Toussaint column: Challenging rape culture — who will take the pledge?
In recent days, nearly every woman I know was posting “Me too” on Facebook.
Initially baffled, I soon learned that those words, posted in the wake of news about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory Hollywood behavior, came in response to actress Aylssa Milano’s post: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
I at first counted myself lucky. I couldn’t remember being sexually harassed at work.
Oops. Not true. Somehow I had repressed what had happened to me as a 17-year-old junior summer camp counselor. Not in an office, but at work nonetheless. An older co-worker dragged me into the boys’ showers in the wee hours, then tried repeatedly to rape me. I fought him off by rolling into a fetal ball and acting like a hedgehog for hours. Hours!
The next year, a stranger followed me through downtown Denver and into an empty CU extension classroom, where he grabbed my genitals. Another stranger rubbed his crotch against me on a San Francisco subway train. He followed when I got off, fleeing only after I walked into a restaurant and asked the hostess to call the cops.
Then there was my encounter with Stanette Marie Rose, a stockbroker in the 1997 class action harassment/discrimination lawsuit of Martens v. Smith Barney. As NOW’s San Francisco chapter president, I led picketing in support of the 23 female brokers who filed the lawsuit. Stanette’s attorney phoned me to reveal that the women brokers were secretly watching us picket at lunchtime with tears of gratitude in their eyes.
Later, Stanette called to thank me personally. Still later, after a co-worker threatened her with a gun, I hid Stanette’s documentation. Since I was an untraceable stranger, I was the only person she knew who might be able to keep her diary safe from office burglary, seizure or destruction. Martens v. Smith Barney resulted in a class-action settlement of more than $100 million.
That’s unusual. Mostly, women’s responses to what has been called “rape culture” are more in tune with what my friend the Rev. Amy Rowland wrote, “The direct personal attacks are memorable, but the ‘socially acceptable’ level of hostility toward women in this country is so high I tune it out to dodge the barrage.”
Another of my former pastors, the Rev. Diane Miller posted, “I don’t even want to bother with my experiences, they are completely Everywoman.” She concluded, “We’ve seen the statistics.” My reply: “I’m dead sure that the majority of it doesn’t even show up in the statistics. It doesn’t get reported. None of what happened to me rises to the statistical level — it’s lifetime trauma under the radar.”
That’s what local resident Leana Fisher reports, too. Reflecting on “the whisper network” that warns other women but stops short of reporting, Fisher ticked off examples: “The sexually abusive counselor at summer camp who we sang parody songs about … The married teacher in junior high we knew was ‘dating’ an eighth-grade girl … The college professor who was willing to give ‘extra credit’ for ‘extra work’ assigned at his apartment. The famous yoga teacher with gropey adjustments who wanted to talk about kundalini energy after class … Some of these were actual and obvious crimes, some definite sexual harassment, some that gray area of someone with all the power using that power in a vague, icky, non-quid-pro-quo, but just-wrong way.
“Why, as humans, are we so prone to keep silent and how do we empower people to break the silence?” Fisher asked. “I don’t have answers, but I’m naming the problem … We’re as sick as our secrets and we need to get healthy.”
Counterbalancing all of this, several men I know responded to Andrea Shorter, who challenges adult men to teach boys “about the wrongs of sexual harassment and assault against women” by sitting down to “speak with your sons, nephews, little brothers, etc. by Thanksgiving.”
Many men I know are taking Andrea’s pledge and posting the words, “I will.”
The Rev. Jeremy Nickel, yet another minister I know, wrote, “While I’m proud of the way I’ve personally comported myself with female-bodied people, I have also been silent when words were called for, or looked the other way, or laughed at something that really wasn’t funny. Through my own weakness and insecurity, I too have perpetuated the toxic masculinity that feeds mistreatment of those in female bodies. I am sorry. I see all the ‘me toos’ and don’t say ‘not me.’ I respond with a pledge to do better, to speak louder, to challenge men and help guide boys out of this abhorrent behavior.”
Who else will take pledge?
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly.