Sexual Harassment — The Secret Epidemic

This post does not represent a return to Social Media. Rather it is a break from my editing to leave a few comments for you to consider. I’m a news junkie so while I go about my daily routine I have the TV news on.  The harassment story dominates the news and as new charges are leveled almost every day, it looks like this will be a top story for quite some time to come. After I post this I’ll go back in my hole. I fully expect that this blog will get its share of criticism. While I have tried to be careful it is likely that some reader will be offended by something in this piece. If so, I apologize. I write blogs to get people to think so please do that and then comment .

Sexual harassment is an extremely sensitive topic. Men aren’t usually at the receiving end and are therefore reluctant to say much.  Many of us are reluctant to talk about it for fear of saying the wrong thing. The fact of the matter is that 99 percent of men never suffer the pain and humiliation that women experience. We all know it is wrong but not all of us view it as seriously as women do. That has been made very obvious in Alabama where many of the men who were interviewed said they would rather have an accused pedophile in the U.S. Senate than a Democrat. They may as well say that the women who have been sexually harassed are not important. and that lewd and lascivious behavior around them should be ignored.

Sexual harassment is nothing new. It’s been illegal in the United States for over half a century. Most men know that but few think they are guilty of it. If we examine our histories objectively most of us can probably find examples where we at least bordered on violation. So, let’s define it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says this:

It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.”

With all the charges of sexual harassment every man in America is likely reviewing his past and hoping no one emerges that accuses him of committing that offense. Most of us would do no such thing but we are learning that there’s a whole lot about it that we don’t know and that what may seem like an innocent comment just might be highly offensive.

As we look back I’m sure every one of us can remember the sexual banter that went on in some workplaces, banter in which some women participated or even initiated (is that still happening?). Unfortunately, many men came to believe that if SOME women participated, ALL of them thought it was OK. Some of those same men also thought that the banter was permission to go even farther. I know because I once fired a man for using inappropriate language and engaging in unwanted touching in an elevator. His excuse was that he thought an earlier conversation was an invitation.

I am hoping that all of us recognize that unwanted or inappropriate touching was and is NEVER OK and NO always means, NO. Touching, then, should be a settled issue. It’s just plain wrong. So, let’s talk about the language we use, that’s where there seem to be some gray areas.

Today, as men reflect on all of the harassment news there is bound to be some confusion on just exactly how you relate to women. Is it OK for example to say to a woman, “You look nice today,” or is that harassment. Can you say, “I like your skirt or shirt,” without sounding suggestive?  Or, maybe comments about appearance are always out of line? But – if that’s the case can women say to men, “Nice suit,” or, “very attractive necktie.” Are we all going to be walking on eggshells?

In my era and in my experience, men pretty much knew that when you were at work and around women there were two taboos. 1)  Sexual banter, for example, was seen as wrong. While it took place it was far rarer than it became in the 70s and 80s.

2) I, like many other men, had been raised to believe it was not appropriate to use foul language around women. When cursing by both sexes became more common in the 70s some barriers came down that probably should not have. The first time I heard a woman use the “F” word I was left speechless and embarrassed. Many men who heard women use that word took it as a relaxation of other taboos. They were terribly wrong.

As some behavioral restrictions seemed to be relaxed, new ones arose and, women became aware that they didn’t have to listen to sexual innuendo so they began to object. That caught men off guard because many felt that on one hand they were given permission but on the other it was taken away and no one sent out a news release to tell them that. Let me give you an example. Back in the 80s I was conducting a training session on how to make effective presentations for a group of women executives.  At the beginning I always got the housekeeping things out of the way like, “There’s coffee in the back of the room along with juices and soft drinks. The restrooms are down the hall and to your right, we’ll be taking two breaks this morning and there’s a rack near the door if you’d like to hang your jackets.” Later, I was told privately by one of the women that I had made an inappropriate and suggestive remark. Do you know what it was?

Apparently telling the women they could hang their jackets (it was when they wore blazers to work) I was in effect asking them to remove an article of clothing. She wasn’t angry but thought my sensitivity to women’s sensitivities should be heightened. On reflection I realized that not one of the half-dozen women removed their jackets. Now some people may think that is an extreme example but the fact is there is a broad spectrum of potentially offensive language and because women are most often the victims they are far more aware of the words that often feel like poison darts.

I don’t know any men who set out to offend women. I do know a good many, though, who don’t have a clue as to what is right and what is wrong and then, of course, there are always some who think the rules don’t apply to them.

My point in this post is simply that everything that is happening now should be looked at as a learning experience. We have to talk about talking, about language and about perception. Women and men do not think alike and they have different communication styles. Both sexes have to learn what they are — and both sexes have to become more sensitive to the language they use. Finally, none of us should be too quick to condemn. Some people need an error pointed out to them in order to learn and, sadly, some will never learn.

This is not a time for either  male or female bashing, it is a time for understanding for introspection, for learning. We cannot allow this news to cause men and women to be afraid to communicate with one another. Sensitivity to the feelings of others can only result in better communication if we are aware of the pitfalls.

I think the women who have gone public have shown great courage. It’s not easy to tell the world about your most embarrassing moments. But is it always appropriate to go public? Are there degrees of offensive behavior? Like many of you, I don’t know, I’m just asking, I’m hoping any woman who feels harassed confronts the guilty party, but how? Should the means of confrontation be weighed against the nature of the offense”

To men I have this advice. When you are in contact with women on any level in any situation ask yourself this question. Would you say it or do it to your daughter or sister or mother?

And from where I sit that’s the truth.


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