On Sexual Harasment: A Queer Perspective


(john davis) #1

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.


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(Adelheid Hörnlein) #2

Thanks for posting this story and expose your vulnerability! I am always so surprised that “sexual harassment” seems to imply that the bad men are doing all this stuff to the poor female victims. This is not a good perspective to handle the topic. I am glad that you go public and show how women can be harrassing men, sexually and in other ways. And women have to begin to step out of victimhood and realize their own participation in the stories of harassment, as perpetrators and as victims…


(john davis) #3

It’s complicated. The law allows victims to be compensated, so in courts we have to prove ourselves a victim of a crime to receive justice. I believe a lot of this is in the background of many of our sex scandals. Human relations are much more complicated than simple victim vs perpetrator. Having said that I also believe we must have protections for those who are in asymmetrical relationships. Children, minorities, students, employees are easily exploited. Those who have the power to do harm often will do so and the fear of being sued or exposed does inhibits abuse. It is easier in our increasingly transparent society to get caught and recent events show us how quickly the mighty fall from grace…


(Adelheid Hörnlein) #4

I fully agree, especially with the part of protecting children and in some other ways weak people. But we need to grant responsibility for themselves to grown up people. When something happens which is out of the law, yes, go to the police and ask for justice. We don’t really need to make big scandal announcements when, at a certain point of our lives we have agreed to what has happened. This doesn’t mean to not sue the person for what we perceive they have done to us - and the court will be decide if the claim is legitimate. (If the decision is always “right” is a totally different question).

My point in all that is only: by experiences like this we have opportunities to grow and stand up for ourselves. It is challenging, yes, but when we give in we feel bad (and you describe it very well). When we stand up it might feel awkward, but in yourself you have become more in contact with your personal power (while giving in weakens you).
So these moments give us a chance to grow and it is up to us if we grasp it or not. If we grasp it we don’t need public accusations and proclamation of victimhood, but we will work to help others to stand up for themselves, too (as you are doing by sharing your story).


(john davis) #5

And when we stand up for ourselves what happens next?

This is very complex, for if our actions are motivated only for the personal self, and unaware of others who are not in the unjust situation, there is often a manipulated backlash. Some who are not in the polarized situation will resist facing the issue. There is an attitude of this is not my issue. The messenger is shot, the injustice is not dealt with and the accelerated growth that could have happened doesn’t happen.

If there is a personal problem that can be hashed out the collective wisdom may be already well established and re-balance can occur by pointing out some well established boundaries and a shared sense of fairness. This is a sensible village morality and we can just do the right thing and get on with it. But what happens when we are living in a large cosmopolitan area with diverse interests and many moral frameworks? It is against the law to use the law to discriminate against others but the law has been used to do that. The law often creates these injustices by creating conditions for such discrimination. How do we disentangle from these moral delimas?

When you are a member of a group that is forbidden to stand up for themselves then that person is not able to defend himself or herself. and a sense of agency is blocked before it can become developed. There is a fine line drawn between people, some of these lines are invisible until you cross the line and call down the wrath of those who have set up the system to maintain power in the hands of a few.

For example, a landlady of mine, threatened to raise my rent because I was living openly as an interacial gay couple. I felt she didn’t care about me being gay, because I had had Caucasian boyfriends before but she did not approve of a black man living with me. She didn’t say that openly. Racial discrimination was illegal and she did not want to get sued.

But she could discriminate against us as gay because it was legal to do so. And she did so. Gay people were legally discriminated against in housing, and employment, by the Church and the State. As a gay man I had no access to the courts. I was forbidden to stand up for myself.

But I stood up for myself anyway and refused to pay the increase in rent unless she raised the rent for everyone who was living with someone else. She backed down for she was afraid of scandal and she knew I was furious. When my lover found out about this he got upset and moved out, rather than live in so much stress. The threats against us were greater than our fragile bond. Without support from a larger community, I learned, relationships don’t work. So I got engaged in gay politics and joined others to change the law. Many straight people supported this struggle as they had gay friends and relatives. It took decades to resolve legally and the back lash is still in motion.

And when the law is changed, and bigots have to pay a price for their bigotry, I have noticed a ‘change of heart’ might start to happen. They are no longer rewarded for their behavior, and as the status quo starts to shift, they drop the bullying tactics

I bring this personal story forward as a case study for how murky these situations can become and how easy it is to drown in miscommunications and intimidation.

So when cultural norms are in flux and individuals are uncertain of what is right and wrong and enough people cross the line, the maps get re-drawn. Are we at a tipping point? I sense that we might be as these attempts by moguls to degrade others gets amplified, the public stops turning a blind eye.


(Adelheid Hörnlein) #6

Thanks for your thoughts and the continuous share of your experience. I think that what you are doing is exactly what we need to prepare change. Thank you for that and congratulations to where you arrived!

We will never reach a stage where EVERYTHING is just for EVERYONE. We are humans and have a lot of voices in us, we ourselves often don#t behave in ways which would be right and just for the people we meet, consciously or unconsciously. We can work on that, first, and then contribute to change obvious unjust laws. But we cannot create laws for every single issue of injustice. It would just be impracticable, the bureaucracy is already completely unfunctional partly because of too many and contrasting laws…

I remember how angry I was, about 30 years ago, when I talked with a nice man, a musician, about the situation on the music market and other things and I complained that it is easier for men: he said: “Life is not just”. And the older I get the more I see the truth in it.


(john davis) #7

I agree whole heartedly and I am also a bit of a Radical Utopian. It is one of my many voices I give expression to. It is a complex process and we never quite arrive for there are many players and infinite possibilities.

If we have no one who takes the risk of imagining what is unimaginable we will merely end up in a stagnant state such as the one our politics is stuck in right now. We are oscillating back and forth between already pre-given perspectives and nothing is changing. Everyone who participates in this futile back and forth manufactured by narrow interests is trying to put the genie back into the bottle. Life is more complex than our current politics will allow.

I sought for justice and aligned with others and though I did not find justice in my own life circumstance I worked with that. I have participated in the movement towards possibilities that had never been realized and others have benefited from that. I had many failed relationships, but I did my best in impossible circumstances. We pass the torch from generation to generation. I have benefitted from the the many radical utopians who lived before me.

The Law has changed, hearts and minds are moving in a healthier direction. The Utopians amongst us may not always benefit from the risks that they have taken upon themselves to co-create the conditions for justice. I believe we can mobilize our resources to move in a direction that promotes that possibility. I don’t believe anyone can do this by themselves and I also believe no one is going to do it for us. We are a blend perhaps of futures and pasts that have yet to be expressed.


(Adelheid Hörnlein) #8

Thanks for your words. You are describing what Ken Wilber says: “The pioneers are the ones with the arrows in the back”. It is a sacrifice for humanity to be a pioneer.

I find our conversation very igniting and I wonder if you would like to join us on a live broadcast in theWisdomFactory.net and share your experience?
Let me know, it would be really great!
Heidi


(john davis) #9

Thanks Heidi for the invitation!. It is helpful to reflect upon our experiences and find the coherent narrative. Important themes that we may have missed in the busy ups and downs of daily life, get clearer for us and we have those eureka moments. Some of the missing pieces of the puzzle return and the Self is re-arranged as new experiences are desired. I am a great believer in articulating desired outcomes, rather than get caught in problem solving at the level of the problem. Thanks again for you kind attention.


(Marco V Morelli) #10

Diane Hamilton has written a blog post which I believe offers a refreshingly balanced, nuanced, and non-backlashy perspective on the #metoo moment in our mainstream culture right now.

https://tendirections.com/metoo-perspectives-listening-and-risk-taking/


Mindful Sex and Human Development [CCafe 7/3]