The Third Third

Sexual Harassment, Even in my Dreams

So I had a sexual harassment/unwanted sexual advances dream last night.  Small wonder, what with the cascading accusations and apologies infusing the very air we breathe, X-rating television news, morning and night.  

The reports aren’t telling me anything I didn’t know:  my father had warned me when I went to Washington D.C. as a 20 year-old NBC News intern one summer that politicians were notoriously oversexed (c.f., Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson), and that it was likely television personalities were, too.  And there were rumors my mentoring boss — divorced when “divorced” was a word they still whispered where I came from — had had an affair or two before his remarriage.  Still, while I was far more naive than I understood or acknowledged at the time, I was also quite the prude.  Nothing untoward happened that summer, even though I was given to dating-for-meals because my father really, really didn’t want me to go to that den of iniquity and would not supplement the $500 savings that supported me there.  But it was just dating for meals and good times; no sex.  Which didn’t mean my father was wrong about the environment, necessarily— I just didn’t experience it.

Until I got my first real job in television journalism when, as I have written before, my boss, the married-with-five-children news director, called a special meeting of the all-male newsroom staff to say “Hands off” the station’s first female reporter — and then appeared at my apartment door one night, entirely unbidden, to “discuss” my “brilliant work” and, ah, fondle me. Yuck.  About which, as I have confessed, I said nothing because I loved my job.

I witnessed the same perverted power dynamic when my daughter was verbally abused and sexually harassed by her debate coach in high school and begged me not to say anything because she had won a top debate spot and didn’t want to put it at risk.  I deeply regret not blowing that whistle even though, in the end, she did (and it cost her her senior year career in debate and, yes, years of therapy).

So I thought I knew what was going on, and as sickened as I have been by the continuous reports of egregious sexual aggression stoked by power, I wasn’t really surprised.  What surprised me in my dream was that — given all the salacious stories in circulation and under discussion, not to mention my chronological claim to maturity — I still found myself someplace where some man could take advantage — or try to take advantage — of me.  And, in the dream, I once again felt such shame, even though, on the face of it, I didn’t do anything wrong.  I’ve been trying to plumb all of my feelings in this dream, the ones that came before the shame and, alas, only come up with more shame.  Because there’s this, all of this:  I liked the guy, and I liked the attention, and maybe my way of making new friends was flirtatious (because maybe that is the only way we women know how to communicate, socially, with men?); and I assumed that because I was obviously happily married and traveling with my husband of 46 years in this very collegial group, no one would even think of, (well, what do you call it?), making a pass; and I let myself be separated from the group because there was something I wanted to see and this guy was showing it to me; and then I lost my power, just totally lost it, and ended up in his car alone with him driving to his house on the shore (which made no sense in the context of the rest of the dream, but it was a dream after all) to use the bathroom, and he abused his power and came on to me.  In the dream (still), I rebuffed him, ran to his car and drove back to the group, wherever we were.  And didn’t tell anyone.

When I awoke, I remembered it all, and I felt so stupid and so ashamed, even though — let’s be clear — it never really happened, it was only a dream.  What troubles me is how primal my (our?) desire to be liked — to be noticed, found attractive or smart or witty or whatever — must be.  And how easily it can be (and obviously, will be) preyed upon, such that, in the 50 years since that summer in Washington, virtually nothing has changed.  

Does this suggest a different way forward for women?  I hope so, but I’m not sure what it is.   I think current events quite clearly give men the message that if you abuse your power (and get caught), you’ll lose it.  But the focus is, as it always is, only on the men.  Women need to hear another message, one that teaches us that we have agency and power and a wholeness that does not require the attentions of men to make us complete, or happy, to let us be who we are and what we want to be. And we all need to believe it, trust it, and live — and dream — accordingly.

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