Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Difficulty of knowing how to react to reports of sexual harrassment

Scientific American   “I was sexually harassed for four years,” I admitted to a colleague recently. “That’s awful!” he bellowed in outrage and genuine concern, before he promptly changed the subject. Sexual harassment is an uncomfortable topic to discuss with colleagues, especially when you’re the victim. You’re sharing personal details that they feel they shouldn’t know, and would rather not know. When your usual conversation consists of what you watched on TV last night or what you ate for lunch, it’s TMI to hear about your workmate’s sex life.

On the other hand, we’re so swamped with stories of sexism and sexual harassment that some people have become indifferent to them. Take for example the recent “Twitter shaming”. Adria Richards was at a conference when she overheard two guys making jokes she found to be sexist. She took a photo of the men and tweeted it, along with the conference’s code of conduct that prohibits making “sexist, racist or exclusory jokes.” This incident raised awareness about sexism in the tech world but it also resulted in one of the men and Richards being fired by their respective employers. It seemed to many that the whole issue had gone too far. [...]

Confronted with these stereotypes and influenced by the various forces of social conditioning, we often don’t know how to react to sexual harassment anymore. Here are some of the attitudes and opinions expressed to me, both directly and indirectly, when I began speaking out about my situation.

When they didn’t know the details, some people reacted with concern that was tempered with cautiousness. “Could you be overreacting?” or “Maybe you misread him?” There was suspicion over the delay in reporting the incidents, “Why didn’t you say something sooner?” and, “Why did you continue to work with him for so long?” Not observing the harassment was a cause for doubt. “I couldn’t tell there was anything wrong!” Some were prejudiced by their positive personal experiences with the harasser, “I know him. He’s a good guy. He wouldn’t do that!” My claims were also dismissed with the old adage that boys will be boys. “It’s a guy thing,” and, “That’s just how men behave.” One man offered a backhanded compliment, “Hey, what guy wouldn’t be interested in you!?”

As often happens in these situations, the blame is shifted to the victim. Like the woman in The Drew Carey Show, the victim may be labeled a prude or “uptight”. She lacks a sense of humor. She’s crazy. She may be portrayed as a troublemaker by the accused and his supporters. To undermine her claims, she might be branded a serial complainer, where sexism and sexual harassment are often confused, “You know, she’s accused other men of sexism before.” The case may be demonized as a witch-hunt, and become a cautionary tale told by those who fear that they too could be branded a “harasser” over the slightest comment or glance. “Watch out, or she’ll accuse you too!” I was held up to scrutiny in this way too. According to gossip about me, I gave him mixed-signals, I led him on, I’m flirtatious, and I’m a dirty little slut.

Alternatively, both the accused and accuser are blamed for the situation. Those who didn’t know the extent of the harassment reacted as though we simply don’t play well together in the sandbox. “Why don’t you two just get over it and move on!” The matter was misconstrued as a lover’s tiff, or that we were a couple in an on again, off again relationship. Others didn’t have time for my problems, “I have my own worries.” One person was surprised that I confided in him, saying, “It’s none of my business.” A number of people commiserated but then moaned, “I’m sick of talking about sexual harassment!” [...]

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