Friendship after sexual harassment

It’s complicated. No question it was sexual harassment, but I dealt with it assertively and put it down. The problem came later when we talked about it, and later still when I worked through it for lessons on how to protect myself.

He was one of my early professional mentors, a divorced man 20+ years older who recognized my aptitude and steered me onto a promising career path. Our freelance projects often had us working late nights with lots of time to talk, and we came to know each other fairly well. Enough that we shared a genuine mutual affection until the day he died.

He accepted a new job in another state. We had dinner together on his last night in town, and I offered him my guest room after learning he planned to stay the night in a cheap motel. He brought with him a bottle of Jack Daniels, which I did not share. Around midnight he asked to sleep with me. “In your dreams,” I said. We laughed about it. But then asking became pleading became begging became negotiating.

His persistence made me uncomfortable. I didn’t feel truly threatened because I knew he was a good person. But I felt vulnerable — that Jack Daniels was a wild card. Around 3am I finally persuaded him to go to bed in the guest room. I wedged a chair against my bedroom door and slept in my clothes. He was gone when I got up, on the road to his new job.

We stayed in touch, but the next few years were super busy for both of us. Then he called one night for one of our epic discussions that eventually drifted to the news of the day — Anita Hill. He wanted to believe her, he said, but didn’t see how she could follow Clarence Thomas to another job if he’d really harassed her. I replied along the lines of, “Well … our friendship survived three hours of you not taking no for an answer.”

His demeanor changed instantly. It hurt and angered him to hear me define his behavior as sexual harassment. I was angry too, not for what he’d done that night, but that he couldn’t see how Anita Hill had exercised her own agency to choose the course that was best for her, just as I had chosen to look past that night and remain friends. You may recall the popular refrain at the time: “Men just don’t get it.” His attitude was disappointing proof of that.

Our friendship faltered, but only subtly. We never talked about that night again, but I knew my words had given him a lot to chew on, and I believe it led him to meaningful introspection. For my part, I’d put a lot of faith into the belief that my fortitude and self-confidence would protect me. In reality, I was protected that night only because he finally gave up. I came to realize that, no matter how many precautions women take against sexual assault and harassment, our safety and well-being depends largely on men policing themselves.

Like many of you, I have lots of creepy “ME TOO” stories. Unwanted kisses, leering catcalls, groping at a crowded concert. Not all “creeps” who do these sorts of things are open to enlightenment. I believe however that many men are potential allies, and that our best hope is for someone they care about to confront them in a “teachable moment.”

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