By Cara Lynch, HAVEN Therapist
As Valentine’s Day was coming to a close, I followed my regular nighttime routine of getting in bed and watching the 10 o’clock news until I became either too sleepy or too angry to continue to watch. That night my emotions followed the latter as I listened to the story about a student at Oakland University who was suspended after he wrote a sexually explicit story about his professor.
No wait, let me clarify that further: he was suspended after he sexually harassed his professor. The media, of course, did not frame the story as sexual harassment. Instead they jumped at the chance to make an all-too-easy Van Halen reference and chose to frame it as a man whose sexual imagination simply got the better of him. No harm, no foul, right? Wrong, and allow me to break down why.
First of all, let’s define sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual attention that causes a person to feel intimidated, threatened, uncomfortable, or unsafe. Most people think of sexual harassment as something that happens between a boss and his/her employee, but work is not the only place that sexual harassment happens. Sexual harassment happens on the street when someone cat-calls you from a car when you are walking to catch the bus. Sexual harassment happens in public places like malls and gas stations and office buildings when someone approaches you to say how sexy your hips are and how enjoyable it is to watch you walk. Sexual harassment happens on the internet when someone sends you online messages or comments on your blog about how hot you are and how much you turn them on. And sexual harassment happens in schools and universities when a student decides to tell his professor all the sexual things he would like to do to her.
Second of all, let’s address the rebuttal that might be circulating in your head right now: But when I tell you how hot you are, it’s a compliment! Why can’t you just smile and appreciate it? Take a second look at that definition of sexual harassment and find the part that speaks to the intention of the “attention-giver.” Oh, wait, you can’t find it? That is because sexual harassment has nothing to do with a person’s intention, but instead has everything to do with how the receiver of the attention feels. All of the examples I listed above are sexual harassment because they often leave the other person feeling uncomfortable and unsafe, regardless of whether that is what someone was trying to accomplish or not. Intention does not matter.
But there’s something else hidden beneath the rebuttal of “But I didn’t mean it like that,” something much more insidious, which brings me to my third point. When someone says, “But that’s not what I meant” or “That wasn’t my intention,” the message that is actually conveyed is something more along the lines of, “You are wrong for feeling the way you do.”
When we insist that our intention of doing no harm is more important that the feelings of harm expressed to us by the other person, we are silencing them and telling them that their feelings do not matter. With regards to the incident at Oakland University, I do not claim to know exactly what this professor felt when she read those stories; I am not in her head and I do not live her life. However, it seems safe to assume that she felt threatened and uncomfortable given the fact that this particular student was found guilty of sexual harassment and intimidation by the student conduct committee.
Though I cannot speak for the professor, I can speak for myself and had I been in her position, uncomfortable is exactly what I would have felt. I will explain why and this will be my final point.
As a woman living in this society, I fear violence all the time, specifically violence from men. I do so because women are the targets of men’s violence all the time from being beaten by partners, to being raped by friends, to being molested by caregivers. It is not the kind of fear that gives me nightmares every night or makes it impossible for me to live my life; it is more of an awareness that is always there, like when the government held our national threat level steady at orange for years. The awareness of that threat level was always with us, but the majority of us were not holed up in bomb shelters somewhere. It was a fear we got used to.
This fear of men’s violence against women is also something that most women are just used to and it is the same kind of fear that people of color might have of violence fueled by racism or someone who identifies as LGBTQI might have of violence fueled by homophobia, transphobia, and/or heterosexism.
As women, that place of fear might get activated, though, when a man pulls alongside us at a gas station and says, “Hey baby, what’s a sexy thing like you doing here,” because in that moment, we have no idea what he is going to do if we reject him. “Is he going to keep bothering me? Is he going to attack me? Will it be safe for me to assert myself right now and tell him to leave me alone?” And my fear definitely would have been activated if I were a professor reading a student’s story about all the sexual things he wants to do to me. There is no way that I would have been able to read that story, go back to class, and feel safe with him around because if he thought it was ok to write this story and turn it in the first place, what is he going to think is ok to do next? Does he even see me as anything other than a sexual object?
Now I am not saying that this student is the devil incarnate or even just a “Bad Guy.” I am no more in his head than I am in the professor’s. But I will say this: It says something about the kind of person he is that instead of taking this opportunity to learn about himself and make different choices in the future, he is refusing to take responsibility for his actions by claiming it was protected free speech and pursuing legal action instead.
And it says something about him that he believes his right to say whatever he wants to say is more important that the feelings of safety, or lack thereof, of those around him. It would say something entirely different about him if he were able to listen to his professor express her feelings without trying to explain to her, or anyone else, why those feelings are wrong and then respond by saying, “I hear what you are saying and though I may not have intended to make you feel this way, I understand now that my actions had that effect all the same. You are entitled to your feelings and I respect them. Thank you for telling me. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you feel safe around me in the future.”
The man who could say all that would be a man I would consider trusting again because he would have shown me that he values my feelings and that he is open to learning the most important rule of all: My rights end where yours begin. Or in this case, my right to free speech ends the moment my free speech tramples all over someone else’s right to feel safe.