The first time I was sexually harassed was at the age of 11. Someone was driving by and yelled something at me, I can’t remember the phrase they used, but they essentially called me a slut. I was shocked. I told my mother, who suggested that I look at what I was wearing that day. I remember thinking that she had always vetted my outfits before I was allowed to leave the house, and that, if it was the outfit that was the problem, then she was responsible. After that day, I encountered countless situations where overt sexual innuendos were hurled at me by passing vehicles, by strangers on the street, by fellow high school students, and even by friends. I had numerous physical interactions which were unwelcome and non-consensual, including being groped, grabbed, etc. I’ve had male friends joke about raping me, or rate various parts of my body in terms of attractiveness to them and then chastise me for being unable to take a joke when I objected strongly. I’ve had individuals become very hostile when I declined an invitation to a relationship.
I’ve been harassed in workplaces, in high school, in churches, on the streets, in the homes of friends, and when out with friends.
I’ve experienced anger at those who harassed me, those who stood by, those who sometimes blamed me for others’ bad behaviour, and those who justified the behaviour of others. These days, I find myself lacking any patience for this kind of behaviour and tend to shut down anything that smells like harassment pretty quickly – sometimes even when it’s directed at another person. You might say that I’m fairly sensitive to this type of thing. This comes from years of experiencing it. At present, I have very little fear in my day-to-day life. I feel confident in who I am and generally feel respected by the people in my life and by people I encounter on a daily basis. I rarely get harassed. I know I am lucky and that this luck may not hold forever. I am also aging and this has served to increase my invisibility in contexts where I have previously been harassed. In my line of work I talk to women and teens on a regular basis about their experiences of harassment, abuse, and assault. I am all too aware of how little progress we have made in curbing this, since I was younger and felt more vulnerable to it. It infuriates me.
When I think of my own experience, of the experience of women and teens that I speak to, and about the experiences I’m hearing about in the news, I often ask, “Why?” Why do these individuals continue to enact such harmful behaviour? I find that in discussion with others, people often feel very uncomfortable with anything more than a one line explanation that essentially explains the perpetrators behaviour as being based on their inherent ‘badness’ or overall lack of morale.
Many people feel that exploring the reasons men sexually harass others might just give more excuses for perpetrators to avoid taking responsibility for their own behaviours…
…and that they will not be held accountable for their actions. There is also a fear that somehow the blame will end up circling back to the victim who will be re-victimized, yet again, and that, if the perpetrator hasn’t already come up with ‘reasons’ or ‘excuses’ for their behaviour, we will simply be feeding their sense of entitlement. I think these are all valid fears which have been played out, far too often, in current and historical settings.
I think the distinction between my feelings about human nature and most discussions I hear around me, has to do with judging the intentions of others. I find that peoples’ intentions are generally to survive at a physical, emotional, and psychological level. And that they do the best they can with the information and experiences they’ve had, at that time.
People live with rage, anxiety, insecurities, bitterness, and grief, and work hard to calm those feelings through their daily actions. Sometimes these actions ruin, or even end the lives of others.
I believe that people should be held responsible for their actions and, depending on my role and the situation, I will take steps to ensure that they are held accountable for their actions and/or prevented from doing further harm.
Years ago I read a book called Dancing With a Ghost by Rupert Ross*, a Canadian judge who writes about his experience of learning about Indigenous world-view and language. He speaks about the difference between the way we talk about people who commit crimes in English and how they are described in various Indigenous languages. In English we use titles such as criminal, thief, rapist or pedophile as if this encompasses the whole of this person’s identity. In Indigenous languages a person convicted of a particular crime would be called, “the person who did ____ that one (or many) time(s).”
In this way, Indigenous languages recognize that humans are made up of many characteristics and can hold more than one characteristic, simultaneously.
This has been my experience of individuals I’ve known or worked with who have done things that have harmed others. Many injustices are done when individuals are held 100% responsible for the actions they have done without consideration of context. Think of the hungry youth whose hand was amputated for stealing bread in medieval times. Think of the woman whose children were taken from her because they could not afford groceries. In these cases, society and those in power, who created the impoverished situations through greed, racism, displacement and sexism, were let completely off the hook and the individuals took all blame. This is unjust.
In cases where a powerful, wealthy, famous, seemingly narcissistic individual is charged with a crime against a less powerful individual, we want the offender to take full responsibility for his actions. This feels like it will bring balance.
But when these types of situations come up over and over again, I have to believe that this is a systemic problem and that ONLY holding the individual responsible will not solve it.
Maybe, holding a whole bunch of individuals responsible will shift the culture of sexual harassment but I suspect there is more to it than just a collection of individuals. I do not want to remove responsibility from those who have, against all odds, been finally held accountable. There are far too many stories of harm being left unacknowledged and responsibility never being taken, or wrongly attributed. This is injustice. I do not want this to continue.
However, even when one person is held accountable for their actions and prevented from repeating harm to others, many others are completely “let off the hook.” Those who stood aside in apathy are let off the hook, those who promote these idea of “women as inferior,” those who promote entitlement among boys and men are let off the hook, those who continue to advertise toxic masculinity are also let off the hook. This leaves us all vulnerable to experiencing the same harm over and over again.
So how do we hold society, systems, bystanders and others responsible?
This is complicated. We are an individualistic society. We like to find the “bad apple” and throw it away, instead of considering that the whole tree might be diseased and require treatment. We have not developed very good processes for holding entire systems or society accountable.
When we do speak of holding people responsible for bad behaviour, we are often talking about punitive action.
Many of us, no matter what our political leanings, are attracted to punitive action. We want jail time, we want fines, we want restrictions.
Some dream of torture and capital punishment as responses that feel justifiable and satisfying depending on the crime. This is not the universal response to behavior causing harm to others. Our justice system is a clone of European systems, which are built on Protestant Christianity. The “eye for an eye” concept, which, by the way is based on a part of the bible, (the Old Testament) which Christian theology claims is no longer relevant, since Jesus’ death on the cross was supposed to have made the Old Testament obsolete. More recently, the continued use of punitive measures have been connected with ideas about behaviour modification, originally theorized by B.F. Skinner.
Aside from the fact that punitive measures are not actually based on “good” Christian theology (in other words, it contradicts stated Christian theology) and BF Skinner’s work has been noted to have many limitations when it comes to human behaviour (See Too Many Carrot and Sticks for more on this) then what are we basing this system on?
Statistics tell us that our justice system has terrible outcomes. If we are setting out to keep society safe by incarcerating individuals, then the fact that people, more likely than not, commit more, and worse crimes upon being released from prison shows that prison is not keeping society safe, only producing worse prisoners. Some feel that stricter punishments and longer sentences would prevent more crime. Take a quick look at US statistics where the number of citizen incarcerated outstrips many non-democratic countries and capital punishments and harsh sentencing prevails, and you’ll see that their crime rates are very high. Clearly, statistics are not why we keep looking to punitive measures for social change.
I’ll ask the question again,
How do we hold a society responsible for the harms it has done to women, to men, to children, to Indigenous people, and to people in the LGBTQ+ community, if we cannot put everyone in jail.
In Judith Hermans’ book on Trauma and Recovery she speaks about the harm done when a person loses control of what is happening to them or to those around them. She speaks about therapeutic recovery happening when control is restored.
When thinking about justice in our society, many victims of crimes note that the criminal process does not often bring healing with it.
This system doesn’t seem to really work for anyone.
I look to concepts of restorative justice for solutions. In restorative justice, power is given to those who have been harmed, to determine what it would take to restore balance to their lives. It is the responsibility of the rest of the community to ensure that these things happen and that balance is restored. For those who have been involved in formal restorative justice processes, many speak about their experiences as feeling that the actions demanded to bring restoration seem ‘soft,’ or seem to avoid the issues. Other times, they may feel that what is asked for is overly harsh and uncalled for. We cannot know the unique experience of the person or people who have been harmed and need to listen to their unique wisdom and insight and then act on it, even when it might not fit our own perception of the situation. In this way we restore balance.
In restorative justice processes, historically, those who do not acknowledge their guilt are excluded entirely from the process and, in those cases shamed, and or ostracized. Modern day restorative justice programs will not allow those who do not show genuine acknowledgement of guilt (again, hard to judge) into the process. (See link for formal Restorative Justice programs in Canada) This is not a perfect process. There have been many studies done of various pilot projects with mixed outcomes.
I do believe that we can start a healing process in society, starting by listening to, and supporting those harmed by the behaviour of others.
After that, we need to look at ourselves to determine the role and responsibility that we’ve had in perpetuating these wrongs.
Power dynamics are not irrelevant. I feel very cautious about the idea that somehow we can ‘fix’ things by everyone taking equal responsibility for wrongs done. Too many times those wronged have carried too much responsibility and those doing the wrong have carried too little. See “When You are the Volcano.” However, I fear that stopping at individual blame and punishment of a single human being will not resolve these harms. Responsibility extends beyond the individuals who did that thing (or those things) that one time (or those many times).
Let’s name the wrongs and hold ALL of those responsible for their/our parts in this, so that we can ALL find healing.
See also Too Many Sticks & Carrots
See also, Men