The Funny Thing About Sexual Harassment. And Then the Unfunny Thing.

Tell you a coupla stories:

When I was about 16, I worked part-time as a stock boy and gofer at the central office of a chain of health clubs in Houston.

One of my not-quite-co-workers was Bobby, a big black guy who was the right-hand man of the distribution director. The performance of our duties would normally almost never put Bobby and I in the same room together, but I saw him everyday anyway.

He would often come into the stock room where I worked, passing deliberately close to me as I was bending over packing or unpacking a box, and sometimes – in a space wholly adequate for both of us to pass without touching – would manage to brush up against my backside with his hand.

I would occasionally catch him quietly watching me from the doorway of the stock room as I worked. At some point during almost every day I was there, he would come in and study me silently for a moment and then ask in a gravelly voice “Did you get anything STRANGE last night?”

I was unbelievable shy at the time, and painfully naïve, so I bore all this in silence. But damn, it made me uncomfortable.

A handful of years later I was employed at a supermarket deli-bakery, where I worked alongside Maria, a heavyset woman close to 6 feet tall.

Picture me in comparison: I was 5-feet-3-inches tall (still am), strong but slight of body, weighing in at a soaking-wet 135 pounds or so.

Maria referred to me as “honey.” Stalking into the store with the sturdy gait of a linebacker, when she saw me her broad hips would take on an alarming sway. She simpered at me frequently, scarily coquettish little smiles that would appear anytime we had to talk to each other in the course of our work.

It probably sounds comical. It would have been comical if she also hadn’t been physically aggressive. If she cornered me in the narrow walk-in or the stock room, she would angle her body so that I couldn’t get past without brushing against her ample bosom or butt. If necessary, she would abruptly lean or back toward me to make that happen. At least once a day she would sneak up behind me while I was waiting on a customer across the counter and goose me, pinching my buttocks or squeezing my thigh, causing me to jump.

Apparently accidentally, she would sidle into my bubble of personal space as we worked side-by-side with customers across the counter, but when I would take a step away she would move toward me again.

I would catch her standing behind me at times, staring at my back or my legs, and she would murmur a sensually appreciative “MM-mm-MM!” Or she would stop in the middle of the deli-bakery when we were alone, fix me with a bold stare and say bluntly “I’m ready.”

I quickly got to dread those days when Maria and I worked together, and I learned to never enter the walk-in without checking to see that she was busy with a customer at the far end of the deli-bakery.

But we’re talking 1970s, and Texas, an era in which sexual harassment didn’t exist except in men’s jokes, and the idea of a pickup-truck-driving, cowboy-hat-and-jeans wearing, virile young man reporting a woman for it … well, you would never live it down among your coworkers, peers, or even your own family. They would have brayed like jackasses every time you passed.

There was nobody I could tell about it. Nobody.

It was a stressful job in quite a few other ways, and the absolute last thing I needed was an overbearing woman – who, even today when I think of her is a sort of anti-Viagra – grabbing my ass at every opportunity.

Probably in neither of these cases was I physically in danger. Like I say, I was fairly strong as a kid, and it’s likely I could have fought off any more determined advance from either of those people. Looking back on both of them from my gray-bearded viewpoint, the stories are even a bit funny. Hell, if I told ‘em just right, they’d be hilarious.

But then again … I’m a man.

Now a third and final story, a darker one, that happened just a month or so back.

I live in an apartment building with a coin-op laundry room in the basement shared by all the tenants. I was set to do laundry there one Sunday, carrying my clothes  basket down the three flights of stairs and unlocking the basement door to descend one more set of stairs. This time, a rare occurrence, someone had already engaged the machines. One load of clothes tumbled in the dryer, another load sat completed in the washer.

No biggie. I put my laundry basket down and trudged back up the stairs, where I set a timer for 20 minutes and did some other work. Twenty minutes later, I went back down the four flights of stairs to the laundry room. The dryer was finished with its cycle, but the clothes were still in it. As were the ones in the washing machine.

No biggie again. I went back up the stairs, and back to my other project, setting my timer for another 20 minutes. Down the stairs again, I found the clothes still there.

Back up the stairs, only this time I wrote a note: “Jeez, get your clothes OUT. I’ve come down here twice hoping to use the machines.” I put my name and phone number on it and trotted back down to leave it on the washing machine.

Ten minutes later, the phone rang, and it was someone shouting. A female voice came out of the earpiece in a wail of sound I could not understand a single word of. “BLAR-BLARGH-LALA-BLARGH-RAHR!! RALA-BLAR-GRAH-BLAH-RAR!!”

“What? Who is this? I can’t make out what you’re saying!”

“LALA-BLARGH-RAHR-BLAR-BLARGH!! RALA-RALA-BLAR-GRAH-BLAH!!”

“Stop shouting, I can’t understand you!”

“BLAR-BLARGH-BRAHR!! RALA-BLAH-GRAR-BLAR!!”

“Shut up, SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP!!”

Sudden silence.

Cultured accent, quieter (Oops, one of my neighbors. Someone I like, even.): “The clothes in the laundry room are mine! You could have just moved them!”

“What?” I protested. “I’m not going to touch somebody else’s clothes!”

More was said, but most of it has escaped my memory. The bit that sticks is me saying “I couldn’t understand what you were saying! It was just this roar of noise. Could you understand me?”

A silent beat. “I understood ‘shut the fuck up.’ ”

“Um. Well … all I could make out was shouting. I had no idea even who it was.”

I waited a few minutes and went down to the laundry room. She was still there, folding clothes. Oops, again. I tried to explain again:

“Look, I’m really sorry. It’s just that all I could hear was shouting. I couldn’t make out anything you were saying.”

She stood there, silent and whitefaced, shaking with anger. Oh boy, did she want to say something. Lots of somethings. But she said nothing.

I suddenly realized she was staying quiet because she was alone with me in a small basement room with no witnesses. She was afraid to speak. Afraid of me.

Me! Little shrimp of a guy, gray beard, pot belly. But also, stocky, muscular.

Male.

I absorbed that in silence for a sinking, guilty moment.

“Again, I’m sorry. I feel like a really rotten bully for shouting at you like that.”

I saw her on the sidewalk outside a week or so later. Her eyes slid off me, and I didn’t push it. I walked past without speaking.

Short as I am, little as I’ve been my whole life, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of someone being afraid of me. These days, a reasonably-healthy 15-year-old could probably outlift me on the weights. But all those evaluations have me comparing myself to other MEN.

Put me up against a female – compare my physical strength with that of a slight woman, a sedate academic and only a few years younger than me – and I’m the muscular bullyboy on the beach of life, unaware I might be kicking sand on the 97-pound weakling.

And this woman knew it. Couldn’t NOT know it.

There is an imbalance in … well, strength, but also the capacity for physical violence … between human males and human females, something of which I have to assume all women are always aware.

If you’re a guy reading the following, some part of you will think “This is a sample of statistical data on the subject of violence against women.” If you’re a woman, you’re more likely to think “This is about ME.”

Fact #1: 18.3 % of women in the United States have survived a completed or attempted rape. Of these, 12.3% were younger than age 12 when they were first raped, and 29.9% were between the ages of 11 and 17.

Fact #2: 22 million women in the United States have been raped in their lifetime. 63.84% of women who reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked since age 18 were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, or date.

Fact #5: Almost one-third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner.

Fact #6: The National College Women Sexual Victimization Study estimated that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 college women experience completed or attempted rape during their college years

Fact #27:  Somewhere in America a woman is battered, usually by her intimate partner, every 15 seconds.

Fact #31: Globally, at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime.

I bring all this up because there’s a current storm of discussion in the atheist blogosphere about sexual harassment of women attendees and speakers at conventions, and the necessity that explicit anti-harassment policies be put in place by conference organizers.

There’s the inevitable male pushback, those amiable guys who can’t imagine themselves harassing women – Hey, it’s just a little harmless flirting! If that! – and who insist, essentially, that the women are blowing the thing out of proportion.

I’ve stayed out of the discussion, mainly because I didn’t do my homework by reading up on the details of several noteworthy harassment incidents in the past half year or so, but also because I didn’t think it was my issue.

It’s not central to what I’m doing in the field, I have only attended one event so far (lack of money rather than lack of will), and because of a decades-long ordeal of shyness in my early life, I’m probably in the last 1000th of a percent of males interested in harassing women.

And honestly, I was slow to warm to the subject because I had a hard time … well, seeing the importance of it. Feeling it.

Thinking about these incidents from my own life, though, I see it. I see that it’s important to say something about it.

When you get right down to it, the issue belongs to everyone in the freethinker community. If we really believe in equality as one of the freethinker social imperatives, this is something that MUST be addressed, examined, nailed down with clear directives, both in our public events and in the community we’re building. The men in the movement MUST understand the experience and desires of the women.

Calling the first two stories to mind clarifies for me some of the discomfort of sexual harassment. Calling the final story to mind makes real for me the unhappy fact that women are forced by our human sexual dimorphism to be physically wary of men. All. The. Time.

In a way that most of us men can’t imagine, women are always making certain allowances, taking certain careful steps, to maintain a bubble of security. In the best of social situations, they feel safe. In anything less than that, they are aware of the possibilities of … well, all sorts of less-than-happy outcomes.

For we men, life varies from the very occasional crossing-a-busy-highway consciousness of danger to the thousand more laid-back situations in which we can relax and enjoy the ride.

But for most women out in mixed company, the proportion of safety-to-danger is reversed. They’re crossing that busy highway all too often. Looking both ways, checking their peripheral vision, banding together with other women for safety, planning, thinking, checking and re-checking the traffic. Thinking of escape routes. Imagining ways to defuse difficult situations. And just learning to bear up under the continuous wave of whippy-tailed doggy eagerness men project at them.

Even based on my own little experience of harassment, I can barely imagine what that must be like. But I CAN imagine that it’s important.

The point being made by the women in the vanguard of the skeptic/freethought convention issue is “We shouldn’t have to deal with this at our own public events. Feeling safe among our own people is the bare minimum of what should be expected.”

And, you know …

… they’re right.

Looking Past the Bright Sun of Crazy
Thoughts on “Privilege”
Death & Dying, Unbeliever Style
Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth

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