Sex Spoken Here: Sexual Harassment, #metoo and the impact on current society from flirting to parenting
Welcome to my virtual therapy room! I am Dr Lori Beth Bisbey and this is Sex Spoken Here. Remember that this podcast deals with adult themes so if you don’t have privacy you might wish to put on your headphones.
When the headlines broke about Harvey Weinstein, my first response was an internal sigh that in the 21st century men still feel free to oppress women. As more and more women stood up to say #metoo, I found myself filling with rage as it became clear that this was the status quo rather than an anomaly.
Then as the allegations spread to other prominent men in Hollywood, in politics my rage turned to despair at how pervasive the harassment and intimidation is.
Initially, this played out over gender lines. Prominent men sexually harassed women. The focus was on entertainment and the arts and then it moved to politics. Everyone agreed that this happened in companies and corporations too. Then the allegations from men began. Thus far these allegations have been against other men. However, I have worked with many men who have been sexually harassed and assaulted by women over the years and women as well.
This is because sexual harassment is not about sex.
It is about power. Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton’s best known remark was ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men’. Is this so or does power just tend to bring out a person’s pre-existing ethical standards? Research suggests that power allows the true self to emerge. Other research highlights the paradox of power which is that the personality traits that allow the person to gain power seem to disappear as soon as control is gained. To gain power, you have to court the favour of the people who can put you in power. However, people in power have more choices. They are less likely to consider the position or situation of others as they did when they were trying to gain power. This is, in part, because they are not expected to consider others. When someone gains power, other people are often seen in terms of what they can do for the one in power and if the battle for power was a harsh one, they can be seen as the spoils of war.
Why else does power corrupt? It inflates the ego and encourages us to act from unconscious or subconscious desire. It grants license to act decisively seemingly without a concern about the consequences because people in power can feel they are insulated from responsibility. People become hypocrites. They may know the right thing to do but power allows them the ability to more easily rationalise unethical behaviour.
French philosopher Paul-Michel Foucault addressed the relationship between power and knowledge by looking at power dynamics and how they are used as a form of social control. He emphasised that power changes our thinking drastically and that this in turn changes our behaviour. If we are to address the pattern of sexual harassment in our society, we must address the changes in thinking that power creates. In order to make any substantive changes, we have to deconstruct our long term ways of thinking about men and women, about the benefits of power, the permissions that power grants in any industry. We need to look at the perceived rewards of reaching a place of power.
We also need to look at our definitions of personal boundaries.
These are the limits and rules that people create to identify acceptable and safe ways for others to interact with them and behave towards them and how they will react when other people violate those boundaries. Boundaries are made up from our beliefs, attitudes, past experiences and societal norms. Jacques Lacan saw these boundaries as layered in hierarchies from the societal boundaries, to smaller cultural subgroup boundaries to family boundaries and then to those of the individual.
These two concepts (power and boundaries) are central to the issue of sexual harassment. From present society, the idea that a person in power has a right to violate personal physical and sexual boundaries pervades many workplace settings. ‘He’s only flirting’ or ‘He doesn’t mean it’ are frequent excuses for boundary violations. The lack of swift action when boundaries are violated only serves to keep these beliefs in place and strengthen them. There is a saying ‘Strong fences make good neighbours.’ This is essential when talking about boundaries and rules in relation to appropriate behaviour in the workplace and sexual behaviour in the workplace. Relationships work best when everyone knows what the boundaries and rules are in advance and agrees to them.
Sexual harassment works because it undermines respect, shames the person who is being harassed and diminishes his or her power. Sexual harassment controls using fear and shame. To get rid of its power, the fear and shame need to be broken. Speaking out is step one to ending the fear and the shame and to setting clear solid boundaries.
One of the problems highlighted is the multiple meanings conveyed in our language and how we often don’t speak about sex and love directly. This can lead to misunderstandings. In addition, men and women communicate differently. Joking about sex is a more male form of communication. A number of people have suggested that perhaps harassment isn’t actually as prevalent but that there are just lots of misunderstandings. Unfortunately, this is bullshit. People in power have used sex and sexuality to harass throughout history.
As an adult, I need to take responsibility for my boundaries.
There is law in place to address harassment now and although the journey of taking a complaint to court is an awful one, it is still a remedy available to me. As an adult, I need to be clear about setting my boundaries and speaking out at the first sign of violation. If someone flirts with me and I find this uncomfortable, I need to say so and I need to make sure that my behaviour is appropriate as well. It isn’t OK if I flirt and then complain about someone flirting with me.
How do you set boundaries when you haven’t ever really learned the skill? First examine your own experiences of being a victim of boundary violation or harassment.
- Sit down and think about the first time you experienced a boundary violation or sexual harassment. How did you feel at the time? How did you react? Did you confront the person who violated you? Did you tell anyone else? Were there any sanctions? How did you feel about the sanctions? Does this incident still impact you today? If so, how. What needs to change to stop the impact?
- Think about the next experience if there is one and ask yourself the same questions. Notice if you see a pattern of responses, reactions and if you have any new insights.
- Next think about the times when you violated someone’s boundaries or sexually harassed them. Most people can find one experience where they violated someone’s boundaries. How did you feel at the time? How did the person respond? How did you feel when you understood that you had violated their boundaries and/or sexually harassed them? Did you apologise? Did you make amends? Were there consequences? How did you feel about the consequences? Does this incident still impact you today? If so, how? What needs to happen to stop the impact?
- Next set new boundaries. To do this you need to figure out what your boundaries are. I realise this sounds obvious however lots of people don’t pay attention to what they are comfortable with and uncomfortable with. They allow others to make the decision until they feel violated and then they are upset and unsure as to what to do.
- Write out your boundaries in relation to different settings. For example, you note that you don’t like to be hugged by people who you do not know well so you set this as a boundary for all settings. You note that you don’t like to be touched at all by anyone you don’t know so you choose not to shake hands when you meet people.
- Start practicing implementing your boundaries. Notice your own response as you do. The more you practice the easier it will become.
- If your boundaries are violated, practice handling the situation calmly and firmly. Pay attention to the impact on you and the other party.
When you have completed these steps, you may gain new insight into your patterns of experience and this may lead to positive changes in feeling and behaviour. If you find that you are still impacted by these experiences or if you see a long pattern of experiences, you may benefit from some specific therapy or coaching sessions to clarify the on-going issues and resolve any that are still problematic.
I have noticed that the focus on women being victimised via sexual harassment and sexual assault in other settings and the incidence of sexual abuse has led to some drastic changes in boundaries in school settings in particular and in workplace settings. The pendulum has swung to the opposite pole in some settings. Touch is no longer acceptable at all since all touch is seen as sexual and a violation of individual boundaries. This trend is very worrying. Touch is a necessary part of human life. Lots of touch is healing and appropriate. Teaching young children to see touch as inherently sexual and to see most sexual touch as ‘inappropriate’ will lead to a generation of adults who have even more shame and more issues around sex and sexuality. It isn’t necessary for this to happen. It is possible to create healthy boundaries around touch, sex and sexual curiosity without adding shame and fear to the messages.
Sexual curiosity is a normal part of sexual development.
First young children (as young as 18 months) discover their own bodies and experiment to see how their bodies respond. Then young children become curious about the bodies of others. Children of 3 and 4 will ask both same sex and opposite sex parents to see their genitals and ask questions about genitals if they do see their parents or siblings. Responding with anger will create shame and upset. There is nothing wrong with curiosity. It is easy to teach a child that certain things (like masturbation) are to be done in private without shaming the child.
As children become curious, they become curious about their friends as well. ‘Playing doctor’ and ‘playing house’ usually involve looking at each other’s private parts. In the 1960’s and 70’s, children who were caught were told they shouldn’t do this but they were not severely punished. Most adults understood that this was a normal part of development. Sometimes it progressed to a kiss, sometimes a bit of touching but in a friendly way and without any coercion. Adults sometimes shamed their children when they caught them but tended to do this on a mild level as it was not seen as serious. It should not be seen as serious. Healthy curiosity is positive. Telling a child that being curious about someone’s hair, ears, or colour of skin is OK but being curious about their penis or vulva is not OK only serves to give a message that there is something different, shameful or wrong about those parts of our bodies. Playing doctor or house is usually a co-operative activity. The only time that adults should get concerned is if there is coercion or a child is trying to insert objects into the other child’s vagina or anus. If you shame the child, you will teach the child that sexual exploration and questions are to be hidden, that there is something inherently ‘wrong’ with sex. When we teach them that something is wrong with sex and their bodies, we set them up for boundary violations later on. When we are shamed, we find it harder to speak up for ourselves. When we see all parts of ourselves as positive, we find it much easier to react when someone treats us with disrespect or tries to violate our boundaries. If I love myself and respect myself, I am far less likely to allow you to disrespect me. If you do, I am much more likely to stand up and speak out.
When we try to criminalise normal sexual behaviour, we create problems for later.
The case in Wisconsin earlier this year when a 6 year old boy was charged with felony sexual assault on a 5 year old girl for playing ‘butt doctor’ with her is a perfect example. The children were found playing. She had her panties around her ankles and he was touching the outside of her bum. The mother of the girl went to the police and the district attorney decided to charge this child. I would laugh at the absurdity of this but the consequences are enormous. The boy, if convicted, would have to register as a sex offender from when he was 18 years old. The little girl was not upset. The game was consensual. What message are we giving this boy? He is told he is ‘bad’ not that his behaviour is bad. He doesn’t even understand why everyone is so upset with him. Nor does his friend. Her mother is very upset but she doesn’t understand why. She, too, is shamed. He is likely to develop anxiety at the least and he could develop symptoms of depression. It will likely effect his sexual development which up until that point was healthy.
It isn’t difficult to tell the difference between sexual assault/abuse and playing doctor. If a child is forcing another (usually much younger) child to engage in sexual acts or play, this is abusive. If a child is upset by being touched or looked at and the other child does not stop, this is abusive. Otherwise, it is experimentation. We need to consider the messages we are giving our children as we work to teach men and women more equitable ways of relating to each other and to teach them to stop using sex and sexuality to control and denigrate others. Pay attention to the specific education you give children around sex, gender and sexuality.
Today I spoke about sexual harassment, sexual assault, boundaries, violation of boundaries, ‘playing doctor’ and teaching children about sex, sexuality, gender and boundaries. If you were triggered or if this resonates with you, do email me. firstname.lastname@example.org .
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