Sarah* had been through some shit. She started working at an art gallery for a well-off man known well around town. Lots of people liked him, he was friendly and spent money at local businesses and sat on town council voicing his concerns about the local economy. He started making sexual comments to Sarah and talking to her about all the affairs he’d manipulated other women in town into. She was clear that she didn’t want anything to do with knowing this information or being part of any of his future stories, but he didn’t stop. If anything, he escalated. She ended up filing an anonymous complaint with the town- anonymous because she had already thought of all the things they would say about her for daring not keep quiet-
“she’s mentally ill, she’s probably making it up.”
“if this has been the case with other women, why haven’t they come forward”
“she’s just causing trouble”
“That’s just the way he is”
When others came out (also anonymously) and one person put her name and face to the same kind of stories, they heard all these things and more.
This man was Sarah’s boss, she counted on him to not only keep her job, but not to make her job miserable. When she tried to assert her boundaries gently, with compassion for both herself and for him, he ignored them. When she asserted them by following a formal procedure, she was burned at the stake.
Kayla* was dating a guy in a band. She watched as people got absolutely wasted at shows and the men scouted out the women to flirt with and, eventually, fuck. Both parties had liquid courage. Sometimes they were aggressive- the men and the women too. Sometimes the men fucked women who were close to passed out. Sometimes they fucked women who were passed out. She watched as women traded sex for guest list spots and men traded guest list spots for sex- always on their terms, let’s be clear.
She watched as these dudes smoked outside the van and traded stories from the show the night before, always including degrading, objectifying statements. Then, she waded into the crowd to hear the women trade stories from the night before, brimming with excitement that the man they idolized, whose work they celebrated, had dedicated their time and attention to them for a while.
When Kayla brought this up to her partner, he explained that this was just the way the scene was. That the rush was real, and this was the game to play to survive successfully. When some women started talking about their experiences and how they felt about them years later, they were accused of lying, of attention-seeking, of not understand that that’s just the way it is.
Jen* worked in a field that was mostly woman-dominated, where consent was literally written into the code of conduct because the nature of the work involved touch. She worked in a place where multiple other people all did the same job, but operated as individuals, just out of the same space.
When women started coming forward about having been touched inappropriately during treatment, the entire workplace changed vibes. Local (and, eventually, less local) news outlets picked up the story and people started boycotting the business. Now everyone else who worked there wondered, as they were being investigated, how the choices their coworker had made would affect their careers.
They were told they were complicit for something they’d known nothing about. They were told they were being unsupportive of the women who had spoken about about their abuse for voicing their concerns. They were told that the public reaction was just the way it is.
Malorie* worked at a local theatre. She saw the artistic director harass queer women who worked there and heard rumours of sexual assault perpetrated against actresses who passed through as they performed in shows and other rumours about underage girls he’d bee inappropriate with. When he started touching her inappropriately and describing what he’d like to do to her in private, she found ways to never be in a room along with him. So he got sneakier about conveying his messages to her.
When the emotional cost became more than she could bare, she quit and got another job. She spoke with a lawyer and began a multi-year long pursuit of justice- which resulted in her being dragged through the mud by all angles.
People told her that she was lucky to have had that position. That she dressed too scantily to be taken as a professional, especially given how beautiful she was. That he was a gift to the community whose creative work ought to be admired and that that’s just the way he is.
With the cannabis industry booming, a business opened up on a reservation and offered amazing opportunities to marginalized people- Indigenous people, women, disabled people. They were explicit in their support of hiring and walking alongside people who had some healing to do and may not have done well in other industries. The man who owned the business was doing good work in advocating for these marginalized people in a powerful industry.
Rachel* was going through a time in her life where she felt vulnerable when she was hired there. Some things had happened that were out of her control, resulting in her technically quitting but essentially being constructively dismissed from her underpaying management job with another large company in the industry.
When the owner started making sexual comments and jokes involving her, she laughed it off. She’d worked in this male-dominated industry for a few years already and knew that this was just the way it is. When he started being more forward, she deescalated and redirecting the situation by saying things like “maybe if we were both single! Now about that project…”. When he started to get more physical, often in front of other employees, none of whom said anything (after all, they all knew, that’s just the way he is), Rachel started looking for another job. When she found out that she had been paid less than what had been agreed on all along, it made it that much easier when she received another offer. She left and got out.
The better part of a year later, two men who had worked with Rachel, one of whom knew a bit about how uncomfortable she’d been, contacted her to tell her that another woman had written a semi-open letter detailing some similar behaviour to what Rachel had experienced. Eventually, Rachel received the letter the other woman had written and was taken aback by the similarities in their experiences. The other woman had worked there longer, and it had escalated farther, but a few of the most disturbing and disgusting things she described were things Rachel had also experienced.
The thing that complicated matters further was that Rachel had advocated for women who had been sexually harassed and assaulted in the past. This had gained her a reputation for being a strong advocate with some, but also for being a troublemaker a lot of people in power felt threatened by. It had cost her jobs, friends, and, at times, her sanity. Death threats and rape threats will do that to you.
Rachel was faced with the question: does she stand up for herself the way she has for other women in her community and face the inevitable backlash she’d already had more than enough of a taste of? After all, that’s just the way he is. Or does she continue on with her life, grateful that she got out when she did.
After months of uneventful, even joyful, stability, Rachel felt sad and angry and everything all at once.
When she tried to reach out to one of the men who had spoken with her about the other woman coming forward, he ignored her text.
When she tried to talk with her partner, he focused on reframing the situation in hope of avoiding her misery by telling her that it didn’t matter what anyone else thought, why should she care either way?
When she tried to get more perspective from another ex-coworker, he told her that he’d been informed not to talk about the situation.
That’s just the way it is.
Don’t get wrong, I’m a big believer in (radically) accepting that things are the way they are. What I’m interested in, in the context of sexual harassment and assault, is how we get to a place where that behaviour isn’t just the way it is. As a woman who has advocated for other woman, a woman who has been harassed and assaulted in the past and tried to minimize it or to explicitly call it out, as a woman who is faced with the reality of raising a son… I have a few perspectives.
I believe the way forward (at least a step forward) is two-fold:
Compassion: When people feel attacked, they’re rarely willing to do the work it takes to create a paradigm shift, whether that’s from a “victim” perspective or a “perpetrator” perspective. When we pause to consider where someone is coming from, we have a better opportunity to understand why they’re acting or reacting the way they are.
Why did the women in the stories stay in situations where they were being mistreated? Why did they often try to minimize or accept what was going on for them rather than getting right out?
Because they men in the situations were in positions of power. That’s true in these individual stories and it’s also true within the greater systemic context of the way Western society operates. Because there are consequences for every and any reaction, but when women challenge the dynamics that are “just the way they are”, the consequences can be violent- if not literally, subtly at least. Being fired from jobs, having jobs made even more challenging, having people talk shit about them to prevent them from future opportunities…
Given the opportunity, I like to believe that most people will choose to respond with curiosity and care, sometimes we just a radical remodelling of what that looks like.
Honesty: It’s hard to be honest when you’re afraid of the consequences, but at some point, we have to weigh those risks. At some point, we have to trust that we can tell people, even people in power, when their actions aren’t acceptable and that they need to do better. That we believe they can do better.
Sometimes, we have to be honest with ourselves about the victim mentality we place on both “victims” and “perpetrators” in these situations, because, as these stories make clear, some will always see each person, “victim” and “perpetrator” as the opposite of how they see themselves. Whether there is an inherent truth somewhere there is less relevant than the fact that it’s just the way it is.
I’m deeply frustrated that people of all genders are in the position where there is nothing close to a “right: thing to do, where no matter the choices they make, they’re trapped in a losing battle.
So we can shift the way it is to be a more open, honest, compassionate dialogue in general.
Not talking about sexuality or expressing sexual desire isn’t the answer here. Not acknowledging the systemic power dynamics that privilege men over women or gender-variant people isn’t the answer here. Cancelling men isn’t the answer here. Pitying the women who are living these stories every damn day of their lives isn’t the answer here either.
Shifting the way that it is through compassion and honesty is a step towards something that might look more like an answer.
* All of these stories are based on true stories I’ve heard over the last few years, but none of the names are the names of the people involved.