By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW
These days the news is rife with stories about sexual assault and harassment by men in positions of power against girls, women and boys. My clients—many of whom are survivors of sexual abuse—are torn between feelings of relief that their stories are finally in the main stream and despair that they live in a society where sexual exploitation by men in power is so pervasive.
Meanwhile the decent, non-rapey guys out there–the vast majority of men–are grappling with the painful realization that so many men are sexual predators and fear that they too will be painted with this broad brush.
It’s easy to want to turn away from the numbing repetition of this upsetting information. We feel overwhelmed, shocked, and unable to screen out the pain and anger of the victims who are finally coming forth like a tidal force, we are exhausted by determining degrees of wrongness, trying to figure out what should happen next both to individual perpetrators and as social response to this pervasive injustice.
Anger and the fear of anger cause us to retract from each other, to avoid the difficult, useful work of coming together to talk and listen and think about this problem that touches us all. Every man has a woman he loves, be it his mother or sister or daughter or wife. Every woman has a man she loves, be it her partner or parent or child or brother. We cannot get away from the connection, and therefore we cannot get away from the need to have conversations.
After genocide, truth and reconciliation process is primarily about allowing people to tell their stories and be heard by perpetrators and victims alike. This process humanizes both sides, allows them to weep and heal together. It takes enormous courage to tell and to listen. I want to remind every big hearted man out there that if you want to help us heal, this is your job right now; listen to the women in your life. Ask them for their own stories with this experience. If it hurts to hear, remember it hurts a lot more to go through it than it does to hear it. As a therapist, the most important gift I can offer is to bear witness to the experiences of my clients. The simple act of listening is the most overlooked magic.
Every woman I know has experienced at least attempted sexual abuse by a man. There is a portion of this that may be innocent misjudgement: men are charged with sexual initiation in a patriarchal society. I used to joke that if I weren’t a woman I’d still be a virgin because there is no way I’d ever have the courage to initiate sex. So given that in the beginnings of relationships men almost always are the ones to initiate sex, and women consent or refuse it, how do we proceed?
There should be bright, clean lines such as no sexual relationships between people in substantial power disparities (such as boss/employee or perspective boss/employee, or religious leader/follower or famous person in specific field/person wanting to become successful in said field). These bright, clean lines are further delineated by simple questions such as: “Can I kiss you?” “Do you want to have sex?” Consensual sex is fun for both parties and career safe.
For men: if you are so successful that you can’t find someone to sleep with who is in a similar power position as you are, look for someone who has nothing to do with your line of work and doesn’t care about it. This is hard on the ego but great for avoiding sexual harassment accusations. And dude, no matter who you are, don’t sleep with someone who works for you.
How do you avoid being misunderstood if you are man? More bright, clean lines here: Don’t view women in your professional life as sexual beings, no matter how pretty they are. Take a good look at the way you interact with women. Ask yourself, would I say this to a man I worked with? “That dress is pretty,” is fine, just as you might compliment a male on his awesome tie. Comments about a female coworker’s butt, breast size or shape is a hell no, just as complimenting a male coworker on his formidable penis size would not go over super well at the water cooler.
For the women: remember that most men are just like us: decent, imperfect, and trying figure out this incredibly complex thing called life. Most men wouldn’t try to take unfair advantage of a woman even if they could get away with it because it would make them feel disgusting. Avoid the temporary comfort of cynicism which comes with the half life of despair. Tell your story. Claim your equal space. You belong right here, at the grownup table.