#MeToo — It Doesn’t Only Happen to Women
The recent avalanche of #MeToo recollections has kicked me back in time to my salad days, more than 40 years ago, when a much older, closeted male boss asked me to perform oral sex on him. Despite its probable frequency, male-on-male sexual predation in business settings is rarely talked about these days even as the barriers that obscured so many women’s stories are finally starting to come down. What’s more important to me, though, is the larger context of all these stories. Why do so many of these heartless abuses of power occur in the first place, where sexual favors are demanded from the powerless? And how could we re-engineer our basic social and employment contracts to make that appalling behavior less common?
But first, the squalid details of my own experience, details that are required by our new empowering, if sometimes uncomfortable, rite as we try to disinfect our society by illuminating sexual harassment so brightly it can no longer be ignored.
On the details , beyond the fact it was a male boss who put the unwelcome make on me, my story is, as we all know now, all-too-typical and only noteworthy, perhaps, because of its startling resemblance to the modus operandi Weinstein. That recent realization was made apparent to me by the scores of Harvey stories now circulating and leaves me wondering if these jerks have all read the same Guide to Clumsy and Idiotic Sexual Predation or something.
About four decades ago, when I was in my late teens, I had just started work in an entry level position at an organization led by a married man with children when I got a call from the boss, whom I barely knew, asking me to bring some papers to his home, where he said he was resting up with a sore back. (I won’t name the guy or the organization here, he is long dead, the organization defunct, and such a revelation would at this stage shame only his blameless children). When I arrived, my boss greeted me in his bathrobe. He was super friendly, at least at first. Rather than simply accept the papers I handed him, he invited me in. He made a point of mentioning that no one else was home (radar malfunction, why should that have mattered to me?) and said it would be a good time for us to get to know one another (did I even have any radar? I mean, the guy was in a bathrobe!). I don’t remember much about the conversation other than that after a few minutes he asked if I would give him a massage. I do remember (again, naïve beyond measure) that his request made me uneasy, but had me more puzzled at that stage than anything else. I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. Believe it or not, I think I mumbled something about not knowing how to give a proper massage. I had no idea what was happening. So I was, quite literally, dumbfounded by what happened next. He moved on to a far more overt sexual overture by proceeding to tell me in excruciatingly explicit detail exactly how another worker had moved up in the organization by pleasing him. (I’ll keep the additional details to myself, I have a child who may read this some day). When I finally, quite belatedly, grasped what was going on (he practically had to spell it out for me) my fight or flight impulse suddenly took over (with perhaps a touch of homophobia, as well, it is fair to say. Generally speaking, I didn’t know much about sexuality of any sort at the time). I leapt up from where we were sitting and without saying another word or looking back I literally bolted from my boss’s house, sprinted out the door and ran full out to my vehicle without even closing the door behind me.
When I got back to the job site I remember feeling dazed, panicked, and confused, wondering if what had happened had actually happened. On my desk there already was a pink “While You Were Out” slip from the boss asking me to call him back immediately. Before I could figure out what to do next he was on the line, saying something like: “Nothing happened. Nothing happened! I have no idea why you ran out of here like that. You still have a good future with our organization. Just remember that nothing happened.”
I told several people what had happened but I think only my Mom, bless her sweet heart and memory, believed me, or was willing to admit to believing me. Powerless, broke without that paycheck, I moved on. I know millions of women, and at least some men, too, have made similar moves for decades, centuries I suppose, not because we wanted to but because we had to keep moving to find a safe place. I know just a little something about that forced march. It’s way past time to put an end to it.
But there is also a less talked about and in some ways far more insidious way that many men, particularly young men, are victimized by our global, predominately male culture of sexual predation. That phenomenon is so common it usually goes unremarked but is also worth noting here, too.
Pervasive Sexual Predation in the Workplace
Another true story: when I was about 19 or 20, I visited the H.R. office of a major local high-tech firm to apply for an entry level position after hearing they were hiring (it may have even been when I was fleeing the employer mentioned above, I’m not sure). I made the visit with a friend from high school, a very attractive young woman who liked to wear what we called Hot Pants back then, a revealing garment that was essentially the tight black leggings of its day. She was, as they say, quite easy to look at, especially for sex-hungry men. We both filled out the very same employment application on the same day, seeking the same positions.
On paper, I was far more qualified. Although neither one of us had a college degree, I had been a student body president, had been working pretty much fulltime since the age of 14 as a result of being raised in a single parent family on welfare and food stamps, was attending community college at night getting good grades, was living on my own, and had already published a few essays in local newspapers. She had never had a job outside of babysitting, which she listed on her application, was still living at home, and was primarily known, at least in our small circle of friends, for her skill at a drinking game that involved bouncing quarters into a glass of beer.
Some time later, I got a little form letter post card from the firm that said something like: “We’re sorry, but your skills and experience are not a good match for our open positions at present but we will be sure to keep your application on file and contact you in the event the situation changes.” In other words, don’t call us, we’ll call you. Before the Internet, employers used to send out cards like that to everyone who applied.
Not long after, I ran into my female friend and found out that she had been hired almost immediately, within a week of applying, as an “administrative assistant” or “office assistant” or something like that. My friend tried to console me: “Don’t feel bad,” she told me, “all the positions like mine are filled by women. They don’t hire guys for those jobs.” Within a few years, she had married one of her supervisors and started having kids, who’ve long since graduated college, I imagine.
We know now what I did not know then: that good-looking young guys (I’m citing my Mom’s view here, feel free to form your own opinion) are at a significant disadvantage in the job market because older male bosses feel threatened by them. The alpha males don’t want any competition around.
I ended up going back to my job in a pizza parlor where I sliced onions and pepperoni most of the time and later got a job stocking shelves at Walgreens Drug store. At one point, I got help from an excellent federal job-training program (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, CETA). When I applied for CETA assistance the form asked me about my career goal. I was supposed to write down my desired eventual occupation. Instead, I wrote down “I want a job where I can sit down” because by then I was plagued with painful leg cramps from standing up during most of my waking hours. I’m not sure, I might have had it a bit easier, at least in some respects, if I had looked good in hot pants. Or maybe not. The CETA program placed me in a job in the county government center, where I met some of the mentors who helped me find my way.
It’s Not About Sex, It’s About Power
The point is these stories are not primarily about sex. They are about power. And often, they are about ugly men trying to obtain by coercion what they can’t get from volunteers. In a larger sense, these stories are also about men who have been corrupted by power. In fact, during my decades as a reporter, I often encountered obsequious employees too terrified to talk about wrongdoing by their employers or the companies they worked for. I usually chalked it up to them not wanting to lose their paychecks. But sometimes, I wondered if any of those cowed workers had said yes where I had said no.
More than two centuries ago, the dictum that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” informed the authors of our wonderful if imperfect U.S. constitution and led them to craft a system that carefully and deliberately balances power between three different centers of influence (legislature, judiciary, and executive) precisely to avoid the catastrophic abuses of power that had scarred all previous human history.
And that is my main point (and if you have read this far, thank you, I’m just getting to it now). Telling our stories won’t make these abuses stop. Naming and shaming may make us feel good and it may take a few well-known predators out of the game (g’bye Harvey, Roger, and Bill, here’s hoping some more major Silicon Valley schmoes join you soon). But the pattern of abuses will continue unabated as long as our workplaces have huge power imbalances that invite ugly men to treat women, and powerless men who are perceived as competitive threats, with such callous cruelty.
That’s one major reason some of the work I am doing these days means so much to me. It is work that flows from my own personal experience in the workplace over many years.
Put simply, we are creating and developing strategies to sustain new worker and member-owned business co-ops where power is shared more equitably and where governance decisions are made using processes that are more open, transparent, and democratic. It is a strategy tailored to address inequities in the so-called “gig economy” and one that is also specifically designed to redress powerlessness in the workplace, including longstanding patterns of racism, gender, age, and religious discrimination, and to push back on the marginalization of the rights of all workers. We’re having our third annual conference in New York in just a few weeks (November 10–11, 2017). Registration to join us costs just $25.
Because as the founders of our country knew, it is not enough to simply shame those who act as if they have a divine right to rule over us and to control our bodies. We must take their power away.
The views expressed are solely those of the author.