I wrote this post some weeks ago in response to a sexual harassment incident that occurred in the Science Online community. I didn’t post it here because I was hoping to have it published somewhere where more young men might see it. That didn’t pan out and weeks went by and I figured the window had closed on the opportunity. But, having just reread it, I’ve come to realize that this isn’t a piece that’s tied to a particular incident. In fact, maybe it’s better that it is not.
This is a conversation we need to keep having with the young men in our lives. In the same way that we have to keep talking about gun control between public shooting incidents, we have to keep talking about sexual harassment between public figure incidents.
Letter to a Young Man
I worry about you. I know you’re a good person who would never intentionally hurt anyone – especially a young woman. But I’m afraid you haven’t been taught well and that you’re going to emotionally harm a woman.
And I’m afraid that after you harm her, she’s finally going summon the courage to confront you and you’re going to tell her it’s her imagination – or her fault. And I’m afraid she’s then going name you publicly. And I’m afraid you’ll say, “I’m sorry” but it will be too late. The damage will have been done. And I’m really afraid that you’re going to say, “But I didn’t know.”
And I’m afraid that’s not going to cut it.
You have to know.
Maybe you’re in college now. Maybe you’ve just started your career. Maybe you can barely imagine asking woman out on a date, much less for sex. But maybe you don’t even know what harassing is. You just think it’s something the creepy old guy down the hall does. Or those loudmouths catcalling from the bus windows.
Either way, you are confident you will never do this thing.
And that’s what worries me.
I’m worried that you will encounter an attractive woman at school or work and because she is beautiful, or even just because she is a woman, you will fail recognize her for her achievements and intelligence.
I’m worried that you will not understand that solely because she is a woman in a STEM field, society has forced her to work twice as hard to get to the same place as you. That you will have no idea how her path here has been plagued by the inappropriate attention of men who couldn’t see past her breasts, her pretty face or her potential as a sex partner.
I’m afraid that if you become her teacher, you will tell her how surprised you are that physics comes so easy to her, as though her gender must be some kind of handicap.
I’m afraid that when you and she become colleagues, you’re going to tell her how beautiful she is, how hot she looks in that outfit, when she thought you were going to discuss her research. I’m afraid that you’re going to believe it’s flattering to send her links to pictures of lingerie and sexy clothing you think she’d look good in.
I’m afraid you are going to confess how important she is to you, when she thought you were going to tell her how important her work is to science.
I’m afraid that you’re going to think she’s saying yes to coffee, private meetings in your office, or a drink after work, because she’s interested in you when really she’s afraid to turn you down because you are her boss, her prof, or her mentor.
I’m afraid that you’re going to talk about your sex life or your failing relationship when she thought you were just going to have coffee and discuss her career options. That you’re going to think it’s acceptable to touch her while you do that — rest your hand on her leg, touch her hair, rub her arm, or hug her — in ways you would never touch a man.
I’m worried that you’re going to come to believe she owes you her personal attention or sexual payment for everything you’ve done for her. That you are going to give her her big break, and now, because of your overtures, she’s going to doubt her talent and wonder why you really hired her.
I’m worried that you will have no idea that if you do even one of these things, that she will be shaken to her very core and begin to question her work, her value, and your sincerity.
I’m worried that you don’t realize that if you keep doing these things, she will go home at night and cry and then get angry at herself for not being strong, and will try to act brave each morning as she downs her Xanax and comes to work.
I’m worried that you will honestly believe she values the extra attention you are lavishing on her, but in reality, she is about to make the heartbreaking decision to quit her studies or leave the career she loves.
And I’m really afraid that even if you do none of those things, that when she comes forward and names another man, that you will think, “What’s her problem? Nothing really happened. Nobody got hurt.”
I’m afraid that you will become confused as to who is the victim and who is the perpetrator and that you will join the protective circle around the man, believing that he should not have to be publicly shamed or lose his job or marriage over something this “insignificant.”
Young Man, I’m worried you won’t get it.
Sexual harassment does hurt. It ruins women’s lives and careers. It is significant. So please, please, don’t do anything that will cause me to worry about her more than I worry about you.
Something you said that really drives it home and is something I will use to explain how to tell your behaviour might be off-base: “in ways you would never touch a man”. And you can replace “touch” with “speak to” or “address”. People should ask themselves this and it clears everything up.
You touch your female students arms and hug them hello but never your male students? Ask yourself why that is. Because guaranteed not everyone is comfortable with that, and we definitely notice.
You address a woman as cutie or say she’s lucky she’s also the department model and sign your emails xoxox? Get a life, and also, you would never do the same to a man, would you. I AM YOUR COLLEAGUE, why is that so hard to understand?