Once upon a time, a fairy princess waited for her prince to save her: from captivity, a wicked stepmother, maybe even an annoying dwarf sneezing on her. No matter what, the lovely young woman needed a man to help her out of a jam. Fast forward to today, where the “fairer sex” holds open doors for herself, earns her own livelihood, and can pretty much MacGyver a means of escape from any tower.
So how do we explain the rage-filled #MeToo movement to the young girls in our lives, especially after years of their having being told, “You’ve come a long way, baby”? When the allegations against Harvey Weinstein came out—and kept coming out—it seemed a natural time to discuss sexual harassment and assault with my teenage daughters. “Why didn’t they just say no?” they asked me. I’m not sure if it was teenager naiveté or self-confidence on their part, but it seemed clear that my daughters believed these women had a choice in the matter. I responded that many probably did say no to unwanted sexual advances but had been physically forced or emotionally coerced into behavior they regretted. “Why didn’t they speak up right after it happened?” they continued to query. I tried to explain. Some may have considered this the only way to gain a promotion or achieve advancement, I said. And many may have worried that they would not be believed or would be made to feel ashamed. But this begs the question as to why these women would think these things. Is it because we’ve lost our sense of worthiness, and of belonging to a community, family, God?
During the last few months I’ve spoken with many women—young and old—about the #MeToo movement and the charges of sexual impropriety (and in some cases sexual crimes) that have been made against many prominent men. Almost uniformly, these women recall an incident of sexual harassment or of feeling uncomfortable in a situation in which a male colleague or boss made what seemed like sexual advances. One woman described being on a business trip and her boss opening his hotel room door to her with just a towel wrapped around his waist and trying to usher her in. (Sound familiar?) She politely declined. When he pressed her, offering that he would “just be a minute getting dressed,” and she could wait in the room’s sitting area, she again declined and, turning on her heels before anything more could be said, hustled away on rubbery legs to wait for him in the lobby.
Even my mother had a story, which she told to me when I was a teenager. She remembered, as a pretty young woman in Cuba, a family friend and frequent visitor who would greet her by shaking hands and pulling her close to him, sometimes brushing his arm against her breast. After realizing this was no accident, one day she hauled off and kicked her pointy-toed shoe right into his shin—not exactly acceptable social etiquette in 1950s Cuba. His visits to the family became less frequent after the shin bashing. I remember thinking it was hilarious—almost cartoonish—as I pictured this man hopping on one foot, screeching in pain. My mother was trying to teach me to defend myself, emotionally as well as physically, and not to be afraid of seeming like a fool if it meant I was protecting my dignity and integrity.
What made my friend decide to walk away from a half-naked man’s hotel room? Is it possible that she really had caught her boss at an awkward moment and he was just trying to be polite? Perhaps, but what does it matter? She saw a situation that didn’t feel right and got herself out of a potentially dangerous spot. She used her common sense, a skill I worry is sorely lacking in our society today. Taking it into the realm of faith, entering into that room could have been an occasion of sin best avoided. My mother’s reaction, a little less subtle, made the same point. However, while her feistiness opened her up to social scrutiny, or at least a possible parental reprimand, my mother could count on her family to help protect her chastity no matter what. Young people today do not hear enough about how important chastity is or about how practicing abstinence is good for their mental and emotional state, not just their physical body. My mother knew she belonged to a loving family and was a beloved child of God. This gave her the confidence to recognize a wrong and stand up for herself. Using common sense and practicing chastity are no less courageous than tweeting #MeToo.
After this discussion with my daughters, I realized I had not considered how my son might fit into all this. Chastity was not the issue (both men and women are called upon to be chaste). Nor was it the expectation that he should treat women with respect in all circumstances. But couldn’t he also be placed in a situation where a female in authority might abuse her power? As more of these allegations came out, many lacking evidence, I worried that my son could face trouble if a woman decided to remold what she later considered a regretful encounter with him into a non-consensual activity. Recently, the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York unanimously approved a new sexual misconduct policy. It includes language about “affirmative consent,” stating that clear permission has to be granted through words or actions for sexual activity to take place. While I think this is a bold and forward-thinking policy in today’s world, how exactly will it play out in real-life situations? If “clear” is not defined the same way by a couple, then it’s possible the encounter could be later described in two different ways.
I find it hard to believe that the women who have come out against Weinstein and others would lie about these serious accusations. However, there is potential in the media hysteria for the stories to get out in front of the facts. And while the rapid-fire nature of social-media posts certainly provides a forum for abused women to have a voice and receive justice, it could just as easily be a vehicle for celebrities and “regular” people alike to cling to what seems to be the most desirable achievement these days: victim status. No one deserves to be sexually assaulted or harassed, regardless of what they are wearing, the location they find themselves in, or the company they keep. However, maybe instead of expending our energy on indignant rage after the fact, we could spend it on teaching our young women (and men) how valuable they are, so that they will recognize that no job, promotion, relationship, or measure of social status is worth as much as their own physical, mental and spiritual well-being.