What Sexual Harrassment Does to All of Us

                                                     Semper Eadem:  “Always the Same” 

Source: Sodacan/wikimedia commons

Men (and some women too) are searching their souls these days, wondering if someone is thinking of them amid the allegations of harassment in word, joke, proposition, touch, threat, assault, rape.  And women like me (and some men) are reviewing their histories, recalling encounters that surprised, shocked, disgusted, angered, or frightened us.

I’m privileged: I’ve never been threatened, assaulted or raped.  That’s a weird sentence, so I’m going to repeat it for emphasis.  I am privileged: I have never been threatened, assaulted, or raped. 

I’ve been thinking about some of the innuendos, propositions, and touches though.  They linger, and I can only imagine the impact of threatening and violent harassment.  They are vivid, brief moments where the world goes askew. Everything is normal and then, bam! The world tilts, and then rights itself again.  Here are a few of those moments from my past.  Don’t hold your breath: they are not exciting, not sexy, not even intimate.  As you’ll see in a moment, that’s part of the point of this blog post.

Professor Edwards is an elderly Englishman who teaches a seminar in British history.  When I’m a junior in college, my advisor suggests I take the course: I am studying English literature, and Professor Edwards is famous for his interdisciplinary course on Victorian prose and politics.  It is a great class, about ten of us sitting around an elegant oak table talking about Disraeli and Dickens, Tennyson and Tories.  One morning I’m sitting next to Professor Edwards, who sits as always at the head of the table. He opens discussion with a question, and I and another student begin to answer at the same time.  Professor Edwards puts his hand on my arm, effectively silencing me, and the other student continues speaking.  It is fine: I talk a lot in the class; the other student doesn’t. I don’t think twice about his hand on my arm: it is a brief, natural gesture, a quick and quiet way to regulate the discussion as a good teacher needs to do.  I don’t think at all about a man four times my age putting his hand on my forearm for five seconds.

At the end of class Professor Edwards turns to me and says, “Would you wait a moment, please, Miss Young?” “Sure,” I say, puzzled.  After everyone has picked up their backpacks and left the room, he says, “I want to apologize.” I look at him. He is old: his English complexion still pink but wrinkled, his blue eyes faded behind bifocals. “Apologize?” I echo.  “Yes,” he says, his expression unrelentingly serious.  “I should not have touched you, and I want to apologize.”  My mouth falls open, and I blush.  He is in turn embarrassed by my embarrassment. When I have regained my composure I say, “I grew up in a demonstrative family. I felt at ease with that gesture.”  I almost laugh at my own automatic formality in response to this elderly gent. He meets my eye.  “Well,” he says, “I have learned that it is now considered improper to have any physical contact with a student.”  No longer embarrassed, I see his sadness at that change in the world. “I did not find this improper,” I tell him, “and I am sorry that you even had to think about it possibly being so.” A few months later, I learn that one of his colleagues had propositioned a student, and the whole department had been required to attend a presentation on sexual harassment in which they were instructed, among other things, not to touch a student, ever.

Six years later, when I am in graduate school at another university, I learn that Professor Edwards has died when I receive two books in the mail. They are a set: Sixteenth-Century English Prose and Sixteenth-Century English Poetry.  The volume of prose has a note written by fountain pen on the flyleaf that reads, “1983.  Gift from Alice Maloney to replace my copy—lent to a student last year and thought to be irreplaceable.”  The volume of poetry has on its flyleaf, also written by fountain pen in old-fashioned, beautiful penmanship, “For Elizabeth Young with good wishes for her future life and with memory of the time when we worked together.  F.G. Edwards.  April 10, 1990.”

A couple of years after I received those books, I take a graduate elective with Bob Goodman, a professor in Religious Studies.  Bob is a great lecturer: funny, smart, energetic.  As he paces the front of the room talking about the Bible as literature, I feel like I’m at a one-man show with a really good monologist.  He learns that he has a grad student from the English Department in the course, and he periodically asks me to define a concept he himself knows inside-out: the pathetic fallacy, for example, or dramatic irony.  It feels like a challenge: Can you do this as well as I can?  I decline the opportunity to show off—or to be bested.  “You’re the teacher,” I learn to say.  “I bet you can explain it just fine yourself.” He laughs, and does so, but I feel marked.  The other students in the class start to see me as different, as teacher’s pet, and I don’t like that.  I am young enough—22 was young enough then—to be a little excited by the public flirtation from an attractive, witty man, but his behavior also made me squirm. 

Bob lends me a couple of books for a paper I write for the course, and I forget to bring them back to him the last day of class when we turned our papers in.  I apologize and say I’ll bring them over to his office the next time I’m on campus.  “We’ll meet for coffee,” he says.  “Your fine for overdue books is one cup of coffee at Café Latte.”  All very merry.  But he’s standing a little too close to me.  “I’ll bring them to your office, thanks,” I repeat.  He looks at me, gives a little smile.  “Okay,” he says.  “No hurry.” 

I don’t hurry.  I am preparing for my doctoral exams, and I don’t get over to his office for over a year.  When I finally go, I can’t find Bob’s name on any mailbox in the faculty mailroom. I enter the department office and ask the secretary: “I have books for Bob Goodman.  Can you tell me where to put them?”  She is silent a moment, and I can see that she is thinking.  “Professor Goodman has left,” she says at last.  “Left?” “Yes.”  “Oh,” I say slowly.  “Left, as in permanently?”  “Yes.”  Our eyes meet.  “Do you have an address so I can send the books to him?” She thinks a moment, and I add, “I was a student of his.  I’m a grad student in English.  I just want to get his books back to him.”  She nods.  “He is now teaching elsewhere,” she says, and names a small college of much less prestige than the research university where I stand. “I see,” I say slowly.  We look at each other again.  She is an attractive woman in her early thirties. There is an awareness in her eyes as we hold each other’s gaze.  “Yes,” she says, and turns back to her work. 

My dissertation director is more direct: “He must have had his hand in somebody’s pants,” he says.  “No other reason a tenured professor would go there from here.”  He isn’t even surprised.

When I finish my doctorate, I land a job teaching in my field of specialty: eighteenth-century English literature.  When I’ve been there long enough to have gotten tenure, I feel like I know my colleagues pretty well.  They are all older than I, most of them substantially so.  I have shaken some of the old guys up: added women writers to the curriculum, spoken out at department meetings, been elected the head of the department’s graduate program.  I have some power, and although I have rattled a cage or two (often unaware that that was what I was doing), I sense that all my colleagues value and respect me.  Including the man who stands next to me in the mailroom one morning as we sort through the stack of memos in each of our mailboxes.  “Elizabeth,” he says.  “Hi Johnny,” I reply cheerfully.  He looks at me and then asks, “How is your eighteenth-century seminar going?”  “It’s good.  The students are complaining because we are reading Clarissa, which they say is too long at 800 pages in the abridged version.”  “Ah,” he said, “the epistolary novel.”  “Yes.”  Clarissa, and other eighteenth-century novels like it, is structured as a series of letters between characters. The early novels have many undercurrents of sexual desire, power plays to “get the woman alone,” ruses and strategies to win the resistant virgin.  Johnny is still facing his mailbox and holding the stack of mail when he says: “We should write an epistolary novel together.”  This is such a stupid idea that I crack up. 

“Right.”  I say, trying to picture myself as Clarissa, who ultimately welcomes her own death after Lovelace, the man who pursues her in letters, manages to get her alone and rapes her.  It’s impossible to picture myself like her.  It’s even harder to picture Johnny as a rake, a sexual libertine whose goal in life is to wear down the desirable young woman.  Apparently Johnny doesn’t hear my sarcasm, though, for he says, “We could call the book Elizabeth, My Love.”  There’s a moment of shocked silence before I can respond.  “I don’t think so,” I say crisply, and walk out of the mailroom.  I want to vomit, but decide it is less messy to laugh.

Recently I went to see a long-time mentor, a man who teaches in a social work program.  He’s been a wonderful help to me professionally, and he and his wife went out to dinner with me and my husband before my husband died.  I go to see Mike this time because I want to consult him about a case I have involving a child.  Mike’s expertise is in child development, and I know he will have good ideas.  I greet him, come into his office, shut the door behind me, and sit down, ready to give him the details about the case.  As I begin to talk about it, he stands up and opens the door into the corridor.  I think, “Huh?” and then I realize.  I’m a woman; he’s a man. We can’t talk privately in an office together without risk. Neither of us says anything about it.  But Professor Edwards comes to my mind, and I realize that I feel the same thing I felt 38 years ago: deep sadness, but now anger too, that we even have to think about being safe in each other’s company.

Source: MlibFR/wikimedia commons

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