A familiar fable: Decades ago, my boss warned me about a powerful man in the corporation where we both worked. My boss, a kind and intelligent man, told me (in well-couched terms) that Mr. Powerful had a reputation of being handsy and inviting women to his hotel suite on business trips. Here’s the kicker: I was being warned because I would be blamed if anything happened. Yep, it was up to me to be responsible for Mr. Powerful’s behavior, without having any authority over him.
I asked, baffled, if Mr. Powerful had been told not to ask employees to have sex with him. My boss looked at me as if I were particularly stupid. “That’s not how it works,” he said, and then explained that I would be fired if I were groped, willing or not. In fact, if I turned down Mr. Powerful, and he became petulant and lied for his own ego’s satisfaction, I would still be fired.
To summarize: If Mr. Powerful hit on me, I would be fired, whether or not I refused. Whether or not he lied. It was, simply, up to me to navigate around Mr. Powerful’s lust, as his position was safe and mine was not.
This is a hold-over from the teenage years, when a boy who got his girlfriend pregnant would swear that his friends had also slept with her, and paternity suits dissolved. The boys smirked their way to the future as Mr. Powerfuls while the girls were sent to a “home.” Yes, this happened. Often, in the days before DNA testing was possible. The memories linger for 40 years and more.
Our culture is steeped in unequal treatment. It is not going to be easy to change a whole culture when old habits (which can be dressed up as “traditional”) start early and die hard. None of this is about sex or lust. It is about abuse of power. And women want the authority that goes with their increasing responsibility. Without authority, the abuse of power can continue, unabated.
Here are reasons we stay silent about sexual abuse for 40 years:
- Birth control is a woman’s problem. But access to birth control belongs to the men who make the rules about insurance and whether or not the workplace will cover birth control.
- Sex in the workplace is about power, rarely lust. A woman might say Yes because she is the only breadwinner for her family, and retaliation is not just a threat, but a reality. Power is a big tool, and I mean that exactly the way it sounds.
- Men have bragging rights to sex. Women get slut-shamed for participating.
- Men think sex is a perk of power, rank, or celebrity. Women vie for salary or jobs.
- Abused children (and adults) often try to please their abuser. It’s a form of control, to keep the abuser pleased to avoid harsher treatment. No matter how much we know harassment and abuse is outside our control, in some tiny place in our heart, we still feel shame that some part of it might possibly have been our fault. And that shame is easy to use against us.
- Women have had to behave in counter-productive ways for centuries. Culture and peer pressure are powerful tools. Behaviors small and large. We wear stilettos to be attractive, although they hurt our feet. We skip the foods we like in public, although we’d like to indulge, so not to be called fat or greedy. We wear clothing because it is a current fad, although it is not flattering. Better to be safe. There are thousands of examples, from minor to life-changing decisions.
- We have long been on the losing side of power. We’d like a crack at it without condemnation or ridicule.
- Men: We know you won’t believe us or have our back. You will claim sex was consensual to protect yourself. You say, “It’s your word against mine.” You excuse your behavior as “boys will be boys.” You will always have your high-ranking male friends back you up.
That’s why we keep quiet for 40 years.
–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. She has also heard enough unequal sex-in-the-workplace stories to last a lifetime.