I had a disturbing experience when I was working at a Museum in Manhattan. Early on a Sunday morning, before I opened my gallery, I went to the empty office to pick up mail. In the mailroom, to my surprise, I found another employee, a thirty something woman, Afro-American, a professional type. Her name was Vanessa. We worked in different departments and I only knew her casually. What happened next took me off guard.
As I was sorting through my mail, I noticed that she started to stand too close to me, breathing heavily, violating my sense of personal space. I stepped back and felt thrown off center.
It was winter time and I was still wearing my jacket and gloves. Vanessa pulled on my scarf and said, in a kittenish voice, with a sly smile," I really like those gloves, leather gloves…" her voice seemed to drop down into her pelvis," I really wish you would put your hands, while wearing those gloves, around my throat, and squeeze my throat, real hard." She was in my face.
I gulped, my breathing erratic, all alone in an empty office, with a woman who was asking me to enter into a rather sad sado-masochistic fantasy. I was alone and had no witness to what I considered a breach in professional etiquette, but also an intrusion in my psychic organization. I am a white man and she is a black woman which complexified the situation. I was horrified. It was a classic he said, she said.
Confused, I mumbled an excuse of some kind, and as I found my way to the door and exited promptly from the office, I was really spooked. I never told anyone what happened. She was not my supervisor, we were on the same level, but she was behaving in a manner I found offensive. She could also be a split personality, perhaps a victim of sexual abuse. Who could I report this to? A really bad vibe.
A few weeks later, I discovered that she was trying to get a supervisor position in my department. If she got the position, I would have to report to her. This put me in a panic. Still, I remained silent. To whom should I complain? I started to get really paranoid. When she visited my gallery I felt like she was stalking me but she appeared to be very popular with the other women in my department, including my boss, who was considering giving her a position in my department. If I didn’t speak up, I would be under Vanessa’s authority.
My boss invited the staff of my department out to dinner. To my regret she invited Vanessa as well, who sat across from me at the dinner table. My boss sat at the end of the table, between Vanessa and myself. I was the only man at the table. I had always felt appreciated by my fellow employees and enjoyed their company. While I was laughing with one of my colleagues, Vanessa reached under the table and poked me with a fork. Frightened, I turned and looked at her, She said, quietly, with a smile, " I want you to pay attention to me. Only to me." I felt the sting of the fork, and knew she could easily, have plunged the fork, deeper into groin. She was a wacko.
“Stop it!” I said, my voice raised." You are making me very uncomfortable and I want you to stop it." Everyone stopped speaking. I felt my PTSD symptoms activated. I was on edge.
“Are you trying to flirt with John?” My boss asked Vanessa, trying to smooth it out. Everyone was embarrassed, staring down at their plates. I felt awful. They liked me, they liked Vanessa, too. And it was clear to me that they didn’t want to be involved. Flight, fight, or freeze. Our nervous systems shut down under threat and we act like small defenseless children, frozen in time. Hear no evil, see no evil.
Feeling humiliated, I escorted the ladies to the train station, trying to act normal but really fearful of losing my job as well as the respect of my co-workers. I was the odd man out.
When I discussed the awkward incident with two of my women friends, I did not get sympathy or support I expected. They both asked me the same questions, which surprised me.
They asked, “Is she attractive?” And also, “Does she know you’re gay?”
These two questions from two women I respected deeply shocked me. How do I know if she knows I’m gay? I don’t walk into a room and announce my sexual orientation. And what diffence does it make if she is attractive or not? Her behavior was wrong on every level and I found these questions to be equally offensive as Vanessa’s behavior. I felt a subtle sexism involved. If a man sexually abused one of their women friends would they ask," Is he attractive?" Maybe they would. I began to appreciate how women feel when they are sexually harassed, fearful of backlash, better to keep quiet.
Luckily, I asked a woman lawyer for advice and she said I had done the right thing by publicly exposing her behavior. Vanessa did apologise shortly after the incident. I accepted her apology but stayed far away from her. She did not get the promotion. Thank God. But I always remember how fucked up that situation was.
So sexual harassment comes in many shapes and sizes. Having been sexually harassed by both a straight man and a gay men in business situations, I note that neither of them were attractive. As they were in positions of power over me, they each of them acted just like Harvey Weinstein. They wanted to be watched in the shower. But being a man, I knew how to handle that kind of sexual exploitation. One of these predators I slapped really hard. He didn’t mess with me after that.
The other offender, while he was in the shower, I brought a portable TV and turned it on, started to watch reruns of I love Lucy. He asked me to turn off the TV and leave the bathroom. He did not fire me and he never messed with me again. Neither one of them tried to retaliate.
But I couldn’t do that with a woman. Gender changes things. I have never hit a woman, and never would, under any circumstances. That would be an act of cowardice, and I witnessed too much violence at home, growing up. I stopped my father many times from beating up my mother Also. If I had struck Vanessa, she would have liked it, for she wanted to be used, and by a white guy. Clearly she was a mixed up person.
So, I feel the pain of the women who were harassed by Harvey Weinstein and understand the double jeopardy of being in a culture that supports predators.
What I appreciate about Ashley Judd’s interview, posted below, is her use of time, in reconstructing this traumatic episode. She is able to move between different time frames and update her own experiences skillfully. And she is able to do so in public, performing a valuable community service. She hopes Harvey can be helped. I hope Vanessa got help.
May men and women, of all sexual orientations, of all races, be free of bullying, scapegoating, and exploitation. I sense that this may be a turning point in our relational development, that we are being cleared of these great injustices, by speaking out. I hope predators are brought to justice, and that those who would prefer not to get involved accept that they are, by keeping the secret, in collusion with the predator.