Thursday, 19 October 2017

Feeling Safe at Work And the Me Too Campaign

For me, it started with a David Bowie quote: "If you feel safe in the area you're working in, you're not working in the right area."

I saw it on Twitter and while I approve of the idea of artists pushing their limits in creating their art, the phrasing really bothered me.  Because people should feel safe in the place where they work.  The full quote is "If you feel safe in the area you're working in, you're not working in the right area.  Always go a little further into the water than you feel you're capable of being in.  Go a little bit out of your depth.  And when you don't feel your feet are quite touching the bottom, you're just about in the right place to do something exciting."  So, from the context, it's clear that he's talking about taking risks creatively and I can support that idea.

But at the same time, I doubt that anyone who has faced threats against their physical safety would phrase their advice in quite that way.  Because feeling safe is definitely a requirement for being able to push your limits.  If a person doesn't feel safe, they cannot extend themselves.  Their creativity will shut down as their mind focuses on survival.  

Soon after I saw the Bowie quote, the Harvey Weinstein stories began to break in the media.  Those stories cast a bright light on the open secret of the casting couch in Hollywood.  Weinstein used his position to coerce young women into giving him sex or performing sexual acts, in exchange for promises to promote their careers.  Unspoken was the threat that if they did not agree, then he would use his power to destroy their careers.

In response, Alyssa Milano launched a "Me Too" campaign, encouraging women who have been harassed or assaulted to tweet #MeToo as a way to demonstrate how endemic the issue is.  And it is.  (And, by the way, it isn't just women who have to face this.)  It is incredibly rare to find a woman who has not experienced it.  On the lighter side are catcalls and unwelcome comments on our bodies and sexuality but it's all part of a spectrum that goes right up to the most horrific rapes, attacks and murder.

When the people speak up, their experiences are often dismissed.  "It was just a joke."  "It's not like anything really happened."  "Oh, that kind of thing happens all the time, don't be so sensitive."  If they report assault, they often face scrutiny on their choices.  "What did you expect, wearing that?"  "How much did you have to drink?"  "Why did you go to <insert location>?"  Their motives are questioned.  "Oh, they're only saying they were raped so they can get money."  "They're just jumping on a bandwagon to get publicity."

It's overwhelming and so women decide to keep silent.  But, to be honest, it's not just the outside attacks.  I've felt it myself as well as watched any number of colleagues and friends struggle through it.  At that split second when the first inappropriate act happens (usually verbal, but not always), everything changes.  Suddenly there are too many choices which need to be made (should I say something back? brush it off as a joke? ignore it?) and a huge awareness that if we make the wrong choice, it can backlash against us in significant ways (if I say something, will I risk my place at the office/group? if I don't say anything and something else happens, will my silence now be held against me?).

I actually saw this happen recently.  A man with a reputation for inappropriate comments told a woman to "just sit in his lap" when she asked if there was assigned seating.  The woman, who is a lovely and competent person, ignored the comment but felt flustered and insecure throughout the event.  When she left it, she was visibly shaken but also clearly trying to put it behind her.  But when she shared what had happened, it was also clear that it had a big impact on her.

I've used the metaphor of a burn before to explain it to people who don't understand how a single comment can cause this level of reaction.  It only takes a fraction of a second for skin to burn, but that burn takes a long time and special care to heal.  And even in the best circumstances, it often forms a scar.

Now, the good news is that the woman decided to share the incident and rather than being dismissed and questioned, she was supported and believed.  It was treated seriously and while I don't know yet how it all will turn out, I have faith that appropriate action will be taken.

This is the sort of thing that is all too common.  I doubt that the man thought about it beyond the moment.  I'd even be willing to guess that while I suspect he uses such comments to discomfort other people, and also to elevate his own status, it's probably mostly unconscious.  It's a strategy that he has found to work and he doesn't think much about the impact it can have.  

The guy who hollers "Nice ass" at a woman isn't expecting her to turn around and proclaim her willingness to have sex with him.  He's showing off for his friends and doesn't think about her as more than an object for his banter.  Ditto for Internet comments and jokes at bars or while watching TV.  

But it's not just a men problem.  Women are also quick to dismiss and blame.  When Mayim Bialik wrote an article for the New York Times about her experiences as a woman in Hollywood, it ignited a backlash.  She talked about how she dressed modestly and didn't behave in a flirtatious manner and hadn't experienced the same kind of harassment as her prettier coworkers.  And it's true, women who aren't conventionally attractive don't get the invitations to sexual activity or unwanted touching, or at least, not to the same degree.  But we get our own brand of harassment.  Getting to overhear someone say that they'd rather masturbate than touch us, or how fat, disgusting and ugly we are is just as painful and demoralizing.  And, yes, sometimes there is a piece of us that wishes we were pretty enough to have to worry about it.  But not really, because no one enjoys being afraid and we're aware that we are still at risk.

But I think women tend to dismiss harassment for different reasons than men.  Often, I think women are trying to reassure themselves that the "rules" they rely on to protect themselves are still intact.  Don't be alone, don't get in the car, don't wear clothes that emphasize your body and attractiveness.  But in that reassurance, they isolate the victims/survivors and force them to share the blame for an attack which is already devastating.

I'm glad to see the #MeToo posts going viral.  I'm glad to see #IBelieveYou starting to trend as a response.  I hope that this will cause some real changes before it subsides into the next viral trend.

But as it continues, I keep circling back to that Bowie quote.  Because we all deserve to feel safe.  We all deserve to feel confident.  We all deserve to make our choices without fear of those choices causing us to be physically or verbally attacked.  So while I have great respect for both David Bowie and the concept he was expressing, I won't be using that quote as inspiration.  Because "safe" was the wrong word to use in that context and words matter.

Me too.  And I believe you.

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