It was a wet, dreary Friday afternoon, and I wandered into the boutique after stopping for a post-work cup of froyo with some colleagues. I grabbed a few dresses off the racks to try on, just killing time, really. I was the only customer in the store, and as I disrobed, I heard one of the shopgirls say to the owner, “Did I tell you he got fired from the school finally? But it wasn’t for what he did to me. It was because he wasn’t doing his job.” Suddenly, I was no longer killing time, I was listening closely to my next voyeurism piece taking shape. I listened quietly behind the dressing curtain, grateful for its thin, sound-permeable quality as the young woman continued, “…and he totally texted me today, after all that, still trying to get with me.”
Jackpot. This was going to be another good one, I could tell. She launched into the story of starting her new job as an elementary school teacher, and meeting the guy, a fellow teacher during training. It sounded like he’d been on her since the beginning, flirting and making inappropriate comments when the kids were out of earshot. His unwanted advances were causing her discomfort and stress. He was texting her at all hours, trying to hook up. “I wanted it to stop, but I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. I mean, his classroom is right across from mine.”
I felt my hackles rising, because if there’s one thing that torques me, it’s the persistent message from the culture that victims shouldn’t speak out, and the resulting protection of the perpetrator. She was talking about her experience of being sexually harassed, and the age-old dilemma of report and risk fallout, or stay quiet and deal. Goddamn it.
“I told my friend who’s on staff, forgetting that her child is in his class, and she went straight to the principal. Next thing you know, I’m in the principal’s office and he’s telling me I have a responsibility to speak up, that he is responsible for protecting me and our students. I just hadn’t wanted it to be a thing,” she lamented.
Long ago, I had found myself in a similar situation, fresh out of college and working as a teacher’s aide at a high school. I was partnering with the young hot male teacher of the school, whom the kids adored. We were the youngest staff members and hit it off initially. Soon he was making inappropriate comments about being horny, sleezy eye contact across the room, whispering in my ear. I tried to deal, hoping to avoid an awkward situation. Then I overheard some female students talking about how flirty he was with them at a football game (in the context of loving his attention) and I knew he needed to be reported.
“He actually said to me that he does whatever he wants, and that’s how his life works. It was like just because he wanted me, he should have been able to get with me.” I stood perfectly still behind the curtain grateful to be hidden as I creeped on the conversation. “So what did he get fired for?” the owner asked. “Oh, well first he had sex with a different teacher, so that was part of it, but also he wasn’t doing his job.” It sounded as though this particular man had been using an elementary school as his own personal meat market, there for the ass, not for the kids (and honestly, I hope he did nothing with the kids). “I found out he had a baby over the summer and that he’s in a custody case. He texted me to tell me he’s shaving his head to avoid drug detection for a test he has to take for court. He texts me things like this out of the blue.” She sounded bewildered, seeming to accept the sporadic texting contact from a man who violated her boundaries.
I’d heard enough. I went up to the counter and inserted myself into the conversation, not caring if I revealed my voyeurism. Someone had to tell her she had the ability to stop unwanted contact. “So, now he thinks he can just text you whenever he wants about whatever’s on his mind?” I asked. Her eyes widened and she nodded vigorously. “Yes! Like months will go by and then all of a sudden, dick pic. I was so ashamed to show the principal the things he’d been sending me.” She allowed me right into the conversation, perhaps sensing I’d been in it all along, a passive listener behind a curtain.
“That is absolutely unacceptable, and you don’t have to put up with that,” I told her. “I think you should block him from your phone right now, and if you’re friends with him on social media you should block him there too,” I added. It was as though the idea of self-protection had never occurred to her and I supervised as she pulled out her phone and blocked his number, though she wanted me to know she had the good sense never to friend colleagues. I told her about my experience of sexual harassment at a school, and how as a result the teacher had changed his behavior, mortified at his indiscretions and fully chastised. We agreed that this particular man probably wouldn’t change, as anyone who, upon a first meeting, brags about their personal liberty and entitlement likely has major personality issues.
“Wow, just blocking him has already brought my stress down,” she remarked. Good. “I was worried my boyfriend would see his texts pop up since they were so random, and be upset.” That sounded like a whole other issue, though I hoped he’d be upset that some predator was sending her unwanted messages. For the moment I hoped she would take the apparently new realization that she was allowed to and should protect herself, awkwardness be damned, and apply it going forward. I paid for my new dress and walked out.
“Wow, just blocking him has already brought my stress down”
I ask this genuinely: why don’t more women “block” more of these guys? It’s like she didn’t even realize this was an option…
I could understand how it might be awkward (especially with a colleague like in this story), but if you’re responding or even reacting to these texts and dick pics, in any way, you’re not part of the solution…
I’m not saying that this guy isn’t an enormous creep who should be facing discipline (and I don’t want to be accused of “victim blaming” here…), but when women don’t tell these kind of guys off, it simply enables them, and gives them the window to keep trying in hopes that they’ll eventually catch you at the right moment. If you eliminate the hope, they’ll leave you alone. (or else they’re the type of guy where you actually do need to make it a “big deal” about it for the sake of all the other women that he’ll encounter in the future)
Part of the problem is cultural, not simply individual. Girls and women are socialized to put others’ needs before their own, and that is how we are prepared for life. And so it’s natural to allow others’ to invade our space, believing we must yield to it. It’s so ingrained that often we don’t even think in terms of “this isn’t OK”. We have a long way to go to change the culture, and it will happen one individual at a time. I’d be interested to hear what responsibility you think men have in shifting these forces…
Thanks for your continued readership, Frank!
I don’t see victim blaming here so much…it’s more like you’ve given up on men’s ability to take responsibility for themselves and the actions of their gender group. You come across as hopeless about “these kinds of guys”, taking for granted that they will always exist. Does it have to be so?
And I do agree that women need to take responsibility for protecting themselves, an important piece to solving this terrible dynamic. If there’s no more prey the predators die out, right?
“I’d be interested to hear what responsibility you think men have in shifting these forces…”
Honestly, I’m not sure. I can (and think i do…) do my small part. I’ve specifically told girls I’ve dated who “put others need before their own” that I don’t want them to serve some kind of “role” and I really just want them to be themselves. I hope to instill a sense of independence in my future daughters so that they are aware of their needs. But that’s a small circle.
And I’d like to hope there are many other guys who think the same thing, but I honestly think the most effective change would come from women more commonly shutting down these kind of interactions and understanding that they need to be strong if they don’t want to enable this kind of behavior.
At the end of the day, (and this just honesty here…) there are too many incentives for terrible guys to take advantage of this “socialization” and totally use women that are willing to put a man’s needs ahead of their own.
As long as there girls out there who will put up with it, there’ll be guys that do it.
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