Thoughts on life after the PhD
There are so many things to say about the Weinstein affair–about how we shouldn’t shame accusers for not coming forward sooner, about how this kind of behavior is not unique to the movie industry, about how equally powerful people who stood by and did nothing deserve a lot more criticism than victims who remained silent.
For my part, I’ve been remembering a time when something gross and scary happened to me, and how two male friends helped me in exactly the right way. It’s not anywhere near the same as dealing with a serial sexual predator in a position of power over you and others, but I still think it’s a good example of how to do the right thing when it’d be fairly easy to do the wrong thing.
Fifteen years ago I was in a bar with friends in Tokyo during the World Cup. A match had just ended (I don’t remember who was playing who), and people were in a good mood. I was chatting with a group of people, and a blond guy who looked to be about my age started talking to me.
It became obvious within about ten seconds that he was at that belligerent-but-not-incoherent stage of drunkenness, which I honestly find more annoying than just about any other type of drunkenness. He asked where I was from, and when I said Texas, he said something about the Houston Astros and how they sucked. I nodded and smiled and said I didn’t really follow sports. He called me a liar and said I had to know something about sports, I was from Texas. At that point I decided that the conversation was pointless, shrugged my shoulders in a “what’re you gonna do” way, and turned back to my group.
Belligerent asshole wasn’t having it. He cornered me a moment later when I was alone at the bar, leaning in super close to my face and saying “I’ve been talking to all kinds of people all night, and I don’t understand why you’re being so rude to me.” I very clearly moved away from him and said “Leave me alone,” and he whined “What’s wrong with you?” At this point another guy seemed to notice that he was being a dick and stepped between us, mercifully distracting the asshole and giving him someone else to rage at about how American women were such snobs (I think the asshole was Australian).*
I was on edge for the rest of the night, always checking to make sure that I knew where this guy was in the bar so that he couldn’t corner me again. When I decided to leave I did something that felt like overreacting (news flash: taking harassment seriously almost always feels like overreacting, we’ve been taught to brush it off). I told two of my guy friends that someone had been harassing me, and asked if they could please walk with me to the train station because I was worried the guy might follow me.
“Is it that guy standing over there and staring at you?” one friend said.
I glanced in the direction he was looking, where the asshole was indeed standing in a corner and glaring at me. I nodded. “Yeah.”
My friends didn’t miss a beat. They didn’t ask questions, they didn’t argue. They just said, “Okay, let’s go.”
We walked out of the bar together and the guy followed us from a distance. My friends walked with me to the train station and watched me go through the gates. My heart was pounding the whole way home. Later they told me that they’d stood in front of the ticket gates as the guy approached, and he, sufficiently deterred, walked away.
When I asked my friends for help, there were a few ways they could have screwed up. They could have questioned my reaction by saying something like “Are you sure?” or “Well, you know how people get when they’re drunk” or “He’s harmless.” They could have chuckled and acted as if I was being silly. They could have escorted me to the train station but acted as if the whole thing was being blown out of proportion.
They didn’t do any of those things. They believed me and they did exactly what I asked them to do. Which might seem really basic, but it’s amazing how often it doesn’t happen that way.
Here’s a more recent example: A few months ago I was on a Facetime call with my mother when an older friend of my stepfather (who I’d never met before) appeared in the frame and made some rather leer-y comments toward me. At the time I just laughed (I was shocked, and this is a typical reaction when you’re shocked, to laugh it off). I felt creepy about it all afternoon, though. When I told my husband about it later that night, he looked absolutely horrified and said “I’m sorry.”
Again, there were a few ways he could have screwed up in that moment. He could have laughed and made light of it. He could have asked questions that showed he doubted the truth of what I’d said. He could have said something about the guy being “harmless.” But from my perspective, he did exactly the right thing: he looked angry and disgusted, and he said he was sorry that it happened.
So, to all the good and decent men in my life who want to do the right thing when a woman tells you she’s being harassed, here’s a basic primer:
1) Listen and don’t interrupt.
2) If she asks for a specific type of help, give it.
3) If she doesn’t ask for help, tell her you’re sorry and ask her what you can do to help. (And mean it–don’t offer help if you don’t plan to follow through.)
As inconsequential as my story might seem compared to being physically assaulted or dealing with years of harassment from people in power, that night at the bar is still vivid in my mind fifteen years later. Thankfully, though, the most memorable thing about it is that I had not one but two good people around to make sure nothing worse happened. I wish more of Weinstein’s accusers had been so fortunate.
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