In college I loved my professors. Except for one male professor who talked graphically about sex when I asked about course work during his office hours.
One night in the mid-1980s in Manhattan, I broke my nose. Rushing to catch a bus, I barged into a bus stop. A kind cab driver took me to the ER. But before the taxi came along, a cop, seeing me, standing alone, bleeding, taunted, “Where’s your husband, bitch? Too ugly to have a boyfriend?”
Fast forward 30-some years. Two men joke about rape when I step into an elevator in a New York office building.
Thankfully, my run-ins with misogyny have been far from what my friends, colleagues and millions of other women have endured. I’ve been thinking of these encounters during our ongoing avalanche of revelations of sexual harassment. From President Donald Trump to Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey to Fox News to NPR – our culture is rife with victims, allegations, apologies and outcries against misogyny, sexual harassment and sexual assault.
It’s tempting to think that our culture’s view of women has changed since the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. We “Mad Men” aficionados binge the TV show while believing that the inappropriate behavior and misogyny of that program’s era are, if not absent, greatly diminished in our time. After all, now, there are three women justices on the U.S. Supreme Court!
Yet, sadly, after this progress – over 20 years since we sat, riveted, to our TVs watching the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings on sexual harassment – sexual misconduct is still widespread in this country. More than half of American women “have experienced unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances” from men, according to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll.
In the workplace, three in 10 women have experienced unwanted sexual advances from male co-workers, and 25 percent received the unwanted advances from men who had power over them, the poll found. Eight in 10 women said the unwanted advances were sexual harassment, and one-third said the inappropriate conduct was sexual abuse, the poll reported. Ninety-five percent of women who experienced unwanted sexual advances said male harassers were rarely punished. Eighty-three percent of the victims said they’re still angry, 64 percent felt intimidated, 52 percent believed they were humiliated and about three in 10 were ashamed, ABC News reported.
“Power tends to corrupt,” said Lord Acton, a British historian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Acton’s truism applies equally well to today. Take the 3% Conference, a group that advocates for women in advertising. In 2008, more than 40 years after “Mad Men,” the Conference found that at the top ad agencies only 3 percent of creative directors were women, the New York Times reported. Things have gotten better; but sexism still thrives.
It’s not just women who are victims of sexual harassment. Multiple men have alleged that Spacey, known for his starring role on Netflix’s “House of Cards,” has sexually harassed them. It began when actor Anthony Rapp told BuzzFeed that when he was 14 and at a party, Spacey, then 26, made unwanted sexual advances toward him. (After the allegations, Spacey was axed from “Cards.”)
Rather than apologizing forthrightly, Spacey, who’s been closeted for years, came out as gay. Through this faux coming out, he failed to confront his pedophilia, and reinforced homophobia. “Coming-out stories should not be used to deflect from allegations of sexual assault,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD in a statement. “This is…a story of survivorship by…all those who bravely speak out against unwanted sexual advances.”
It will be hard. Yet, all of us, men, women, hetero and queer, need to take responsibility. Harassers must apologize and work to change their behavior. Everyone, whether or not they’re a victim, must speak out. Only then can we begin to eradicate sexual harassment.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.