After many years of practice as a sex therapist, I think that it’s time I got in on the discussion around sexual harassment and abuse. For those of us in this field, it is a conversation fraught with personal and societal pressures. I feel that I must start by saying that no one should ever be subjected to unwanted sexual advances or violations. Nobody. Not women, not men, not boys, not girls, not young nor old…..nobody!
I have had this conversation with a few colleagues, and let me just say that, even then, I had to tread lightly. Considering the stories we’ve heard, the pain, the shame, the guilt, embarrassment and suffering of those who experienced this type of intrusion upon their bodies and minds, we have suffered too. Back when I did my first seminar on sexual victimization I learned what the term “vicarious traumatization” means. Furthermore, knowing the statistics, more than half of us in those seminars have experienced similar violations. So the trauma is beyond vicarious, it may have felt like reliving the past.
Over the years, I presented workshops on sexual harassment in the workplace, in the classroom, in public and private places overall. I also did quite literally hundreds of interviews with perpetrators and alleged perpetrators of sexual assault. Read the victims’ and witness statements, then wrote the reports for the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to use in court. Many of those same perpetrators were referred back to me for treatment.
Fortunately, I dare to say, those are the extreme examples. Most of us experience unwanted or uncomfortable sexual advances and intrusions in a less overt way. Comments or caresses that make us feel “creeped-out” or just plain scared are much more common. But are nevertheless unjustifiable.
Lack of boundaries or of empathy, abuse of power, greater physical size and strength, all play into the victimizers’ means and modes of operation. Whether they use intimidation, manipulation, confrontation or actual force, they are all abusers. Just as an aside, when I say “they” I do not mean to make this and Us vs. Them debate. If we look deep within ourselves, many of us have unknowingly or unwittingly crossed over to the other side. Misinterpretation of a friendly gesture or phrase could easily make that crossover go quite smoothly. Social situations can increase the likelihood of this happening. Blame it on the alcohol if you want but it is never okay. Drugs and/or alcohol are never an excuse. They do not make us do anything we do not want to do. They just allow us to do things we wouldn’t do otherwise. They are therefore called “did-inhibitors.” Rationalization and justification abound. No excuses, people. Time to take responsibility and accept whatever the consequences may be.
But that is where I take this whole controversy to the next level. The consequences should and must be equal to the action. Is the action an infraction or is it a crime? Do we punish bad behavior with the same intensity of a felony? I certainly hope not. In so-called civilized society we let the punishment befit the crime. Remember the phrase “cruel and unusual”? While the current circumstances may not be unusual historically, the open discussion and dialogue clearly is. We need to continue this dialogue. Let our better selves prevail. Try not to let emotions cloud the clarity of the discussion, and listen, listen, listen.
Thank you for listening to me.