“When you’re a star, they let you do it.” — Donald Trump, 2005
It begs some questions:
- Who counts as a star? A billionaire, a boss, a cool guy on the football team, some kid 3 years older than you, a more experienced colleague, a teacher, a student?
- What do they let you do? Verbally harass, grope, sexually assault, humiliate them online, hide your relationship?
- What message does silent acceptance of sexual harassment and sexual assault send to victims and children?
These are questions I ponder everyday. I read the news and can’t not see the stories about Harvey Weinstein who harassed, groped, and assaulted apparently dozens of women, or about Rep. Tim Murphy who recently resigned amid reports that, while publicly pro-life, he pressured his mistress to get an abortion. Or I simply see the president in any given story and shake my head that someone who boasts about grabbing women “by the pussy” (disclaimer to anyone offended by this: that’s just “locker room” talk, so please don’t let my frank use of the president’s own language bother you) is allowed to execute the laws of our land. Oh, and don’t forget that one of our nine Supreme Court justices was accused of gross sexual harassment by his former aide and law professor Anita Hill. She was roundly attacked, but he was confirmed.
I also can’t avoid reading the personal essays I assign in my 12th grade English class. Every year I read stories of harassment, molestation, and rape.
I can’t un-experience unwanted physical advances from a professor who arranged to have me work with him in an isolated rural foreign location.
I can’t un-feel the adrenaline and surge of speed that pushes me along hiking trails when I sense someone close behind me.
I can’t ignore my two young daughters who are still carefree enough to run naked in the yard or at the beach, for whom I too often turn down the hourly NPR news report.
I can’t become male for a day to find out if, as such, students and colleagues at the school where I’ve worked for 12 years would treat me with greater respect. I know I’m not alone among female teachers who have experienced intimidation and harassment from my own male students: lewd comments, whispering, snickering, whistling, gesturing. I’m surely not alone among female teachers in feeling conflicted about how to react. One voice says, “Ignore it. Don’t escalate.” Another voice says, “No one speaks to me that way. This is as teachable as a moment gets.” But too often the voice of appeasement and expediency wins, “You’ve been here before. If you call him out right now, be ready to suffer publicly.”
And I know that if I, an adult feminist with some actual power in my role as a teacher, feel this conflicted at times, my own teenage students must feel truly powerless.
So I think about power and consent and prevention daily. Do my male colleagues and father counterparts? I want to believe with utter confidence that my own daughters and students will have the language, confidence, self-defense skills, and presence of mind to stop someone who intends to grab, intimidate, harass, or rape them or, on the other hand, to advocate for someone who is being intimidated, harassed, or assaulted. Do men and parents of boys wonder if they will have the language, confidence, and presence of mind to treat others with respect and dignity?
Unfortunately, it seems for now that we’ve decided this is just a “women’s issue.” In spite of glaring data (1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 6 men are victims of contact sexual violence at some point in their lives; more than half experience sexual harassment in the workplace) and outrageous reports about men in power who dismiss sexual harassment and assault as behavior excusable in the “60s and 70s” we somehow haven’t come out and decided to claim this as a public health epidemic as serious or deadly as the measles or mumps. Your immunizations better be up to date if you want to enter a public school. But your basic awareness of consent? We might be wise to ask who’s carrying the disease. Right now we treat women as the carriers, the ones who must speak up and bravely say #metoo. Hmmm.
This need not be the case. On Kauai where I live and work, our local YWCA has a dedicated sexual violence prevention educator who is engaging, sharp, dedicated, and downright amazing at her job. She has curricula developed with the Sex Abuse Treatment Center of Hawaii and aligned with Hawaii Health Education Standards that is geared to every age group from preschool to postsecondary. She and the organization have worked tirelessly to share this free learning opportunity with schools. Every year more students are exposed to this essential information. Still, there are principals and institutions in our community that are fearful of welcoming such education.
We are absolutely missing opportunities to discuss this issue explicitly and carefully with kids because we, men and women alike, are afraid.
The fact is that boys, girls, men, and women need to all feel, if not comfortable, at least capable of discussing sexual harassment and assault. We must have the same understanding of and language to convey and recognize consent. We must practice speaking this apparently foreign language as we might in preparation for a quick trip abroad. Language empowers, silence incapacitates.
It’s easy to think of Trump and Weinstein as the uber-offender-overpowering-men who get away with sexual harassment and assault. They have so much power and fame that, well, of course… But, let’s face it, to a young child or adolescent or woman just trying to get through the day, maybe everyone but herself is a star.
Erin Medeiros is a 12th grade AP English Literature & Composition teacher at Kauai High School and a Hope Street Group Hawaii State Teacher Fellow. She is focused this year on establishing the school’s Peer Mediation program and improving the lives of women and children as a board member of the YWCA of Kauai.
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