Making Sense of #MeToo, Part 2
This is a continuation of my last post: Making Sense of #MeToo, Part 1
Another thing that has been thrown around a lot by #MeToo advocates is that victims of sexual assault, harassment, and even those less heinous sexual infractions are traumatized by their experiences. There’s no doubt that some things are inherently traumatizing – rape, assault of any kind, being the victim of violence. On the other side of things, being publically shamed, or losing one’s job or career can also be traumatizing, though perhaps some people deserve that trauma. There have been others who have argued that that you can’t really put a degree on trauma and that all trauma for victims of sexism is equal. In this view, it doesn’t really matter whether someone was raped or traumatized because another person got a little handsy or flashed out his privates.
I can’t buy that for a number of reasons. The main thing is that trauma is subjective and individual. What traumatizes one person might not phase another. I think emotional trauma is often caused by the crossing of one’s own individual issues and boundaries by another person. It can’t always be predicted, and sometimes the offender is an external mirror of one’s own shadow and subconscious fears. I had a co-worker once who was traumatized by the thought that the folks mowing grass outside on riding mowers were chasing her. I suppose they could have been, but they were likely just a little reckless and going the same direction. If our legal system saw all traumas to victims of crime as the same, someone might get the death penalty for jaywalking. Our courts of law weigh the trauma of the victims along with the rights of the accused and the severity of the crime.
I’m not a woman so I can’t weigh in on women’s experiences of sexism in our society, but I am a gay man and I can draw some parallels with my own experiences of homophobia. I don’t weigh all instances of homophobia as the same, nor can I say that all instances of homophobia were inherently traumatizing. Ironically, “innocent” uninformed homophobia from family, friends, and loved ones might have been more traumatizing for me than incidents that involved threats of violence. I once had my life threatened for being gay by a group of men standing outside my car with tire irons. That’s been far less traumatic for me than some friends I’ve lost because of their anti-gay religious beliefs. That doesn’t mean I believe these former friends should be publically shamed for being party to a homophobic religion, though perhaps the religion itself should be. I’m not even sure the guys with the tire irons should be shamed 30 or so years later. After all these years, I’d like to hope that both the guys with tire irons and the former friends have evolved on these issues and become more tolerant. I guess if they were still chasing LGBT folks with tire irons or if they were running for public office on a platform of hate that might be different.
This might be a good time to bring up my own story of being on the wrong side of a harassment claim. I’ve told this story before in my podcast in an episode on ageism in the gay community. I had just turned 30 and had been working for only two, maybe three, years as a staff person for the university where I graduated. I’d also been heavily involved in the gay student group on campus as a student and upon returning as a staff person I’d gotten back involved in the LGBT community on campus including showing my support for the student group. There was this guy in the group that I developed a sincere attraction toward. I’ll call this guy John. I made the mistake of mentioning my interest to another guy (I’ll call him Mike) who was involved with the group, and asking if he’d help set me up on a date with John. Mike was a graduate student and he was appalled because there was an age gap between me and John. Apparently all older gay men who are interested in younger ones are predators or so seemed to go the narrative going around at the time. This narrative was also used to shut down talks of an LGBT mentoring program. All the younger gay men needed to be protected from the older ones. To put this into perspective, I was 30 and John was in his early 20s. John was of legal age and at worst a decade younger than I was. When I was his age, I dated men in their late 20s and early 30s. The ironic thing was that Mike was dating a faculty member who was probably 20 or 30 years his senior, though I’m under the impression they started dating before coming to the University. After I let Mike know I was interested in John, I started feeling less and less welcome at events, some things I was doing for the group like updating their web page were pulled from me, and John’s friends seemed to block any efforts I made to just try to get to know him better.
Things got even more complicated when I wanted to go to an LGBT conference with the student group that was taking place in a faraway city. I was denied transportation with the group in the bus they were taking so I ended up driving the entire 700 mile trip on my own to attend the conference. I’d see John here and there and usually I got a smile and a friendly hello. At one event he even sat down across from me and we had a friendly conversation. I knew that he knew that I was interested. I had sent him a few e-mails enquiring about going out sometime. As someone kind of shy and awkward, e-mail was my preferred method of communication. I know I didn’t say anything lewd or make any kind of sexual references. That’s always seemed a bit crude to me, and I was interested in dating and not just sex. The e-mails and other messages were never answered so I didn’t know whether he was being coy, not interested, or if he was just a person who didn’t check e-mail. Looking back, I can see that I was somewhat persistent, but I don’t believe I did anything inherently wrong. I felt like his friends might have been pressuring him not to interact with me, but I don’t know whether or not he was actually interested. He never said he wasn’t and never himself implied that I was bothering him. I totally admit that I’m terrible about reading people.
The crashing culmination to this story was when I was called in to talk with someone at the Human Resources Department at the college. The resource officer repeatedly talked down at me for having an interest in a student, despite the fact that I was literally only a few years from being a student myself. At the same time, despite the harsh condemnation, she affirmed a number of times that I’d done nothing wrong. I wasn’t in a supervisory position over the student. I hadn’t forced myself on him. I hadn’t said or done anything inappropriate sexually. She justified her condemnation by saying that the college looks down on relationships between staff and students. Things might be different at an isolated rural college, but at an urban institution where there is so much overlap between the university and the community that doesn’t even seem a reasonable thing to say. It’s very common for staff to have spouses, family, and friends who attend as students. Our college has a number of older and non-traditional and returning students. There are also plenty of opportunities for folks to meet in the outside community and then discover that one person is staff and another person a student. Such condemnation would be different if one party was a professor or supervisor and the other party was a student in their class or an employee under their supervision. None of this applied to me.
The thing about this situation is, if John had simply been upfront and direct, if he had told me in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t interested, I would have moved on. Perhaps I was expected to be a mind reader or to pick up on unspoken signals. Aside from not being good at that in the first place, this situation was complex and I do feel at times I got mixed signals from John, even if his circle of friends seemed hostile toward me.
This experience was extremely traumatic for me. I felt humiliated and shamed. After all these years, I have the maturity to understand that ultimately it was miscommunication between me and John that led to the event, and I have enough respect for him (and even his close circle of friends) to change their names for this post.
It was after this that I dropped out of all my involvements with the LGBT community on campus and even off campus. It was over a decade before I’d even went back to a gay bar or gay event. Even now, I probably err too far on the side of caution by rarely asking anyone out at all. I have a friend who frequently suggests “what’s the worse” that could happen if I ask someone out that I’m interested in, that maybe they’d say “no.” I know it can get far worse than that.
As someone who’s introverted, socially awkward, and a little geeky, I also know the toll it takes on one’s self-esteem to be rejected on a regular basis by people I’ve taken a romantic interest in. For many this could lead to desperate attempts to get their emotional and sexual needs met. While I’ve never forced myself on anyone sexually, I do admit that in my past (especially in my 20s) there were many awkward attempts to win someone over that I’m not especially proud of. Mostly I was just overly persistent because I bought into those movies about the socially awkward guy winning his love interest in the end. Sometimes I let my imagination run loose when trying to impress someone (Justin, I’m not really a Timelord… or am I?). And because of my shyness, there were lots of notes and e-mails expressing my interest, often before I’d developed a real connection with the person I was interested in.
I guess what I’m really trying to suggest in this post is that people are human on all sides of this issue. We all have potential for trauma, and it’s not always rational. And sometimes the real issue is miscommunication and differences in expectations.
To be continued…