Sexual harassment received worldwide attention when the #MeToo movement took off from Hollywood in October 2017. In a matter of weeks, famous men in different industries were being ousted from their perches for sexual improprieties obtained from or performed on people who were subordinated to them. These sexual predators used their positions of power and influence to get what they wanted without any regard to the pain and distress their acts caused their victims. The movement’s momentum was so significant that some people were afraid we could go overboard and destroy the old and harmless practice of flirting. I don’t want to get into the fine points of what is or isn’t sexual harassment. What is clearly unacceptable is when people with power or influence over the lives of others abuse that privilege to coerce sexual and other favours from them.
This is not to say that every allegation of sexual abuse is true or accurate. However, in most sexual abuse cases the victims are unwilling or unable to seek redress for various reasons: they fear retaliation, they are not sure if they themselves were partly to blame, they lack the ability to pursue the matter, or quite simply, they fear ridicule and further humiliation; all because these men have lots more power and money than they have. Hence, while people accused of wrong doing should be given due process to defend themselves, people should pause before they criticise and cast aspersions on the women who have come out with stories of being abused in the past, especially questioning why they had waited so long to do so. Most women would not claim to have suffered such humiliation if it wasn’t true, for the very act of admission brings with it a lot of personal pain. Most victims are only willing to go public when they have safety in numbers, which is why we often see many other victims of a perpetrator come forward once the culprit has been outed by one. There are also times when a victim confided in someone, a close friend or someone in authority, perhaps hoping that that someone would have the courage or ability to do something about it. The following is one such story.
It was more than 40 years ago. I was a young lieutenant in the air force in charge of a section in a school training aircraft mechanics. I had about a half dozen instructors and close to a hundred trainees under my command. There were others working in facilities under my charge although they were not under my direct command. One day, an attractive young lady (she was a private or a corporal) came into my office asking to speak privately to me. She was one of the soldiers working at one of my facilities. With others out of the office I asked her what she wanted. I can’t remember the details of what transpired, but I remember the issue well. She told me that her boss (also a lieutenant) had asked her for sexual favours in exchange for a request she had made. She was offended and wanted me to right this wrong. I remember feeling quite unsure of what to do. As an officer I made decisions all day long, but this was no ordinary matter. Her boss was a colleague, a nice guy, a friend. I knew him well. But here was a female soldier I hardly knew but whom I had some responsibilities for, standing in front of me, accusing my friend of sexual harassment and asking me to help her, presumably to report his egregious behaviour.
This was in the early 1970s when sexual harassment wasn’t such a well-known issue, and in my mind then not even a big deal. But I knew it was wrong of my colleague to do what he did to a subordinate soldier. I also knew I had to help a soldier who had come to me for help because the perpetrator was her superior and she needed me to overcome that disadvantage. But he was a friend! If I pursue the matter he could be fired, or worse. After all, he didn’t actually expose himself or molest or rape her; he was merely trying his luck. It was disproportionate to destroy a man for such a minor indiscretion. These had nothing to do with what’s right or wrong, merely confusing thoughts swirling in the head of a young officer whose moral compass hadn’t quite settled in the proper direction. It seemed an impossible choice – the need to help a subordinate against the grave impact it could have on a friend over something I did not believe at the time to warrant such drastic action.
I asked her what she wanted to do and she was determined to press the issue. I told her that I would speak to the commander of the unit and get back to her. Off I went to the commander’s office and told him the story. He was subdued and looked like it wasn’t something he needed, but I could tell he had the same conflicts going on in his head. Then he said that should she wish to press the issue, it would come to his word against hers. Would she be willing to go through all that with no guarantee of success? I thought that was a cop-out, but I had to admit, I wasn’t too disappointed with it.
I called for the lady soldier and basically repeated the commander’s words. She said coldly, “I knew it. You people always side with each other.” I remember those words because what she said stung me. It wasn’t because I was ashamed for not standing up to a sexual harasser. It was because I’d failed a subordinate soldier who had come to me for help thinking that I had the ability to do something she herself did not. She needed me and I let her down. All I did was confirmed her fear that I was like all the rest! What would she do if she confronted a similar experience in the future? Would she consider it a waste of time to complain to her boss or anyone else?
Why didn’t I take up her case and went after my colleague? Did I lack courage? Was I callous? Perhaps I was just another male chauvinist? I thought about that a lot lately. I believe it was my reluctance to destroy a friend for what I believed at the time to be a minor transgression. My empathy was misplaced; it should have been with the female soldier and not her superior officer. However, to be brutally honest, I don’t know if I would do the right thing should it happened again today. We all know what the right thing to do is, but what we actually and ultimately choose to do, when it is so close to home and has direct and personal consequences, we may never know until it is upon us.
So, have some sympathy for the sexually-abused victim who is trying to seek justice against her more powerful aggressor. The obstacles facing her may be insurmountable from her perspective.