We just lost a great advocate for the American people because he did some stupid things when he was a comedian and even, allegedly, when he was a senator. Senator Al Franken is resigning in the wake of fellow Democrat John Conyers’ resignation, after Conyers’ staff levied allegations against him. Seven women came forward to report Franken groped and/or kissed them without permission. Some, including my husband Ronald, say his actions cannot be thrown in with the likes of Roy Moore’s actions or Donald Trump’s actions, and I agree with that. But I believe his resignation was the right thing to do.
Men have to learn that touching a woman in any way when she has not given you express permission, is wrong. Only acceptable social touching such as a handshake is right. Even if you think it is funny, or you think she might like it as much as you like it, you can’t make that call. And, besides, there are rules of conduct in the workplace that cover just these situations. If you don’t know them, it would be prudent to find out what they are.
It’s worse in the entertainment industry because there may be touching or nudity as part of the job or role. But it is still a workplace, and we have to make sure all workplaces are safe and interactions are respectful and equitable.
I was a drama student in high school and for one semester in college. I’ve been grabbed in the crotch, had a few students suddenly grab me and stick their tongues down my throat, and been felt up during a scene in a play in which we were stuck in an elevator on set while the show principals sang a duet in front of the closed doors. Each time I reacted strongly and told them it was unacceptable behavior and they’d better not do it again, but the act had already been committed and it didn't stop the next high schooler from trying it. And it wasn’t funny; it was disgusting, unwanted, and violating. They started calling me “ice queen” in high school, trying to shame me for not playing along. I can only imagine what young girls go through today, and it hurts me to think about it, because we fought so hard to end this kind of misogynist treatment. You can read more about my personal experiences with sexual harassment in my blog post Not Okay.
I remember sitting in a labor union meeting in the early 1980s with a labor attorney who introduced us to the concept of sexual harassment. There was a name for it and something we could legally do about it. That knowledge was empowering.
The Equal Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment this way:
It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).
The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
But many women are afraid to report sexual harassment, and that goes double for sexual assault and abuse. The reason they are afraid is because the public tends to question their credibility and their motives, and, instead of looking at the character and intent of the perpetrator, they often scrutinize the character and intent of the victim. What was she wearing? What did she say? What did she do to cause it? And it makes women ask themselves those same questions even though they might have been taken completely by surprise and never acted in any way open to a sexual overture. Because the only thing that they could do to cause it would have been to say, “Please grab me and force your tongue down my throat when I least expect it,” or “Make sure you expose yourself while we are working on that report.” And I doubt many women or girls say that.
It’s about who does and doesn’t have control of your body. No one does but the person inside of it. In an egalitarian world, women would be safe in the workplace, on the street, and at home. In the unequal world we live in, women’s bodies are sometimes assigned government oversight, and some men, the ones they know and the ones they don’t, believe women’s bodies are sex objects or baby vessels to be owned or manipulated. It is unconscionable and wrong.
Women fear retaliation, too, in the form of social and economic oppression and through violence. Some are so afraid of a confrontation or retaliation, they silently comply while waiting for their moment to escape. That doesn’t mean it is any less disgusting, invasive, unwanted, illegal, or violent.
So when women step forward and report sexual harassment, abuse, or assault, we ought to consider them sheroes for standing up to public scrutiny. Their stories cause other women to remember their own experiences of being harassed or assaulted and the attendant trauma many suffered from such experiences. Let us women (and other victims including children, men, and gender fluid individuals) work our way through the emotions these stories elicit, because those memories are difficult to process.
And men (and all potential predators), while they sit and wonder who in their past might come forward to report an incident of harassment or worse, need to support these women, too, and learn from what they are hearing. We are not condemning all men. Nor are we condemning all behavior. Under the right circumstances, flirting or other sexualized behavior might be welcome and returned, but it must be consensual. And it’s okay to make mistakes because sometimes you think one thing but it’s another. However, repeated attempts or the inability to understand that no means no is a clear indication that boundaries have been crossed.
Men need to collaborate with women in creating a safe and respectful workplace, whether that workplace is in a corporate office, in a classroom, on a movie set, in a fire station, or in the halls of Congress. It is NEVER okay to assume another person wants to see you naked or wants to be touched or chooses sexual humiliation or interaction, especially if it is a work colleague.
So Senator Franken did the right thing, as I would expect him to, even though he still questioned the credibility of some of the charges against him by saying, “some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently.” But just like a racist doesn’t see how his unequal treatment of a person of a different race is damaging to that person or he may not remember specific incidents of racist behavior, the sexual harasser won’t necessarily recognize or remember incidents either.
I allow that Franken’s resignation may have been too quick since the Ethics Committee barely had time to investigate and the investigation is incomplete, but it was way past time for the women who were victims of his actions. In many ways I am saddened he had to take the fall along with civil rights advocate Rep. Conyers, in order to expose the hand of the GOP that voted a sexual predator into the office of president and is at the brink of electing a child sexual predator and proud racist to the Senate. Franken understood the incongruity of his situation when he said, “I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.”
But I am sure that taking the moral high ground is always the right thing to do. In the meantime, we need to figure out how to interact respectfully between the sexes, especially in the workplace. As it was in the 1980s, it will be hard to work out what is and isn’t acceptable and what the consequences will be for those who choose their own self-aggrandizement and wants over respectful, equal, and dignified interactions with colleagues and subordinates.
We are, no doubt, in the middle of redefining who we are as Americans, and we cannot shy away from the hard conversations, revelations, actions, complexity, and consequences needed to reach the high ground. At the very least, we need to press the GOP to respond and participate in kind by using our voices and votes in protest for their inactions. Their denial and disparagement of the women, who came forward to report abuse, their protection of sexual predators, and their inability to hold their standard bearers accountable are our obstacles to reaching the high ground. #resist #persist
Author in the role of Queen Guinevere in a high school play, ca. 1975