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“Don’t Say That To Me. Don’t Do That To Me. I Hate It.”

(Photo credit: Girl Statue by Kristen Visbal)

“Don’t say that to me. Don’t do that to me. I hate it.”

That’s the phrase that author Barbara Kingsolver teaches her daughters to say when they want someone to stop what they’re doing. Nothing passive or aggressive about it; just a clear “cut it out.”

In this #MeToo, #Time’sUp moment, when women have had it with sexual misconduct and men are ducking for cover, we’re all being asked to establish new levels of respect for each other and for ourselves.

Much of what’s been written has focused on what (mostly) male abusers need to do differently. To that, I say, “Amen” and “At last.” But are women (or any targets of predation) also being called to do something new? I think so. I think there’s a call for us to confront sexual misconduct with more ‘grit.’ Like Barbara Kingsolver is teacher her daughters, women of every age can to learn how to be more direct and fierce at the boundaries.

Actor David Schwimmer and director Sigal Avin recently co-produced a series of short videos enacting scenes of women being sexually harassed. (A disclaimer here. Portraying harassment of only women, and only white- and light-skinned women at that, the series has some serious limitations. But it’s a well-done start, worth checking out.) The videos’ intent is to help men and women better recognize harassment when it happens. The hope is that  recognizing harassment – by anyone and toward anyone – will help us interrupt it.

What struck me most in the series was how often the women tried to stop harassment through demure, ‘grace-filled’ strategies: averting the eyes, smiling or laughing, ignoring or redirecting behavior, treating come-on lines as compliments, etc. The mushy responses in the videos felt so familiar to me that I felt sick to my stomach watching them.

I know why it happens… why I’ve done that stuff myself. As a harasser creeps in, the harass-ee intuitively knows that standing up for herself (/himself) could make things worse. The aggressor could become embarrassed or angry and step up the aggression. Because of that risk, many people being harassed often soften their own edges in the hope of getting the intrusion to fade.

While this is certainly one strategy, it’s pretty limited. Submissive behavior rarely stops a power play. Worse yet, smiles and laughter can signal to the harasser – who is, by definition, self-interested – a consent that does not exist. Here’s a quote, I think from Melissa Harris-Perry, that sums it up: “If you’re not having fun or do not agree, don’t smile or nod.”

When someone crosses a boundary, we don’t push him back by a blurry response. We redraw the line in bolder relief. 

Being bold does not equate to being bitchy. Boldness can just mean being rooted in your own, clear dignity and integrity. 

When I think of this kind of boldness, I think about the unshakable quality of a mountain.  Firm. Grounded. Unmovable. Without attack. Meeting a harassment situation with this kind of steadfast authority is often the most effective. 

Still, we all know there is no safe path when confronting harassment. Assertion and submission each has its risks, and the risks vary significantly, depending on your race, gender and sexual orientation. Nevertheless, after watching Schwimmer’s videos, I realized that it behooves women to expand their repertoire of responses beyond coquettish avoidance.

This is way easier said than done. But here are a few thoughts about how to bring more of that mountain-like ‘grit’ to address a harassment situation.

  1. Fine-tune your internal “ick-ometer.” There is a point in every harassment where the interaction turns from normal to creepy. And at the point of that crossing, it’s common for the harass-ee to doubt the validity of her own revulsion. “I’m probably misreading this. Maybe I’m being too sensitive. Who am I kidding – someone this high up wouldn’t be taking an interest in me.” But know this. These doubts aren’t your allies; they’re the harasser’s. As your most reliable gauge of what’s ok and not, your “ick-ometer” is your best alert system. Get familiar with the dials.
  2. Respect your instrument readings. Whether or not someone intends a transgression is irrelevant. You are feeling creeped out, so something needs to shift. Whether anyone else in the same situation would feel uncomfortable is also irrelevant. What matters is that you do. Respect that.
  3. Act early. Every move in a real or perceived harassment throws us off-balance mentally, emotionally, and physically. That’s what harassment is intended to do. So the longer the harassing behavior continues, the more you lose your own center. And the more off-balance you are, the less likely you’ll be to respond effectively. If you go into shutdown or explosion mode, the harasser will likely use that to impugn you. “Hey – you never said anything. I’m supposed to be a mind reader now?” or “Whoa, Missy, what the hell is up with you?” Suddenly, you become the problem in this story. The earlier you can stand your ground, the clearer and calmer you’ll stand it.
  4. Have a plan. Harassment is inherently disorienting, so you probably won’t have access to your best thinking when your boss’ hand sneaks onto your thigh. So it helps to prepare some retorts for a moment like this. The most effective phrases are simple ones that clearly state your position without attacking the other:
    • “Please don’t say (do) that.”
    • “Nothing is going to happen here. So let’s either stick to the agenda or postpone this meeting.”
    • “Are you aware that what you’re doing now may constitute sexual harassment?”
    • “Dude. No.”

In addition to planning what you might say, you might plan out what you would do. Move away? Call a break? Stand up? Leave the room?

The bottom line is this: before a harassment starts down the runway, identify the exits.

For many, setting respectful, yet unapologetic boundaries can be a life’s work. And after all that work, standing your ground doesn’t guarantee a good outcome. But neither does demureness.

Because so many victims of abuse and harassment have spoken out, you and I now have more room to speak. Awareness is growing daily. Productive anger is rising up and claiming its place. Truth is having an impact. More than ever before, there’s an opening to confront harassment – not just with grace, but also with some clean, clear grit.

#metoo: Coming To A Workplace Near You?

How surprised were you by the number of #metoo’s on your social media a few weeks ago? I found the magnitude of those affected by sexual misconduct absolutely breathtaking.

Behind every #metoo, there is the face of at least one aggressor. My own #metoo represents four different men over the course of my life whose sexual actions put me in direct harm or imminent threat of it. That doesn’t count the scores of men I’ve forgotten about whose comments or leers made me just garden-variety uncomfortable. I am not unique. Think of all the #metoo’s you experienced in your small world, and extrapolate that out. That’s a lot of harassed people. And for every one of them, there are one or more harassers.

Given the extent of sexual predation coming to light, it’s not a stretch to imagine that there are troubling sexual power dynamics in your world and workplace. I’ll bet that some of your coworkers are feeling (re)traumatized by what’s been in the news. Others may feel relieved. Some folks may be in denial, while others are hiding under their desks hoping they don’t get “the call.”

In a new way and with new urgency, people are questioning what conduct is OK and not OK. But I’m not sure I buy that question. It’s not that the lines of acceptable behavior have suddenly changed or blurred. What’s changing, I think, is that we’ve reached a tipping point in our tolerance for crossing those lines. The rules of physical engagement at work are, and always have been, pretty straightforward:

  • Shaking hands is the language of physical connection in the western workplace. Stick with that.
  • If it’s not your body, don’t touch it, comment on it, or share your fantasies about it.
  • Don’t look at someone’s body like it’s your favorite meal.
  • Don’t sexually touch or comment on your own body in front of someone else.
  • Don’t make any career opportunity contingent on a sexual act. Don’t even insinuate it.

In this current tsunami of truth-telling, we realize that this is too big to be just an individual problem – it’s a cultural problem. Our society has a long-standing illness that has allowed and excused sexual misconduct by people (so far, mostly men) in power. It’s absolutely important to hold the individual perpetrators of sexual misconduct to account. At the same time, there is a larger conversation needed, in which we take a harder look at the cultural dynamics of power in this country.

This is a potent moment in which to examine how powerful people use sex, knowingly or unknowingly, to dominate others. If you want to investigate your own behavior in this realm, here are a few questions you might ponder:

  • When have I said or done something of a sexual nature that could have made someone feel unsafe, insecure or devalued? What are the cultural beliefs I’ve inherited, such that that behavior seemed OK to me?
  • Do I find myself levying criticisms or doubts about the women who are coming forward now? If so, what assumptions might I be holding about them?
  • Have I ever tacitly allowed or condoned someone else’s inappropriate behavior?
  • What is the most impactful action I can take now to stop sex from being used as an intimidating force in myself or my sphere?
  • What am I willing to put at risk to do that?

Here also are some questions that leaders can use to engage their teams and organizations in self-reflection:

  • What aspects of our culture, policies and practices might be giving people in our organization permission to wield sexual power over others?
  • What aspects of our culture, policies and practices might be discouraging victims of sexual harassment from coming forward?
  • What are some of the things we should be looking out for to indicate possible sexual harassment?
  • What are the most powerful practical commitments we are willing to make as an organization to stop sex from being used as intimidation?
  • What will we need to put at risk in order to carry out that commitment?

As unsettling a time as this is, it’s a time of clearer seeing. With truth comes the possibility of reconciliation, that we might create a more just and vital way of living and working together.