A reader wonders whether she should call out a senior staff member who pestered her inappropriately, before they had a relationship
The dilemma Should I report sexual harassment I received even though I later had a sexual relationship with the harasser? Years ago I worked as a volunteer for a political party and while showing me some work on a computer, a senior staff member repeatedly touched my knee. He said sorry, and then did it again, about seven times. He finished by saying: “I’ll need to report myself for sexual harassment now.”
At the time I laughed as I was really not sure how else I could respond. Months after I split from my husband, the harasser started to pursue me, giving me the attention I had been so lacking. Vulnerable, emotional and drinking too much, I started a relationship with him. I also used him for a job reference, and have his glowing praise for my work on my LinkedIn profile.
I was an adult who made poor decisions, but with the stories in the press I wonder if I should report his behaviour. Or have I invalidated the harassment, and let women down, by sleeping with my harasser and using him for a job reference? I know I will get abuse for this.
Mariella replies Me too! So pulse-raising is the topic that the angry mob will already be racing to gather kindling for the bonfire and pithy 140 character put-downs to roast me. Let’s face them off together, shall we? The positive outcome of this continuing avalanche of harassment disclosures must be for victims to feel liberated to speak out without fear of further abuse.
Cowering in silence when powerful men (mainly) take advantage of those who are weaker must become a historical footnote. Recent events place responsibility on the shoulders of victims and abusers, the media and every citizen to prevent the next generation from enduring the same age-old conjunction of power and predatory behaviour.
We must have a sensible conversation about what is and isn’t acceptable or we’ll wipe out the art of seduction entirely
It seems to me that as we find the courage to confront abusers, we also increase our imperative to act responsibly with these newfound and overdue powers. We are at a watershed moment where we really can change the climate, but if we reduce it to petty sexual politics we will fail in that mission. Seduction comes in myriad forms and opportunism is a natural component of physical desire. It’s important that we have a sensible conversation about what is and isn’t acceptable or we’ll wipe out the art of seduction entirely. We can’t afford to omit shades of grey from the discussion, no matter how loud and vitriolic the chorus of disapproval. Sexual behaviour isn’t either good or evil, and what’s acceptable is subjective.
Perpetrators of abusive behaviour should be held to account, but they don’t operate in a vacuum. You can’t criminalise every salacious sex pest for behaviour that has until now been the topic of jokes rather than repugnance.
Victims of traumatising sexual experiences need to be empowered so that they are no longer easy prey and that means making sure their stories are heard and acted on, but having the loudhailer is a potent weapon that must be handled with common sense and caution. Using sex as a weapon, whether it’s over the water cooler or in a war zone, is nothing new.
In your case, whether you later had a relationship with this man, or used his reference, doesn’t condone his initial transgression, but it suggests enough ambiguity to make it worth examining your motives in coming forward. If you’d been more confident of your own voice, as with so many of these cases, you would no doubt have removed his hand and ended the matter there and then. Only you know whether the knee touching was the opening gambit in an ill-judged flirtation or an abuse of power – and it sounds like you felt it was the latter. As for “letting women down” it would be an act of sisterhood to now draw attention to his historic behaviour in order to support others who may have suffered at his hands.
It’s been heartwarming to see so many women speaking out not for themselves but to lend credibility to more serious cases that might otherwise lack supporting evidence. But truths and lies, allegations and denials, fake news and real stories are spreading fast. In such a frenzied climate it’s even more important to breathe deep, act rationally and determine why we feel propelled into a particular course of action.
On social media, perpetrators and victims, the traumatised and the traumatising, the innocent and the cynical find themselves gathered with amplifiers blaring out valid claims, ludicrous fancies and filthy abuse in equal proportion. Sexual harassment has never been higher on the agenda, but headlines move on and at the moment it’s hard to determine whether it’s facilitating real and lasting behavioural change or simply fuelling column inches.
We all should think long and hard about how we play our part in changing the status quo. I hope I’ve given you food for thought – and now we probably both need to raise our deflector shields.
Credit: The Guardian