There are many ways to unpack the sexual harassment incidents which are blanketing the news these days. I’d like to explore one angle and then generalize to other areas of life.
In almost every harassment case, Person A is telling or asking Person B to do something. The question which comes up for me is, “does Person B have the wherewithal to say no, without harmful consequences?”
“Let me massage you.” “I want to touch your thigh.” “Can I masturbate in front of you?”
In each case, Person A wants Person B to do something: receive a massage; receive a touch; be present while he or she does a sexual act.
Does Person B have the power to say no? What are the forces standing in the way of Person B saying no? (This question to me is very important, and deserves a deep dive at another time.)
I can imagine many instances where I want someone to tell me what to do. For example, suppose I want to build a home. If there is a master carpenter on the premises, I want him or her to tell me what to do, because I don’t know anything about carpentry. “Hold this plank here. Hit this nail with a hammer.” Etc. I want to be guided, taught, led, and told what to do.
And — I want the freedom and autonomy to be able to say “stop.” “I’m tired. I’ve had enough today. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
If I don’t have the freedom and autonomy to say no, without harmful consequences, then I am nothing more than a slave.
It should be clear that the medium with which the directive message is delivered is not significant: “Go to the store and buy a quart of milk” can be transmitted verbally, via email, text, fax, or carrier pigeon. As long as the communication technology doesn’t have harmful side effects, it is irrelevant: the same consent issue applies — do I have the freedom, autonomy and power to say yes or no?
A significant phrase in this dialogue is “without harmful consequences.”
If I say no in any given circumstance, there will always be consequences of one kind or another. If my significant other asks me to buy a quart of milk, and I say no, 1) we may not have milk for a while, 2) I might get yelled at, 3) my lover might be so upset with me that when I invite her to make love later in the evening, she will say no, and on and on…. Some of these consequences may be assessed by me as negative or harmful. But are they debilitating? Are they deal breakers? Can I live with the consequences? If so, will I be living with lasting or deep injury? How much “harm” can I endure? These are very personal questions, and in my life, they tend to be moving targets. Again, each of these questions deserves more air time.
I can’t help thinking about a million movies I’ve seen. “If you don’t stay in my underground laboratory and build my widget, I’ll have your wife and children murdered.” It seems reasonable to postulate that most people would consider these consequences bad and intolerable. I ask myself, “what wouldn’t I do to ensure the safety of my loved ones?”
So when Person A tells Person B what to do, we need to zoom out and look at the context within which the request is being made. We need to identify the structures which exist around the request. And we need to notice these structures are not random or accidental. Someone somewhere is creating the context; someone somewhere is making the consequences happen. Depending on the complexity of the situation, it may be hard to decode who is doing what to whom. But in the realms of human affairs, it’s never random, and it’s never accidental.
I hypothesize that one reason the sexual harassment incidents are resonating so intensely with so many people right now is that all of us, all of us, every one of us, find ourselves from time to time saying yes when we in fact want to say no.