I can count the number of years I’ve worked in publishing. I can also count the number of jobs I’ve had during my career in the media field. But I’ve long since lost count of the men with whom I had a professional relationship who sexually harassed me.
Here are two other things I can count: the number of men who knew what was going on and did something about it and those who, at the very least, made sure I was okay after these experiences. They add up to zero.
Alas, I am not devoting any energy to writing about the men who thought that their bigger bank accounts and fancier titles gave them the right to sexualize our encounters—and, in some instances, deny me a gig I was qualified for because I said “no.” While do I hope there’s a special place in hell for them, they don’t get any more of my time.
Instead, I want to talk about the other men, the ones who know that women are being sexually harassed in the offices and cubicles, the classrooms, the studios and other spaces right next to them—and do nothing.
In the ‘woke’ speak of grassroots organizing spaces, we’d say that these men fail to be allies. Everyday language gives them a more simple title: assholes.
The news cycle as of late has been littered with stories of aghast famous men who clutched invisible pearls and exclaimed on and offline “Harvey Weinstein did what!?! I had no idea.” We may not know for sure what each of them did or didn’t know about Weinstein’s predatory behavior; but history gives us a big hint about what many would have done with that information: nothing.
Would these men have sacrificed the ability to work with Hollywood honchos because he tried to get a massage from a woman who was not their wife, mother or sister? Would they have turned down film distribution from Weinstein’s company because he told women they’d never star in another movie if they rebuffed him? How many would have done what Brad Pitt did—putting his own reputation on the line by stepping to Weinstein to defend his then-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow?
Before I wrote books, I wrote about rappers and other musicians as an entertainment journalist. And in many ways, I was blessed because at Vibe I worked with men who seemed to have been raised right. They kept their hands and their inappropriate advances to themselves. But as a reporter, I had to leave the office and that’s when I came across male groupies (nicely called entourages), managers, bodyguards and just about anyone else within one degree of separation from the talent. Most of them seemed to never think that maybe as a woman alone in a car or a studio with men I didn’t know that I might not feel safe. They did not look the other way if the celeb said something ignorant to me— instead they laughed. They did not think that he shouldn’t tell me how good I looked, detailing what he liked about my hair to hips to lips. They did not think he should wait until I left to talk about the blow job he got the night before on the sofa where I was sitting with my tape recorder, feeling anxious and angry. They did not think about me at all. They thought, it seemed, about not pissing off the person who signed their paycheck.
Let’s be clear: this sort of behavior isn’t limited to Hollywood or hip hop. The acts of abuse and the accompanying lack of empathy, courage and support from “good” men who don’t engage in predatory behavior, but fail to do anything to stop it can be found in industries, institutions, neighborhoods and even households of all sorts.
Few people like ‘rocking the boat’ in spaces where they need or want to be (i.e. school work, church, etc.), so imagine being a person who has already been demoralized by being sexually harassed and having to go up against officials or HR departments who would rather shut a situation down than have to open up a legal can of worms.
And then, will the next job hire me, the Black Woman Who Blew the Whistle on Sexual Harassment?
All women can relate to this, but for Black women, it is incredibly, and nearly indescribably worse. Before we even got the job we had already likely faced increased scrutiny from the person doing the hiring. And now on the job, if it is staffed with mostly white people, we are the outliers. Someone absolutely already thinks we are too angry, too scary, too something that makes them uncomfortable. We know that. And now we have to go and file an HR complaint, sometimes with hard evidence, sometimes only with a trail of innuendos and a bad gut feeling. It can feel—and I can say this from personal experience—not worth the effort. Before I open my mouth, I already feel like I am going to be silenced or ignored. Or blacklisted. The excuse they were waiting for to have one less Black woman on staff. And then, will the next job hire me, the Black Woman Who Blew the Whistle on Sexual Harassment?
Men could play powerful roles in changing this. Because patriarchy is strong and thriving, a man’s voice often carries a lot more weight than a woman’s—even when he’s speaking about experiences that are not his own.
Furthermore, as the majority of sexual harassment against women is happening at the hands of men, why should this be our fight alone? Just as we know that racism isn’t going anywhere as long as white people keep believing dead animals like Harambe and Cecil the Lion are more important than dead Black people, women will continue to be vulnerable at the hands of predatory men so long as other men remain uninterested in checking and challenging that behavior.
You may not be able to do anything to stop the man in question from abusing his power again, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help. Here are some things that men can do to support women who have been victimized. Speaking up might feel terrifying for you, but imagine how much worse she feels.
1) Affirm Your Support: Make sure the woman knows that you believe her, that what happened is not her fault and that it is not okay. Repeat that: It is not okay.
2) No Jokes Allowed: There is no appropriate meme to send to a woman who confides in you about sexual harassment, not even Crying Jordan. Her rights were trampled on and she might literally feel afraid. The least you can do, as her confidant, is stay serious. If she tells a joke, you can laugh with her—but don’t be the one trying to lighten the mood.
3) Don’t Defend Him: Now isn’t the time to expound upon how you’ve thought of the alleged harasser as “a good guy” in the past, nor to make excuses for his behavior towards your friend or colleague. Her feelings are valid and if she feels that she has been objectified or violated in some way, his reputation should not save him from any necessary accountability.
4) Use Your Voice: If authorities (student affairs, HR, the police) are involved, remember that your words may carry more weight than you know. If you witnessed something, you are obligated to be honest about that, even if that means that your own relationship to this man is threatened. If the alleged victim’s reputation is called into question, you must defend her accordingly. All too often a woman’s rumored past is used to show that this could not have happened to her—don’t contribute to the vitriol. There’s no such thing as being deserving of sexual harassment and using a woman’s reputation to discredit her implies that there is.