What I learned at last year’s sexual harassment thing

I started a post about this last year and deleted it. I’ve tried to explain the value of that seminar to dozens of people and they fail to acknowledge what I’m saying.

A big part of that is group-think about how out-of-touch sexual harassment conversations in corporate spaces are. Everyone wants to be the cool kid or the anti-PC voice and they go in primed to ignore.

And people are slow to understand that I’m not like that, people confuse me being easily disappointed with me being a cynic. But the fact is depressed people are the truest optimists, I go into situations trying to get the most stimuli, looking to gather any positive take away, desperate to think something I haven’t thought before. The fact is I hate thoughtless cynicism, it’s usually insecurity hiding as intelligence.

So, my takeaway from the seminar:

I went in knowing I could have a good time no matter what and the place to start having a good time is by participating, you can always be cynical after  – it’s much harder to switch to optimism after declaring yourself the cynic.

We did some improv, I instantly volunteered myself (as Harasser) and my beloved Mike Louden (as the Harassed). Tim and someone else filled out the roster and they played the part of Witnesses.  We did a scenario where I hit Mikey with my car. I got out, talked to the witnesses, they talked to me, they told me I what I should and shouldn’t do, I tried to imply everything was okay and eventually I said no one’s even checked on Mikey what-the-fuck, etc.

The hosts stopped us then and we did a second scenario. I, Harasser,  was to make sexually inappropriate comments to my co-worker Mikey. I got to use the phrase dem jeans, which I’d secretly always been looking to find a context for.

The Witnesses came over and told me to stop, what I was doing wasn’t okay, very by the books, very predictable. And when the hosts stopped us again right there I saw exactly what they were going to say, I had my sexual harassment I-Know-Kung-Fu moment.

No one had checked with Mikey again. In the car accident we’d (eventually) correlated our reactions to the victims needs, if they weren’t hurt then witnesses telling me how to act was pointless, worse – it was insulting to everyone there. That’s why ‘witnesses’ in seminars act differently than witnesses in real life, because in a class room we’re trained that the “right” answer is the answer the teacher wants. And the “right” answer people assume a sexual harassment counselor wants is judgy grandstanding and behaviour policing.

But that wasn’t the insight these hosts we’re trying to draw out of us and that’s why I’m  disappointed that people came away being cynical and dismissive. My friends all had expectations of what the day was going to be and because of that they didn’t see what it really was.

I hear the notion that lines around sexual harassment and flirting are always changing but the reality is there are no rules, there never were. In all areas of life we’re told that if we’re good and fallow the rules then good things will happen and we’ll get what we want, that makes simple ethical sense internally which is why it’s difficult to acknowledge the fact that in the area of life that is sex and flirting it’s worse than useless it’s actually dangerous. It’s how date rape happens. And it’s how people talk themselves out of doing something when they witness harassment.

This goes beyond flirting too.

There was an incident at work not long after that in which someone was assaulted physically, and I thought “don’t worry about who should or shouldn’t have done something, this isn’t about debating specific behavior being okay or not or in a grey-area, my top priority is restoring the comfort of the person who got hurt – the person who is vulnerable and sorting through a lot of emotions from the incident.

I focused on thinking about things from the point of view of the person an event was happening to rather than simply thinking about how I felt as witness or being distracted by the intent of the behaviour.

I’ve written before and elsewhere about how I hate when people say I’m not a mind reader. Because yes you fucking are, we all are, literally everyone has heard the vast majority of communication is non-verbal. In fact verbal communication just clouds and fucks up clear non-verbal signals because we live in a time where people still falsely correlated being morally good with being nice. People use being nice as a social lubricant to get out of situations but when it comes to flirting that’s blowing on coals not blowing out candles.

I learned subtle and profound lessons about empathy because of that day.

I learned to take an active interest in the vibe of the person I’m talking to. Rather than, like a chump, thinking that a cold vibe from a woman is just insecurity rearing up I take it at face value and gave her space until she’s comfortable. I also see retroactively that frequently the vibe had been good but I’d let my indecisiveness about whether I’m being a creep or not get in the way.

If nothing else, think about sexual harassment seminars as How Not To Be A Creep 101.


Singer/songwriter, jerk.

Posted in Gender
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