A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Sexual harassment, assault are rampant but ‘Me too’ starts with one voice

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When I posted a “Me Too” invitation on my Facebook page last week, the replies about women’s experiences with sexual harassment, assault, and rape were overwhelming. From Main Street to Madison Avenue, the voices are legion.

Most had been taught that girls are meant to be seen and not heard. That is why one of my responders, only 10 at the time, was shocked and confused when a stranger put his hand up her skirt and grabbed her. They were in a public place and she yelled out, but no one seemed to notice.

“If I’d had Chutzpah,” she said, “I would have said something.” Instead, she rushed home and told her parents, who called the police and filed a report. Unfortunately, the man was never found.

Another woman, 8 or 9 years old when it happened, was violated at church. A priest in her parish, on the pretense of “helping” kids as they made their confessions, asked questions that ventured into sexual territory.

“Some of the things he brought up, I wasn’t even sure what they were at the time,” she recalled. “I wasn’t the only girl this happened to, of course. We tried to stay out of the line for his confessional. But we never told anyone, and sometimes you got stuck with him.”

A teenager who had consistently rebuffed the sexual advances of a guy she dated, was physically restrained and raped by him. She only shared the story with one friend and never told her parents because they disapproved of the young man, to begin with.

“I couldn’t bear the thought of telling the people who mattered most. Looking back I believe it was some semblance of an act of self-preservation,” she remarked, adding that the prevalent “boys will be boys” mentality is still part of our “deeply entrenched patriarchy.”

About twenty-five years ago, when she was in college, a woman was gang-raped by five athletes who were being recruited by her university. After she fled to safety, a girlfriend encouraged her to report it. She did but, sadly, there was no legal action. She was blamed for what happened. Fortunately, she did receive support and compassion from an administrator and a college counselor, but not her own mother. Many years later, she has learned to confront her anger and guilt through journaling and counseling.

Another undergraduate co-ed at a Christian college was harassed by a professor who made her a sexual offer that she refused. Horrified, she left his office and went to a friend who insisted she report the incident. The president of the school was unresponsive at first but eventually gave her permission to drop the class. There were no consequences for the professor.

“I respected him,” she said. “I went to his church and met his wife. I couldn’t believe it. It definitely messed me up. It does something to you,” she explained. “It still does.”

Women are physically and verbally harassed in the workplace too. A head nurse of a unit at a private psychiatric hospital was at the mercy of a physician who wanted her to sit on his lap and kiss him when she had to deliver files to his office.

A corporate middle manager was not sure how to handle her boss’s offensive and personal sexual comments and dirty jokes. Objecting could derail her career or thrust her into unemployment. Women in lower paying jobs are even more at the mercy of abusers. When missing a paycheck — or even losing wages for one day — can plunge a family into financial crisis, some women say nothing because they have everything to lose.

One solution is for women to be more assertive of their rights, but they have to be willing to risk the consequences. Another strategy is for men to speak up when they witness exploitation. A male reader, a senior art director from California wrote, “I once had a client get super ‘hands-y’ with a female account person at a dinner. Switched seats with her to get him to dial it down.”

The woman had not wanted to cause a scene at a business function, even though, as she put it in her Facebook reply, the offending male “…crossed way, way, way, over the line. Thank you so much for helping me that night,” she said. “The last thing I wanted to do was to cause a scene.”

Another way to address the problem, compliments of founder Jessica Ladd, is the pioneering nonprofit Callisto. This online platform allows survivors of sexual assault to securely record and keep their recollections after an attack, thus empowering survivors. More information is on the website at www.projectcallisto.org. A TED Talk by Ladd is also available at www.projectcallisto.org.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at Calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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