Sexual Harassment and a Creative Idea on How to Handle It

August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Feminist blogger and editor, Ann Friedman, wrote an essay in response to the firing of Oxford American editor, Marc Smirnoff, for sexual harassment.  She writes:

I used to have a very elaborate inside joke with a few other women in media. It was called The Island, and the narrative went like this: All of the editors we know to be sexual harassers or professional bullies are on a plane together, probably heading to some sort of “ideas festival,” when the plane goes down on a small island. There, they are forced to live out the rest of their days with only each other to harass. In their absence, the rest of us go on to remake the media industry into a creative, forward-thinking, gender-equitable paradise. Fin.

It was funny to picture this scenario, but also sort of a sad coping mechanism. We knew these dudes were too professionally powerful, too entrenched to really be held accountable for their behavior. The Island became a code for telling each other who was a good guy and who was a bad guy—which upper-masthead men actually wanted to mentor us, and which ones just wanted the thrill of having a cocktail with an attractive younger woman under the guise of professionalism: “Is he on The Island or not?” Or, “Watch out, that guy’s totally on The Island.”

Her essay reminded me of a story my mom told me before I went off to college. Years ago, when  my mom and her best friend were in their early twenties, they had a rating system for men that was code worded.  It wasn’t based on looks, but was more of a guide to whether or not a guy was a creep. Literally, did he give them the creeps? I can’t remember the details of the rating system, but I know it was based on food, and if someone seemed  super creepy they’d call him a hot dog.  So one of them would say something like, “Are you in the mood for hot dogs for lunch?”  and the other would say, “I’ve had enough of hot dogs to last a lifetime.” And that was all. They didn’t have to be secretive about it, because no one knew what they were talking about, and in their own way they were looking out for one another.

While my mom’s story isn’t necessarily about sexual harassment, it is about keeping your friends safe, and more specifically about sounding the warning bell for one another.  Friedman goes on to write about how sneaky and pervasive sexual harassment is,

Most of the time, sexual harassment is not easily verifiable, not obvious to outsiders. Sure, sometimes there are emails or—shudder—voicemails. Irrefutable proof. But mostly harassment is a series of seemingly minor infractions: a quick “joke” about your legs, lots of inquiries about your sex life, three compliments about your looks for every one compliment about your work, a creepy gaze, a lingering touch…You might have a bad feeling about a dude, but not quite be ready to call it harassment until it’s gone on for months. In other words, it creeps up on you. Creeps creep up on you.

Exactly. So what does Friedman suggest? She suggests someone, or somebodies, work on developing a space where these harassers can be called out. A space where users are anonymous, but vetted and can share their knowledge. A space where those who have been harassed, can sound the warning bell.

I encourage you to read the rest of Friedman’s excellent essay, it isn’t long, but it is one of the best statements I’ve read on sexual harassment in a long, long time.  And, if you or someone you know is experiencing sexual harassment, there are resources at Georgia Tech to support you, for more information visit the WRC website or call 404-385-0230.


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