The public face and private cluelessness of the sexual harasser

The current deluge of sexual harassment stories is a real opportunity for all of us to come to understand the sexual predator in a whole new way. As we hear story after story, we can begin to see patterns, even as we retch at the details, from gropes and grabs to full-on assault. I see a natural progression as the harassers come to face their misdeeds in this new world we are tipping into, the world in which they are no longer entitled to use their power as they wish.

First there is denial,  sputtering outrage on the part of the accused harasser that anyone dare object to his attentions. It is often accompanied by an exposure-induced amnesia for the whole event. If he does recall, he may characterize his accuser as too unattractive to merit his notice. It must be hard to believe at first that anyone would attempt to stop them.

As the accusations (read evidence) pile up and these former bigwigs lose jobs and find themselves dizzy as they plummet from the top of the heap toward the bottom, they move into accommodation, which sounds like “I didn’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable.” In this phase, they acknowledge the shit storm without noting their own responsibility for it.

As the headlines continue and other women step forward, and the PR people weigh in, the light appears to dawn for some of them. Suddenly, they are visibly emotionally rocked in a way that invites (they imagine) admiration and forgiveness. Humiliated, embarrassed, terribly sorry, embarking on a long path of rebuilding and making it up to their loved ones, whatever. Others take the more efficient path of entering rehab which collapses all of the  above into six weeks or so. I can’t wait to see what happens when they get back ready to resume their old personas. I’m hoping that they’ll find that the world has tipped too much by then.

I’m still waiting for the final phase, actual recognition that they have harmed and traumatized the women they targeted, robbing them of confidence, safety, comfort in the world, and the right not to be demeaned and exploited. That doesn’t go away just because time passes, and the women, now that they are being heard, will tell you so.

I suspect that while I wait for that, they are all looking hopefully to the example of their forebears Letterman and Clinton who slipped back into their worlds of privilege without much difficulty. If we who care remain fierce, and if we strengthen our ranks by recruiting men who also value decency and respect (but have never before considered this issue their own), I think the recovering bigwigs will be disappointed. Even when the world looks like it’s going nowhere good, change can surprise us.


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