As kidlit undergoes its sexual harassment reckoning, I’m seeing some people (mostly hetero men) confused about what’s going on. Frustrated they might be asked to change their behaviour. And uncertain why this whole thing is such a big deal in the first place.
While I’m not one of the victims in this instance, I’m no stranger to sexual harassment outside the industry.
And I have thoughts.
If you’ve never been sexually harassed, it’s possible you don’t understand how dehumanizing it feels. Especially in a professional setting. To be told through words or actions that the person you’re interacting with doesn’t see you as an equal, or even a person, but as a collection of body parts that they would like to do things to.
And forget calling them out on it.
By their nature, the harassing comments/actions make you feel insignificant and unworthy, robbing you of the power to question the person doing them – especially if there’s already a power differential in your relationship. Most women are conditioned to avoid conflict, and it’s even worse in a professional setting, when being branded a troublemaker or “difficult to work with” could effectively end your career.
Plus there’s the fact that most of the behaviour being called out isn’t illegal. You can’t press charges because someone told you you’re sexy, no matter how bad it made you feel. But as Shannon Hale said on Twitter last week:
Reminder that something doesn’t have to be illegal to be wrong.
If I went as an author to a school and insulted the children, that would be wrong. And would rightly affect my career.
Asking for professional consequences for men who harass isn’t too much.
— Shannon Hale (@haleshannon) February 11, 2018
And while this sentiment is reassuring to many, some people are finding it terrifying. This week a man tweeted that he’s “hesitating to give direct compliments to a woman as well as not hugging anymore in a business relationship…. ” for fear of being accused of sexual harassment and having his career ruined.
So…basically he’s stopped sexually harassing women now? Yay! (Or as I actually tweeted in response:
he’s complaining he has to treat women like he (presumably) treats men. Boo frickin’ hoo.)
Because this is what it all comes down to. Wanting to be treated as equals. Not put up on pedestals, or thought of as sex symbols, or regarded as somehow inferior, but seen as people first.
So, if you’re a (for instance) hetero man wondering if your behaviour could be considered sexual harassment, ask yourself, “Would I say or do this to a man?” If the answer’s no, then it’s probably sexual harassment. (Feel free to replace “hetero man” and “man” with the gender and orientation of your choice here.)
And while we’re all taking a look at our behaviour, maybe spare some time to consider other forms of harassment as well: treating someone differently because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, is just as harassing and dehumanizing.
And we can do better.