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Column: Harassment Is About Power: Let’s Push Back



For the Valley News
Saturday, December 16, 2017

Every day we hear more high-profile stories of sexual harassment. #Metoo has created a climate where experiences can be shared and heard. But it is all too easy to look outward, to imagine that this is a problem in Hollywood, in our government, in newsrooms. Through our work at WISE, we know this behavior exists within our own communities in the Upper Valley. Women and girls are groped and are subjected to crass and derogatory comments as part of their work, school and daily environments.

We must honor and validate the brave people in our community who have either shared their experiences publicly, privately with their families and friends or confidentially with WISE. We must also acknowledge the people who are not ready or able to share their stories, who know that the consequences of coming forward may make them unsafe, who continue to grapple with the pain and humiliation alone.

To every survivor in our community, in whatever way you come forward, or feel unable to come forward, we acknowledge, value and believe you. We are one with you. We live in a world where these things happen all too frequently. The unwanted touching, the uncomfortable looks or jokes, the inappropriate comments, the coercion. These are not random incidences of violence, nor examples of sexual attraction. These are abuses of power and control.

To the members of our community who do not identify as victims, these stories may be hard to hear and hard to believe. We like to put things in boxes to make sense of them: There are good guys, and there are bad guys. We can say, “I’m one of the good guys, so I’m not the problem.” But the problem is not just those who perpetrate, it is our culture that allows the behaviors to exist. Personal behavior is a choice. And, we also must examine how those behaviors and choices reinforce or counter a cultural context that normalizes sexual harassment.

We are a community of survivors. And we as a community need to examine our own behaviors. Are we considering our impact? Are we being kind? Are we trusting and supporting those who share experiences of sexual harassment and abuse? Because at some point, individual behaviors will converge and become cultural norms. Ask the women in your lives about their experiences. Listen to their stories. Believe them.

Sexual harassment is about power and entitlement. It is not about sex and libido. For almost five decades, WISE has supported tens of thousands of women in the Upper Valley. Each situation is different, but the common theme is that abuse occurs to maintain power and control. WISE educators are working with youth in the Upper Valley, building skills and strategies to end gender-based violence. In a seventh-grade class, our educators place two signs on the wall: One says “Flirting” and the other says “Sexual Harassment.” We provide many scenarios and students decide whether it is an example of flirting or sexual harassment. Some examples, such as “a group of boys sitting together at lunch rate girls on a scale of 1-5 on how hot they are,” are easy for students to identify as harassment. Other examples provoke discussion. What is their relationship? How did it make the other person feel? Was the behavior wanted? Did they find out if it was OK before they did it? These are the questions that students raise as they categorize scenarios.

Our children know the difference between harassment and respect. They know that using power and entitlement to cause others confusion, pain and lasting harm is not OK. And, if our children understand it, why do adults find it so difficult? We know that individual people are complex and have complicated lives. But harassment is not complicated. When people choose to harass someone else, it is not isolated, it is not random, it is not by chance. It is about power.

Perhaps now we are at a place where we can stop debating whether sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence exist. We can cease waiting for different data to convince us that we have a societal problem.

This is our community. Each of us can decide to be a part of a culture that stops this behavior. We have the ability to make big and small changes that make a difference in the end. We can examine our own behavior and how we use our personal power in our lives. We can call attention to the behaviors of our peers — comments and jokes that treat women as objects, not as full human beings. We can encourage the young people in our lives to grow up believing that equality and respect are fundamental expectations of them and their peers.

We can create a community where when we witness harassment, everyone says, “We’re not putting up with that;” a community where the victim knows that her coworkers, friends and other people in authority and power have her back; a community where her coworkers say, “This is not tolerable and we’re going to hold the person accountable for what they did.”

We can make changes in our own lives that will have rippling effects. It is going to take a long time, but it is imperative. We need to create more equality if we want to create a community without gender-based violence. We need to create a community that does not laugh when somebody does something outrageous and instead calls out the horrible behavior. If we stop laughing, like it is just some silly male prank, if we intervene when something does happen, we can eventually stop the behavior before it occurs. When we become intolerant to the behavior, we begin to shift what is expected.

Peggy O’Neil is executive director of WISE in Lebanon. The nonprofit organization provides crisis and ongoing support to survivors and education for the community in the prevention of domestic violence, sexual violence and stalking.