As a man who has always tried to be sensitive to a woman’s needs and point of view, I have always known that women suffer from being harassed or abused by men. But it was not until one particular conversation with two female professional colleagues that I realized that this truth applied to nearly every woman, everywhere. Women, reading this, might say, Well, where have you been? How could you not know? But I think a lot of men don’t really know.
I have had a long career as a Buddhist teacher and meditation instructor, though I am now retired. One of the projects I was involved in was a training institute for up-and-coming Buddhist priests and lay teachers, which I and three other Buddhist teachers ran from 2006 through 2012. The faculty consisted of two male teachers and two female teachers. One of the woman teachers– I’ll call her Beverly– was a Ph.D. psychologist, and introduced the kind of group process and interpersonal training common in training for psychologists and therapists. This included listening and counseling skills, as well as sensitivity training around gender relations. At that time there were a lot of scandals in the Buddhist scene involving male teachers abusing women students, so we paid particular attention to this dynamic, and used role-playing exercises and body language skills to address this.
In the course of the program, the teachers and students often shared personal experiences with the group or with each other, including instances of harassment and abuse. Often these incidents occurred at a young age.
One day, during a talk, Sandra, the other female faculty member, shared with the group that when she was thirteen or fourteen, her stepfather began staring at her in an uncomfortable way, and sometimes inappropriately touched her or made remarks about her developing body. Sandra took to wearing an overcoat around the house to disguise her body and took other measures to avoid her stepfather’s scrutiny. After Sandra shared this, several women in the group spoke up and revealed that they too had worn baggy clothes while they were teenagers, for the same reason as Sandra. Apparently, it was a common strategy that many women in the group knew about.
However, it was news to me, and later in a faculty meeting I asked Sandra about this. “Is it really that common for teenage girls to have to protect themselves in their own family that way?”
Both Beverly and Sandra nodded. “Yep,” Sandra said. “Women have to learn all kinds of ways to protect themselves. It’s part of growing up.”
“What percentage of women experience sexual harassment generally?” I asked.
Beverly laughed. “What do you mean, what percentage? A hundred percent! All of us. Everyone.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t know that.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Sandra said. “Women don’t usually talk about that stuff with men. You wouldn’t believe us. We keep it to ourselves.”
Beverly then told us about a mixed-gender continuing education class she had attended recently for mental health professionals on sexual harassment. At one point the instructor asked the men to raise their hand if they were sometimes afraid of being raped. No man raised their hand. He then asked the women, and every woman raised their hand.
“See?” Beverly commented. “That’s what I mean.”
As I reflected on this new knowledge, I tried to put myself in the place of a woman and realized that I had no experience of that kind of vulnerability. Part of male privilege, I realized, extends to our own bodies. Our bodies are a safe space. No one– especially no other man– stares at us, makes suggestive remarks, or touches our body without consent. Gay men– who might be physically attracted to us– are extremely careful in this regard. I learned from a gay therapist friend that if they venture an unwanted remark or touch it could be dangerous for them, and even lead to violence.
Men have a whole set of rules about touch, which I suppose we learn as boys growing up. We can hug, shake hands, or dap with a close male friend. Otherwise, you don’t touch another man, not unless you want a fight. A soft punch in the shoulder might be playful, but then again it might not. A finger in the chest, a touch to any part of the face– those are threats. You could get punched out or worse for doing that. Watch baseball managers arguing with umpires and you see another touch rule– you can stick
out your chest, and you can yell, but your hands stay at your side. If your hands come up, it is an attack. The umpire ejects you immediately. Those are just some examples.
As for women touching a heterosexual man, it’s hard to imagine a situation where a man would perceive that as unwelcome. Most men would see that as a come-on. Once, while I was having lunch with a male colleague, we were discussing a news story about a woman teacher who was arrested for child abuse for having sex with a teenage student. My friend grinned and remarked, “I wish I had had a teacher like that in high school.” My reaction to the story was quite different, but I kept my opinion to myself.
So that’s how things are, I guess. Now that the #MeToo movement has led to the arrest or career collapse of many prominent men, it may seem as though things are changing, but if men really want to know how much or how little things have changed, they should, as I did, ask a woman they trust and see what they say. You might be surprised at the answer.
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