Delson: #metoo is a chance to end harmful silence surrounding harassment and assault (column)
The mounting sexual abuse and harassment allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein were first reported in The New York Times by journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey on Friday, Oct. 5. By then, allegations against Bill Reilly, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes and Donald Trump were old news.
Social media came alive when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you have been sexually harassed or molested, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Since then, #metoo has been used more than half a million times, as women and some men shared their experiences of sexual abuse and harassment.
I grew up in the 1950s in a small, close-knit, working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York. Our parents worried about polio and measles much more than they worried about their children’s physical safety. We played in the streets and schoolyards, rode our bikes without helmets and were told to be home before dark.
Age 10, I was playing at a friend’s house after school and lost track of time. It was getting dark. Home was two blocks away, past the schoolyard, an alley and some houses. I had taken this route hundreds of times since I was 5 years old. I was running, knowing that my father would be home from work and dinner would be waiting — I would be in trouble. I was wearing a skirt because girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school.
From the alley, a man came out of the shadows, grabbed me under my skirt and started pulling me into the alley. I stomped, wiggled and kicked. I escaped and ran home.
I arrived feeling strong, brave and ready for congratulations. Nevermind that congratulatory was not the feeling my parents experienced. I congratulated myself.
This assault helped define my life. I did not know what the man wanted, but I knew he was bad. I had been sexually assaulted, but since I knew little about sex, I filed it into my memory bank of victories. I never gave the incident much thought until decades later when Polly Klass was abducted and killed. Suddenly, I realized the danger I so narrowly escaped. If he had succeeded, then I would have defined myself very differently.
There is another kind of sexual assault. It’s not life-threatening, but it is life-defining. It is chronic. It is so insidiously ingrained into our culture that we usually don’t even notice it and when we do … Well, I at least have not usually confronted it as bravely as I confronted the man in Queens at age 10.
In my 30s, a physical therapist touched my breasts — not accidentally. I said nothing. Not to him, not to his superiors, not to the company he worked for. I froze and got out of there. My silence enabled him to do it again, to others. I wasn’t afraid of him. I was afraid of the embarrassment.
I sat at a banquet table while a man I know and like made loud, lewd comments about the attractiveness of a woman seated next to him. I squirmed in my seat. This was not the first time I heard him do this. It was not the first time I felt uncomfortable.
Shamefully, I said nothing — not to him, not to the woman he offended and not to anyone else at the table. I was not afraid of him. But I was afraid of creating an awkward social situation. I was not afraid that others would judge him. I was afraid they would judge me.
I have heard men make sexual comments about women breastfeeding, women jogging, women dancing, women walking into a supermarket. I have heard fathers call their 5-year-old daughters “hot.” I have walked on, or turned my head or changed my seat. Powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein, and ordinary men and their male and female friends count on my silence, and I have given it.
When I was a child and fought back, it was instinctive and self-protective. I didn’t think. I didn’t have perspective. I had no category called “sexual abuse and harassment” in which to analyze my reaction. When I think about it, I still feel victorious.
As an adult, with a personal and professional life to draw upon, I am ashamed of the times when I was less courageous, for what seem to be silly reasons.
Embarrassment? Fear of judgment or rejection? What kind of standard do I have that make those fears more important than my participation in maintaining a culture where such behavior thrives. I am proud of the times I stood up for myself and others, and I regret the times I did not. When it comes to this kind of sexual abuse, I can be a victim or a victor. The choice is mine. And yours.
Niki Delson is retired, lives in Carbondale and is the former chair of the Education Committee for the California Coalition on Sexual Offending.