The first time it happened, I was a few weeks shy of my 14th birthday.
To young to have working papers, I was working under the table at a souvenir shop in Atlantic City. There was shortage in the cash register. The boss wanted to talk to me about it in the back. Why did she want to talk to me? I wasn’t working the register. But when I got to the manager’s office, she wasn’t there. Instead, the owner was there, an older man who was business icon in the area.
He told me to sit down in the locker room where we left our purses and coats. He sat next to me. Even at that age, I knew this wasn’t going to end well. He moved his hand up my thigh (I can remember the navy blue shorts and Journey concert shirt I wore), talking about the shortage and saying I could get in trouble because I didn’t have working papers. I bolted out the door and ran to the bus crying.
I came home and told my mother, who called the store manager. “She’s only 13!” my mother shouted. The boss denied it, and said I was responsible for the cash shortage.
After my birthday I applied to work at another shop. The owner taking my application saw where I had worked for three weeks and remarked, “Oh honey, don’t worry, that doesn’t happen here.” Everyone knew.
Later, I was a 19 and studying Chinese language and politics when my language teacher pinned me against the wall in his office, kissed me and groped me. I went to a female senior faculty member and was told that it was common knowledge that this instructor harassed female students. Stay out of his office and "Slough it off," I was told, and I did. I also changed my course of study.
Again, it seemed like everyone knew.
I could go on. And if the #MeToo campaign on social media is any gauge, so could nearly every woman in the United States.
For many of us over age 45, it is just a reminder. Remember Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearing? Remember Anita Hill, whose career was shaped by the predatory behavior of a supervisor? The outrage that it was an all-male Senate judiciary committee hearing her testimony? Remember the political “Year of the Woman” that partially resulted from that? Didn’t everyone learn these lessons before?
Another result of that national discussion that played out time and again in universities, businesses, newsrooms, government offices and medical facilities across the country was this: Men became wary of mentoring or even hiring young women. As one of my male mentors at the time said, normal nonpredatory men were fearful that their everyday interactions could be perceived as harassment.
The differences between harassment and lighthearted mutual flirtation, comedic banter, or even unrequited romantic interest are consistent and staggering clear. No one is #MeTooing about Ted in IT who asked a co-worker on a date, or Fred the waiter who harmlessly flirts with the other servers.
In almost all situations the women I know have described, saying no would have serious consequences: loss of job or promotion, grades lowered, medical residencies lost.
When a romantic move gets rebuffed or a flirtation goes too far, there is shared embarrassment, a feeling of “Gee, that was awkward.” These moves typically don’t result in one party running from the scene, or looking for a new job. Harassment is dark, predatory, aggressive.
Harassment is about those with power dominating those without. And while the #MeToo discussion shows the pervasiveness of harassment, it also demonstrates the need for those with power — both men and women — to ensure that those without it are protected. Everyone, not just the victim, needs to stop the predators.
Brigid Callahan Harrison is professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, where she teaches courses in American government.