As your parents, we’ve taught you the Golden Rule, to be kind to others, to be accountable for your actions and to help the less fortunate. However, as your mom, I need to prepare you for the very real dangers that are out there for women.
As soon as we hit puberty, the burden of avoiding sexual assault and harassment rests squarely on our shoulders whether we live in America or in a third world country.
Our changing bodies garner the frank sexual stares of men on the street and worse, among family members. I’ve pointed it out to you how men, from all walks of life, stop and stare at young teens with their school uniforms. I’ve emphasized that modesty in big cities and actually everywhere is a necessity but unfortunately, it doesn’t stop sexual assault.
According to a 2011 Justice Department study, one in four American women will be assaulted in their lifetime. You will have to navigate a college campus where upperclassmen, that have easy access to cheap alcohol at school and date-rape drugs online, will pressure you to have sex. Professors may try to sleep with you by hinting that working together could improve your grades or even fail you if you don’t. And if you are sexually assaulted, you may have to deal with college administrations that may not support you but mark you as a whore.
- 1) You will need to know the signs of predators. Watch if he invades your space, touches your hair, your body without permission. Does he try to kiss you, grab you, or push you against a wall without permission? Watch carefully how he speaks to women especially waitresses and bartenders and if he blames others (last girlfriend, etc.) for his failures. Does he become upset if someone questions his authority or controlling behavior? Does he have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement without an ounce of empathy for others? Is he a bully? If so, stay far away from these manipulators who use others to bolster their egos.
- 2) Watch their eyes. Do they stray all over your body? Do they linger on your mouth? Your breasts? Does he stare at other women’s bodies and constantly size up other women? Do his pupils dilate and his eyes glaze over? Does a sheen of sweat appear on his upper lip? He’s sexually aroused.
- 3) Warn each other. Your sisters, your friends, your female office mates if you come in contact with a guy in your mutual social circle who is dangerous. Since we cannot afford to be naïve in college or the workplace, we must protect each other.
After college, you will have to navigate the workplace and how you interact with men. Some women flatter their male superiors to get ahead and others try to act like “one of the boys”. Many of us try to be ourselves and deflect the misogynistic comments, the condescending jabs, the dismissal of our ideas and public objectification of our bodies. But it is not easy. You will have to deal with subtle, covert phrases of sexism such as, “Don’t overreact. Don’t be a bitch. Don’t be a prude.” Or my favorite after a disgusting sexual comment, “Oh, I’m just joking. Don’t take it seriously.”
In the workplace, watch carefully the head of the organization. If he ignores women, patronizes them or harasses them, I can assure you the other men will follow suit.
With working relationships, men do not have to think about the risk or danger if they meet a male co-worker for drinks. However as a woman, know that when you meet a male client, co-worker or boss in a bar after working late, you’re taking a chance and must always calculate the risks if it’s worth the sale, the professional connection or mentorship. (Look for the tell tale white strip around his ring finger where his wedding band would typically be.)
Also know that men won’t call other men at 3 a.m. in the morning to discuss “business” or their spouses’ shortcomings. So if you receive that “oh, I just need to discuss this” at midnight call, lay down strong boundaries, “I’ll speak to you in the office; this isn’t appropriate."
Unfortunately, I have seen too much, heard too much, experienced too much—the same as millions of other women. I have tried to shield you from the horrifying incidents that I, and my friends experienced as children, as teenage girls and as women. The overbearingly nice neighbors who actually groomed young girls for sex, the best friend’s brother who tries to rape you, the fathers and uncles who kiss you and touch you, and the doctors who pass by your door to see you in your underwear. Then, the strangers who grope 10-year-old girls, the male colleagues who harass you at work, verbally or physically, no matter if you’re 20 or 80 years old, and all the while claiming it is not their fault and that you’re a bitch if you rebuff their attention.
Unfortunately, you, like all of us, will also have to navigate the same dangerous territory as we have and continue to do.
So, what would you do in the following situations?
- 1) A foreign minister slides his hand up your thigh with his wife across the table at a prestigious dinner with TV cameras rolling?
- 2) Your husband’s boss propositions you, subtly inviting you to his home so you can “rest after shopping”.
- 3) Your producer is doing the “full monty” as you walk in for your meeting to discuss the latest project.
- 4) Your biggest public donor has offered you a job that includes sex in the afternoons to blow off steam.
- 5) You’re 70 years old and a contractor that you have known for 11 years asks you to inspect the mole on his arm and when you turn around, he’s butt naked.
- 6) You’re harassed for speaking out against campus assault and stalked by the athletes for pure intimidation while the administration ignores it.
- 7) A married man invites you out for dinner because he’s “passing through town for business” and offers to pay for the hotel.
- 8) A man complains about his spouse in a meeting and then afterward, invades your space, massages your shoulders or asks for a “little hug.”
- 9) You’re a vice-president at a bank but your male colleagues ask you to make coffee for the client and then talk over you during that meeting, never allowing you to finish your proposal or worse, steal your idea.
- 10) Your daughter, whether 14 years-old or 8 years-old, was inappropriately touched by male classmates and the principal says, “boys will be boys.”
There are no easy answers to these situations. Nor help against the constant barrage of misogynistic dribble, the “good ol’ boy” network or vulgar comments.
And when you will ask me, and all of us, why didn’t you say something? We did. And we were labeled “man-haters,” “whistle-blowers,” “feminists,” “bitches and c***ts.” Our careers were jeopardized and we were ostracized by colleagues, friends and family. As a result, we became silent about the insidious physical and verbal attacks.
I pray that your generation does better. I pray that you raise respectful sons.
But in the meantime, be prepared and protect yourself as best as you can. Know that I’m always there for you and remember these situations are never, ever your fault.