The current outrage in America revolves around sexual harassment and assault. I say, “current,” because we as a society always seem to need something to rail against, or to defend, or to advocate. In my 20’s, therapy, self-help books, and secret-revealing talk shows became the rage: Prozac became the trend, and repressed memories—often those of childhood abuses—became the Holy Grail of psychotherapy.
I was full-blast a part of that 1980s sweep. Not only had I been sexually abused by a cousin when I was a very small child, but I was attacked while out for a morning jog the summer before my senior year of college. The early memories with my cousin became the foundation of my therapy sessions, and then were directly linked to my depression and self-destructive behaviors. The attack by a stranger, though more overt in form than the secret, sordid events with my cousin, somehow became something that I should have been able to avoid, or worse, attracted.
So you would think that I would vehemently advocate to name and oust anyone believed to be guilty of any unwanted sexual advance. Instead, I feel the looming of a different demon: I would prefer that men and women who have been harassed think twice before dragging themselves and their situation into the spotlight.
Please note that I address “harassment,” not abuse or assault: The latter two are direct and inarguable affronts. Harassment, however, may well be “in the eye of the beholder.” My opinion is not aligned with blaming the victim; rather, my view stems from recognizing that background, experience, and perspective is everything when it comes to alleged harassment. Harassment is a blurred arena, and one might do well to take a breath and be clear about what the intention of speaking out would be.
Are you struggling emotionally or in your career? Then, yes, speak up, seek help. But if you have any thought that your harasser may have, in his or her mind, been joking in a way that to them was innocuous, then speak with them directly. Simmer down, ask questions, and try to respond in a manner that suits the situation. Not all occasions of harassment are actually that; however, when there is a build-up of sociocultural fervor surrounding a principle or behavior, it is far to easy to view your situation through that lens. Instead, step back, look at your own situation through your most fair-minded viewfinder
Also, I think that it is important to recognize that the huge machine that is Hollywood inherently objectifies people: men, women, children—any actor is a commodity in a big business. Yes, of course, they are living, breathing people with lives and feelings outside of the entertainment industry; but their “craft,” their job is to be molded. Typically, their creative input lies in their ability to uphold someone else’s vision. This is a recipe for abuse; actors must trust others to guide them, which lends itself to hierarchical structures of power.
Not all sexually laced situations are deviant or criminal. Some are flirtatious and truly harmless; some are misguided or poorly executed attempts to forge a bond. This is where one must discern, on an individual basis, the nature of their “harassment.” What happens when a hotbed of indignation and outcry seeps into the general tenor of a culture is that eventually, the entire issue becomes diluted. Rather than equate your situation with those in the scrambling, scratching-to-the-top world of Hollywood, take a moment to find your truth: breathe, meditate, sort and discern, then breathe and meditate some more. If your view remains the same or becomes more ardent, then you certainly have the right to address any behavior that you perceive to be damaging or disabling.
If, however, you find an opening that allows for questions and possibilities that differ from your original stance, then recognize that you have evolved, that you have surpassed your situation. And therein lies your victory.
And what of my personal experiences? The experiences with my cousin remain in my memory, and they have had some effect on my life. But I know that he, too, wrangled with his role; he apologized decades later.
As for the man who attacked me in the park, he was set free after my testimony; I was stunned and wondered, “Did I attract the attack?” Two months after his acquittal, he was arrested and indicted after taking another woman hostage and raping her for hours; his sentence included chemical castration.
The two situations lie unquestionably on the spectrum of damaging sexual activity, but the intent of each abuser was different. I forgive my cousin, I even forgive the acts of “James” in the park; I have a harder time forgiving the lack of discussion in my family with regard to my cousin, and I have a hard time forgiving the defense attorney who asked if I was wearing a bra during my run in the park. (I was…)
So, you see, I am acutely aware of the complexities that can surround sexual abuse and its aftermath. My stance on the need to look within with regard to sexual harassment lies on a much different part of the spectrum. I had a boss, for example, whom I had known for more than a decade, and who I also knew had a reputation for sexual promiscuity. When he told me one night as I was leaving the office that he would like to perform a particular sexual act on me, I literally laughed, and said, “Not going to happen…” That was the end of that.
Bottom line: When a societal issue builds up steam, it is easy to align yourself with that speeding locomotor. But the truths of others are never your truth; even when the situations seem similar, the subtle dynamics and repercussions of different circumstances can not be exactly the same. That is my point: Be strong enough not to join the parade; be wise enough to go within first, last, and always. If what you find there matches the public opinion, fine: rally, speak, advocate. But if you find that your truth differs, even slightly, inhabit that space confidently…courageously.