#Me Too

The national spigot, having been opened to accusations of sexual harassment and molestation, threatens to drench our holidays with stories both sad and sickening. Although the accused now remain confined to media celebrities and politicians, my friends and I are suddenly recalling sordid moments from our own lives that we never shared, but once seemed inherent in being a young woman alone.

During the years when I was young and vulnerable, if a woman was raped, the first questions asked were: What was she wearing? And, did she “sleep around”? (The assumption was that her clothing or behavior must have been provocative.) I knew that whenever my friend and I passed a construction site, we would be whistled at. Sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances were events we women dealt with, like bad weather. The pervasive suggestion that it was the woman who aroused the man’s sexual appetite made us guilty before proven innocent.  

My own #MeToo experiences took place, not with politicians or media celebrities, but in the halls of academia, where fending off first my director of research and later my doctoral advisor were as integral to surviving graduate school as completing courses, passing exams and writing my dissertation. Had I gotten a grade in managing unwanted male attention, I suppose it would have been B-minus. I knew that the most important aspect of saying “no” was saving the man’s pride. Yet my refusals were too often exasperated, even haughty, rather than graceful, at the same time as I can still feel the sting of humiliation that an unwanted advance could bring.      

By the time I got my doctorate, I was known as a “trouble maker” — I had also made a fuss on two occasions when male professors incorporated my research without attribution into their own publications. At the end of my three-hour dissertation defense, the five male professors shook my hand, which meant that I’d earned my degree. But they ignored protocol and did not invite me for the celebratory doctoral drink. 

The men who now ask with studied innocence, “Why didn’t she say anything earlier? She’s had 40 years to complain,” are conveniently forgetting how much they still owned the world four decades ago. Feeling compromised by unwanted sexual encounters, women also tended to keep quiet and to believe that each of us was the only one. (I remember my confusion when I heard it whispered that a young woman I worked with was the girlfriend of the married director who had been harassing me.) And whom exactly would I have complained to — the male dean? 

Although more women should obviously be promoted to senior positions in every sphere of life, all evidence suggests that, by itself, that is not the solution. Though it is probably hard for women to be as sexually predatory as men, thus far those at the top have not gone out of their way to protect the women on their staff who complain of harassment or abuse.   

Claire Woodley, Episcopal Canon for Long Island, has described our culture as “sexually incontinent.” She attributes this incontinence to “the splintering between the common good and self-gratification, [and] the loss of a common will to keep them connected.” And she questions the phrase, “If it feels good, do it,” asking how something can feel good, if it works against genuine intimacy, compassion and respect. 

Recalling my teenage years, when my friends and I worried about preserving my virginity, I see how swiftly the culture changed over the next decade. Because by the time I was in my 20s and 30s, the “feel good” generation was upon us, and I was accused of being “uptight” when I didn’t reciprocate an unwanted advance.  

I’m afraid that the “sexual incontinence” Reverend Woodley refers to is part of a broader narcissism and loss of civility that allows many of us to think we can satisfy our own needs without considering the common good. This self-centered lack of civility can be seen in Candidate Trump bragging about paying as little as possible on his income tax, as well as in other actions, large and small, by which President Trump has shown his concern for only himself. 

Although the accusations of sexual harassment are themselves MeToo moments imparting a harshness to this holiday season, the fact that some men have immediately stepped up to apologize gives me hope that these accusations will lead to a new culturally shared vision of sexual mutuality, as well as  mutual respect in other areas where civility has frayed. 


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories. What interests her these days are the complications of civil society in America.