Sexual Harassment is a “Men’s Issue”
I realize that the topic for my column may be seen as a controversial one for a family newspaper. But precisely for that reason, I have chosen this week to write about sexual harassment and assault. This is a relevant story in the national headlines, because of the cases of men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Mark Halperin, Bill O’Reilly, and Roger Ailes. But let’s not fool ourselves that sexual harassment and assault are isolated to the wealthy and powerful. Far more numerous are the cases we don’t hear anything about, because the victim stays silent. I have heard of multiple cases of sexual harassment and assault recently here in our own town, so this is not a topic we can leave to others.
The one safe place to talk about sexual harassment and assault, apparently, is with women. We have courses on “Rape Prevention” and “Avoiding Sexual Harassment” that are geared almost entirely toward women. A student of mine told me a little bit about a rape prevention course she took, where not only were women the only ones invited, but they were told not to talk about what they learned with men. How many men have taken a course like “Preventing Rape & Sexual Harassment” focused on what men can do to stop sexually harassing and assaulting women? If you are like me, never.
The problem, of course, is this: If men are the primary perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment, why is it that we think women need to be taught rape prevention courses? Why do we cover these topics in courses as “women’s issues?” This assumes that somehow women are responsible for avoiding being harassed or assaulted, rather than men being responsible for doing the harassing and assaulting! Our attitude, absurd though it seems, is that sexual harassment and assault are inevitable and women just have to learn to deal with it.
Instead, should we not teach rape prevention courses to boys and men? Should we not have courses on “men’s issues” that involve how to prevent and stop sexual harassment? And why don’t we? I was talking to one of my teenage daughters about this just yesterday. I asked her, “Why don’t you think parents talk to their boys about these things while we feel obligated to talk to our girls?” Her answer was spot on: “People don’t want to talk to their sons because they don’t want to assume that their boy would do such a thing. And they don’t want their sons to think that they see them that way.”
But we don’t simply stop teaching “Thou shalt not kill” because we don’t want people to feel like we believe they are budding psychopathic killers. We teach because we know that people do these things and because we know they are wrong. The conservative estimate is that 25% of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. If it is happening that often, clearly there are a lot of men doing it, right? So we must have the courage to talk to boys and men about why sexual harassment occurs, how to stop ourselves from doing it, and how to deal with times when other men are sexually harassing women and we know about it.
So in your next family meeting or discussion, talk to your children (I would personally recommend ages 12+) about sexual harassment. And if I may, as a father of only daughters, let me suggest a few things you might discuss.
First, sexual assault and harassment are about power, not sex. In workplaces where women and men make close to the same salary and have equal opportunities for promotion, cases of sexual harassment are much less common. So talk to your boys about how to use power to benefit and help others rather than to abuse and demean. Ask them why they think men engage in such behaviors–what they think these men get out of it. In fact, be sure to ask a lot of questions rather than just lecture.
Second, talk to your sons about why it is common in real life, as well as movies and television, that boys push the girls sexually as far as they will “let them.” Talk to them about how often boys feel like they can take as much as the girl is willing to give, rather than putting limits on their own behavior. Is the real limit what Trump said in his bragging to the TV host, “They let you do it!”? Or Bill Clinton’s admission that his affair with an intern was “because I could”?
Lastly, and most importantly, teach by example. How you treat your wife and daughters, your co-workers and employees, will teach more than any sermon. I don’t mean holding the door open or practicing “ladies first,” but your genuine respect for women and girls as your equals. If you don’t live this, start now. And men, if you know about these things happening in your workplace or social world, do something about it. Real respect for women is not about courtly manners, but about the courage to do the right thing and the self-control to deal with your own impulses.