Sexual offense. Reports are infecting the airwaves, the print media, and cyberspace like the plague: Every week, one or two or more new cases. No man seems immune. In recent history, we’ve witnessed the drip-drip-drip of revelations first about Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court nominee, then justice . . . and later, Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, for goodness sake . . . more recently, Bill Cosby, America’s favorite latter-day dad crawled out of a notorious past . . . and eventually we were truly stunned to overhear then-Candidate Donald Trump brag about his sexploits and his “right” to grab women by the pu**y. These men have all gotten away with it – so far – with minor smirches on their reputations.
But then? Harvey Weinstein opened the floodgates once a critical mass of women – victims of his sexual offenses – stood together and brought down an icon in the film business, a man who wielded great power over their careers. His own company fired him.
More women stood strong, and more well-known men fell: Actor Kevin Spacey; Screen Writer and Director James Toback; Actor Ben Affleck; ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin; NPR Editor Michael Oreskes; Louis C.K.; Charlie Rose; Matt Lauer; and Al Franken and Garrison Keillor, even! In addition, Roy Moore, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice, and in late 2017, an unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate, has been accused of hustling teenage girls when he was in his 30s, subjecting them to his brand of unwanted attentions.
Too many men to keep track of. Too many sexual offenses to wrap our heads around. Where do we go from here? Some men, and yes, some women, may be scratching their heads at a big change in the social order. They may be cringing at their own behavior of years gone by, and hoping that what they did in the past won’t destroy their future.
Where do we draw the line on sexual offense?
They may worry about lesser sexual offenses, like repeated “accidental” touching, or leering, or raunchy jokes, maybe even sloppy stolen kisses – behavior that probably isn’t illegal but it demeans and humiliates women, and is just plain disgusting. Others may even wonder about innocent hugs of congratulations over a grand accomplishment.
Some men may be asking, Where do we draw the line? Am I supposed to wear a scarlet letter on my shirt for life? Do I have to atone for a minor sexual offense committed years ago, when we operated under different mores? If I acknowledge sexual offense, am I inviting lawsuits and un-employability?
The answers? It all depends. Different victims and different offenses should call for different solutions.
Let’s put ourselves in “Ready” mode to respond to future unwanted attentions. Start by visualizing a past aggression or a current uneasiness with a business associate. Define and articulate for yourself the line in the sand a man should not cross. Is it dirty jokes, suggestive behavior, touching, or something else? What would you say to someone who crossed the line with you? What do you want from the offender to make things right?
If you need to, write your thoughts down, practice them with a sympathetic friend, then pop them in your toolkit. You are now ready and armed.
I’m thinking back on a case of my own, when Dr. James Edwards, President of the Medical University of South Carolina, wound up a meeting on nuclear waste with me by using a handshake to yank me to him and jab his tongue in my mouth. Here’s what I would say to Jim Edwards – if he were still alive (he’s not).
Message to the Ghost of Jim Edwards – and to MUSC
- Where to draw the line? French-kissing a woman in a professional meeting is never, ever okay. It is a sexual assault. If your mother didn’t teach you that, it’s only because she didn’t think you would do something so stupid, offensive, and disgusting.
- Am I labeled for life? Not necessarily. People change. You must apologize – genuinely – and demonstrate that you have changed.
- Do I have to atone for that one little kiss? Yes, definitely.
- How? As I told you in my 1995 letter, I want an apology from you – a sincere one, in which you take responsibility for what you did – plus a commitment that you will not foist yourself on other women in the future.
And now, because you have waited so long to come clean, I want you to make a public, heartfelt apology, one that doesn’t make excuses or try to justify your behavior, to all the women against whom you have committed a sexual offense, plus I want a public commitment that you will not prey on any more women. Ever again.
More importantly, I want an apology from the MUSC Board of Directors that accepts its own responsibility for enabling your offensive behavior to continue while you worked for them, for ignoring my letter – and for your enabling behavior – for at least 23 years.
Further, I want the University to undertake a program to rein in sexual predators, both on the faculty and staff and among the student body.
Yes, the University should apologize for and rein in its predators. It, too, is culpable. It needs to recognize how pervasive sexual harassment is in our society, and embrace its role in stopping it.
Onward – Toward Peace and Reconciliation!
These steps would bring me peace and reconciliation – yes, reconciliation. I would be happy to throw this memory in the trash heap, satisfied that steps are being taken to protect future potential victims. This plague will never end until we create a major, sustained peace and reconciliation movement, rooted in and spreading from the workplaces of our most infamous predators.
Visit my previous blog, “Et Tu, Brute? Our Sexual Misconduct Conundrum” at http://terryannmarshall.com/uncensored/et-tu-brute-sexu…onduct-conundrum/