The Moments that Matter
On sexual harassment and speaking up and the way we look out for each other and a future with less #metoo.
The first time I witnessed it in New York City, I was on a subway platform in Midtown.
An almost-certainly-employed, well-dressed, adult man spotted an attractive woman in tight pants walking toward him. He froze in his tracks and then turned 180 degrees to watch her walk by.
He stood that way, body contorted, for several seconds before loudly hollering, “Daaaamn, girl. Don’t be shy!”
The woman, now fifteen yards away, turned and gave him a look of disgust.
He chuckled proudly.
And I walked away.
I WALKED AWAY.
As I walked away, I thought about the things I wished I had said.
What the hell, guy?
What’s your problem, man?
Where are your manners, sir?!
(I’m from Nebraska)
I couldn’t get it out of my head. Did this guy have no respectable women in his life? Did his mother leave him in a bassinet on the doorstep of a fraternity house? And what was his goal?! What was the best possible outcome in that scenario?
Nearly half a mile later, the mental image of that woman had become my 33-year-old sister, and my tone shifted.
“Hey, asshole!” became “Nice try, you lonely, miserable pervert.” And eventually, “Why don’t you shut your f***ing mouth, you human trash pile!”
I got angry — and maybe over-fantisized the part where we grappled on top of the train and then I threw his body off into the darkness — but I thought a lot about what I could’ve done differently. And I prepared myself for what I would do the next time.
Weeks later, while walking out of the subway in Tribeca, I saw another seemingly-professional man in his mid-forties intentionally step back on the stairs to let a woman in a dress walk past him so he could follow her from a better angle.
Again, I watched the eyebrows go up. And again, I was not alone in hearing, “God daaaamn.”
The fire returned instantly.
“HEY!” I shouted.
He turned toward me.
For a moment, time stood still. (All of that “asshole” talk was a lot easier without a steely pair of I’ll-wear-your-skin-like-a-sweater eyes starring back at me.)
“What are you doing?!” I asked.
“What?” he replied dully.
“That’s somebody’s daughter, man.” I said like a character from That 70’s Show.
But it was enough.
He took a step closer to me, huffed in my face, and then walked away. Pissed off but too caught off guard to know what to do about it.
I spent the rest of the walk to work questioning my own actions.
Was I willing to die playing social justice superhero for a stranger? Making a point that probably won’t stick to a pinhead of a man? Would it even matter?
This week, I’ve realized how much it matters.
This week, I’ve heard friends and loved ones recount their own painful stories. About bad bosses, bad coworkers, and bad friends. About butt grazes, unwanted advances, roofies, and rape. About people who pretended not to know.
(Pretending not to know, by the way, or even choosing not to speak up is the same as letting it happen. And letting it happen is giving it permission to happen again.)
There’s no form of sexual harassment that is okay or not-a-big-deal. No situation that anyone gets to justify. And it’s on all of us to make that known. Men in particular.
If it looks like a Weinstein, swims like a Cosby, and quacks like an O’Reilly… then it’s a problem.
If it touches you inappropriately, invites you to watch it shower, or asks you to keep quiet, then it should be in jail.
And if it we witness those moments and we don’t make them matter, then we’re part of the problem.
It’s going to take a whole bunch of us getting our asses kicked on the subway platform before things change. Before it becomes more expected to say something. Before bullies and bigots worry that someone might be watching. Before what currently passes as acceptable becomes completely unacceptable. But every one of us has a voice and the power to challenge it. That’s where it starts.
It might even be as simple as shouting, “HEY!”