Saturday, October 8, 2016

What Shouldn't Be Normal: Sexual Harassment on Private and Public Stages

I, like many Americans, am appalled by the sexist, lewd, and generally despicable comments by Donald Trump that were recently revealed by the Washington Post. 

However, I can't really say I'm shocked. Nothing that man says or does really shocks me--he is a force unto himself. I agree with the phrase, "When a person shows you who he/she is, believe them." Trump has shown us again and again and again who he is through his words and actions. I believe him. And it's not a pretty picture. 

I'm glad that there are so many people denouncing what he says and what he has done. That gives me some hope in humanity. 

But I'm not here to talk about politics. Not directly, anyway. Not in the way that so many other pundits and news sources have already talked about this incident and what it means for the election. I've already voiced my opinion on this blog and countless times in person with many friends and family members. (But if you would like to see a well-written opinion article which pretty accurately reflects my opinion on this particular issue, I recommend this editorial piece from The Deseret News.) 

I also know that my words are unlikely to convince anyone to either vote or not vote for any particular candidate.

So that's not the purpose of this post.

Its purpose is to talk about the heart of this issue. And the core of the issue is simply this: sexual harassment is wrong and needs to stop. 

We need to speak out against it and stop defending perpetrators. 

We need to stop thinking that it's "normal" for people to act like this. 

Because it shouldn't be normal. 

Okay. I said that I wasn't going to directly talk about politics. But since the personal is political, I guess you could say that yes, this entire post is political. I'm going to share a few of my own experiences which have shown me the prevalence of sexual harassment and also the need to stand up and speak out against it. I realize that my experiences don't speak for everyone. I also don't mean for this to come off as a "list of grievances" or to say, "oh, woe is me." 

But I'm speaking up for a few reasons. First, I think there is power in stories and in vulnerability. Also, since my experiences are not as violent as some other people's experiences, I feel more comfortable sharing my stories and being a voice for those who cannot speak right now. And finally, I think that sometimes we forget just how prevalent sexual harassment is in our communities, and it is important to be aware of its evil. 

So here we go.

I was fortunate to grow up in a family to have a father who adores me and other good men (grandfathers, uncles, cousins, and a wonderful brother) who treat me with respect. I also have a mother who embodies a beautiful blend of justice and compassion. My parents did everything in their power to make sure that we knew we were loved and to keep my siblings and me safe. 

(I start out with this because I know I must acknowledge my idyllic upbringing. I know that I have a very specific kind of privilege, and I don't pretend to perfectly understand others' situations. Because certainly, my upbringing was idyllic. And it's not fair. I know there are so many children in this world who don't have that kind of love and protection. I am privileged in that love. It empowers me and makes me feel like I can do absolutely anything. It is an upbringing that I am grateful for more and more every day, as I know that not every child has that advantage in life.) 

[Me enjoying my idyllic childhood with one of my sisters.]

So experiencing misogyny and feeling scared to be a girl didn't really come until I was a little bit older--perhaps ten or eleven. I remember Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping having a profound impact on my psyche--I think that was the first time I realized how vulnerable it was to be a girl. It came in other ways, too. Hearing my best friends talk about being inappropriately touched at dance class by instructors and other people's parents. Learning about rape. Walking the halls of my junior high school and hearing the crudest and foulest of language describing girls coming from the mouths of boys I once admired.

(Some people say that this is just "locker room talk" or that "boys will be boys." I don't take that excuse for a minute. When will we hold people accountable for their own actions? And when will we as a society expect both boys and girls to be kind?) 

When I was thirteen years old, some boy grabbed my rear end as I walked back inside after lunch. (And I will tell you right now that there was nothing revealing or form-fitting about my outfit. I was a fashion-clueless seventh grader with owl-eyed glasses, jeans that were two sizes too big and boxy T-shirts. I was not dressed to "tempt" anybody, nor was I trying to dress "maturely." I was a bookish, shy seventh grader who just wanted to get to German class.)

When it happened, I was mortified and I felt sick to my stomach. I didn't dare turn back to see who it was and confront him; I was shy and scared. So, with my heart racing, I just bee-lined it towards my next class, clutching my books to my chest. 

That was the first time anyone had ever groped me and it made me feel so incredibly small and helpless. I remember going home that day and telling my mom what had happened. I was afraid she might be mad; I remember thinking that maybe I had done something wrong. And my mom was mad (I remember the mother-rage rising in her eyes), but she wasn’t mad at me. It felt so good to know that she was my defender. She didn’t say, “Oh, boys will be boys,” or anything like that. Instead, she was angry for me, and we made plans on what to do and say in case it happened again.  

Fortunately, I didn't have frequent incidents like that in junior high and high school. I had good friends--and good guy friends--who respected me and the other girls around them. Again, I know that I am incredibly fortunate, as not everyone's experiences are like my own. 

There was some discomfort and harassment, but nothing that defined my high school experience. Although I do remember finding lewd comments written on my locker, hearing occasional comments from senior boys about my body, and having a couple of stalkers. That is, unfortunately, part of being a woman in this world, and, unfortunately, we women learn that at a very young age. Hobbes’s Leviathan plays out every day in the halls of high schools across America.  We live in a world where the strong prey on the weak; where power is synonymous with force; where people give prestige precedence over goodness.

Although I knew about sexual harassment and sexism (and had experienced it in a few forms), it really wasn’t until my LDS mission to eastern Ukraine that I more fully experienced the brunt of misogyny. Like I said, I grew up in a very loving and sheltered environment. Although we talked openly about difficult issues in my family, those "difficult issues" were not my reality.

I experienced a hard, bitter reality in Ukraine. I saw poverty like I had never seen it before. I saw alcoholism. I saw hopelessness. I saw despair. I talked with people who had really, really, REALLY hard lives.

I also experienced sexual harassment on an almost-daily basis.

It's hard to describe the feelings of vulnerability that come over you when you are a woman in Eastern Europe, especially as a young woman coming from the West. You become acutely aware of how alone you are. You quickly learn that not many people rush to the rescue of a foreigner should something happen (people are especially less keen to help a foreigner who is already viewed as a public nuisance). You also realize that what a lot of you take for granted in the West—particularly the fight for gender equality—are frowned upon in many Eastern European circles. And please, don't get me wrong. I have a deep love for Eastern Europe. That area of the world is extremely dear to me. But it certainly has its challenges.

These feelings of vulnerability are heightened as a female missionary. As an LDS missionary, you stand out. You are supposed to. You are a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and ultimately, you are meant to be a representative of Jesus Christ. One of the things that makes you stand out is that little black nametag, bearing the name of Jesus Christ and your own last name.

As a woman in Ukraine--especially as a smiling, young American woman with a distinct accent and with a different fashion sense than most Ukrainians--you also stand out.

[A smiling American missionary in Ukraine.]

My little black nametag not only invited discussions about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but it often became an open invitation for men to come over and harass me and my companion. 

You do your best to avoid it. You really do. You avoid large groups of men. You learn how to tell if someone's inebriated. You learn how to say "Don't touch!" and "No!" as loudly as you can. All the same, I was groped, propositioned, forcibly kissed, and verbally harassed more times than I would like to count when I lived in Ukraine. More often than not, it happened in public places--on the metro, at a bus stop, on the marshrutkas, on a main, busy street in the broad morning daylight. 

I heard so many lewd and disgusting comments directed at me and the other girls I served with. Is it any wonder that the one thing all of us look for in romantic partners is safety? Is it any wonder we learned to internalize the black humor so characteristic of that part of the world? It happens every day, so better to just laugh and keep a good sense of humor so you don't go insane. Better to laugh it off than let it get to you.

But it does get to you. It's not easy to experience. It makes you feel so incredibly helpless, small, and just--icky. It wears on you; drains you. I remember talking with a neighbor of ours--he was a good man--and he heard us casually mention something terribly vulgar someone had done or said. 

"Does that happen often?" he said, appalled.

We replied that it did.

"Sisters, I am so sorry. That should not be happening. It should not be happening to you. That is damaging for the mind and the soul."

And he's right. It should not be happening. Anywhere. To anyone. Not in Ukraine, not in Ghana, not in Pakistan, not in the United States.

Luckily for me, I did have a kind home to return to after my mission. So many women and girls do not have that privilege. Those experiences in Ukraine helped me realize that this is what so many women around the world have to deal with every single day. This, and much worse. 

My experiences with sexual harassment in Ukraine made me even more aware of it after coming back to the United States. I am fully aware that there are cultural differences between Ukraine and the United States. But I also know that these things happen to women in the United States, too. It happens every day, to both men and women. And it hurts both men and women.

It hurts me when I go on a blind date and the guy tries to make out with me when I have already said no. 

It hurts my sister when there are peeping toms at her window. 

It hurts my brother when he comes home visibly upset after hearing that "locker room talk" from guys in his P.E. class. 

It hurts all the people in a lecture hall when a professor makes lewd comments about women or makes lecherous advances towards a young graduate student. 

It hurts an entire apartment when the girls feel too afraid to go running. 

It hurts all of us when we have a media and pop culture that glorifies unattainable bodies, that objectifies women, and that insists that we are only worth what we look like or what we have. 

It hurts all of us when celebrity icons insist that the only reason for living is sexual gratification.

Sexual harassment affects all of us.

I know that my experiences don't even compare to the discomfort, horror, and downright evil of so much of the sexual harassment in the world. But my experiences have made me more vocal in speaking out and more empathetic in listening to those who have been sexually harassed and abused.

It has also made me more determined to teach boys to be kind and girls to be brave.

Both girls and boys need to be taught to be kind and brave.

This is a fight that needs the best of boys, girls, men, and women fighting against it. This is because 1) sexual harassment is not just a "women's issue"--men are sexually harassed, too, 2) a culture that defends violence--especially violence against women--brings out the very worst in all of us, but particularly expects and excuses the worst in men and boys, and 3) I know there are many, many, many good men in this world. They have come into my life as a father, as grandfathers, as uncles, cousins, a brother, leaders, boyfriends, friends, classmates, co-workers, teachers, and mentors. Good men exist. And thank goodness they do.

So let's fight this together.

[Just a handful of some people I'm sure glad are my friends and who stand for what they believe.]

Because although reality is bitter, there is more to reality than harsh winters, abuse, and heartbreak. Reality includes birthday parties, true love, and forgiveness, too. I have enough hope in humanity to believe that we can make changes. We don't have to be cynical. And saying that things are just "normal" means that we give up a part of our power to change our corners of the world. 

This world is cruel. It is hard and it is unfair and it is easy to say that things will never change, and that this is "just the way the world is."

But you know what? I'm part of this world, too. And I have the power to change. I have the power to speak out, stand up, and teach others that this behavior is wrong. 

Sexual harassment happens everywhere. It happens in Provo, Utah and Moscow, Russia. It happens in New Delhi and Washington, DC. It happens to your sisters, girlfriends, wives, daughters, and friends. It happens to people that you would never think it has happened to. Sexual harassment should not be normal, so we must stop saying that it is normal. We have to speak out against it instead of excusing it. 

[A vigil for survivors of sexual assault at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University.]

There's a quote attributed to Leo Tolstoy that says something along the lines of "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself."

So let's start by changing ourselves. Be aware of sexual harassment in your communities, in your homes, in your neighborhoods, and schools. It's not easy to be aware. It hurts. But it's necessary. Speak out against it. Be a voice for those who have none. Stick up for the vulnerable. And be kind. We can all work on being kinder.

If you have been sexually harassed or abused, take courage. You are not alone and it is not your fault. Find someone you can trust and tell them. If there is no one you trust, then call a national hotline (some websites listed below). Get help.

Sometimes it is most helpful to know that you're not alone and that you do have a voice.

I'll end this post with one more story. We're going back to junior high school (which, I know, none of us really want to go back there). But I remember one time sitting on the bus, going to school. Some boys I knew were sitting right behind me and saying absolutely terrible things about girls. Their language was foul and I was trying to find the courage to turn around and tell them to stop it. I gripped the handle of my French horn case, gritting my teeth while trying to formulate the perfect response.

Just before I turned around, I heard a voice from the other side of the bus.

"Stop it."

The boys in the bus looked up.

"You know better than this. Just stop it."

It was a girl from my Sunday School class. She was a year older than me, and she was someone I admired for her bravery and courage, although I was much too shy to ever really get to know her.

When the boys tried to protest, saying that it was "just for fun," she shook her head.

"What would your mothers think? This is not okay for you to be talking like this. I can't believe you would talk like this." 

She spoke with power and authority. The boys stopped talking, and they silently got off the bus, one by one.

I don't think that girl ever knew what she gave me that day. By speaking up, she gave me a little bit of her courage. She taught me about the power of speaking up, especially in unpopular situations. She taught me about the value of one voice.

I am still idealistic enough to believe in the power of one. Perhaps it is because, again, I have experienced that power in my own life. How we treat individuals matters. How we talk about others matters. We might have limited spheres of influence, but each of us can decide what we will do in those circles to protect the weak and speak out against injustice.

[These people are just a few of the many who help remind me of the power of one.]

Like I said, I am glad that there have been so many people denouncing Trump's words and actions. Anyone, regardless of position, name, party, or power should be called out for lewd and lecherous comments and behavior. We shouldn’t avoid it. We can’t give it a pass. We have to look at it straight on, call it for what it is, and confront it. Not only in high-profile cases, but on those low-profile, everyday experiences.

I hope that one day we will not have to speak about this because we live in a society where sexual harassment doesn’t happen anymore. But in the meantime, we must do better. We know better. Because I have been given much, I too must give. And I must speak out.


  1. yes and yes. One thing I've noticed, as a victim of abuse, is that the world has talked a lot about the "big" cases of sexual harassment (rape, molestation, etc.) but has ignored the little (but not so little) things that happen on a daily basis. And if we can stop those things, we can stop the "big" things. I'm 100% behind the power of 1 thing. As a mother of boys, it's something I am acutely aware of. I want them to be the brave, kind, safe men you talked about. Just like their father. They are out there. And they're out there because somebody took a stand early on in their lives and taught them the value of chastity and treating others as who they are: children of God.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughts, Jen. Your words are wise and powerful. I agree with you 100%--it starts with stopping those little-not-so-little things. And I also know that there are good men out there, because they view others as, like you said, children of God. And thank heavens for that.

  3. Wow, this is a wonderfully well written article. I served a mission in Poland and was appalled by the way the sister missionaries there were treated. This is a major problem world wide. Thank you so much for standing up for goodness and light.