my own situation: I know there are men who won’t cross that line because they are terrified I will pull their proverbial pants down in a column. There are people in the Capitol who think I am a stone-cold b**** and I’m okay with that. It keeps them on course and it keeps me on course. The idea that we have to be besties with everyone we work with is just…wrong.
To sum up my first point: Being known as a b**** is a lot less distracting than having to deal with mixed signals by differing parties at work.
Now, on to the second. I also believe the “Me too” campaign missed the mark because it offers no solution or support for solutions. A successful campaign for justice would be inundating our News Feeds with stories of successful pushback to sexual harassment in the workplace. Women would be sharing with others and encouraging victims to REPORT these occurrences.
I take issue with women who don’t speak up for themselves in these situations because the rhetoric that there is no support system in place is just wrong. Not anymore. When you look at Weinstein’s former intern, now 62, who is speaking out about harassment dating back almost 40 years, we all know that is NOT how a situation like that would unfold today – not with social media and women’s equalization. Further, you can’t blame a system for being broken when you aren’t injecting what is right into the system. Complaining that something exists long after the fact knowing good and well that you didn’t speak up when you had the chance does not show a desire for resolve, it just shows the acceptance of victimhood.
Part of the responsibility that comes with empowerment is the duty to do the right thing. The right thing in these cases is to stop it or at least try to stop it. If you are unsuccessful, women (and moral men) will rally around a cause and help fight back. The most effective means for change is for reported cases to result in punishment. Stigmas will change when it’s the harasser that is punished because of credible, verifiable reports. THAT is what will change the trend.
This column could go on for days about other factors like women working with women and men working with men and societal progress that seems to have taken place everywhere but the workplace, the effect age has on these situations, or positions of power, or the fact that women cross the line with men in the workplace a lot of the time…they just don’t call it ‘sexual harassment.’ We could go on and on about how it used to be thirty years ago – but that is not how it is now. But none of these things will change that “Me too” is currently highlighting the wrong issues.
Taking control before and after sexual harassment is the pathway to ending it all. Being our own advocates is the mechanism to do it.