Advice for Young Women about How to Avoid Harassment Should Be Welcomed, Not Silenced

Among the biggest questions lingering from the Harvey Weinstein scandal is how this secret—which apparently wasn’t much of a secret at all—could have been kept for so long. It’s especially amazing since keeping this silence involved a lot of talking: Lawyers were talking to and paying off women who had been abused to keep them quiet; Hollywood elites and industry leaders were calling in favors to quash damning stories in the press; and some female actresses were quietly warning each other about how to avoid becoming another Weinstein victim.

It’s understandable why many of the women who were assaulted or harassed by Weinstein were reluctant to go public: Taking on such a powerful figure in their industry could make enemies and cripple their careers. Moreover, as so many of the women who are now coming forward heartbreakingly explain, they were inevitably second guessing the decisions that they made in the lead up to or the time of the incident. In hindsight, many felt they should have known that it was a mistake to go up for a meeting in a hotel suite or to have not immediately recoiled from the first inappropriate comment or touch. They placed part of the blame on themselves, when the blame should rest solely on the monster who clearly preyed on women.

Silence, or failing to publicly out this sexual predator, allowed Weinstein, and others like him, to operate. Stopping future Weinsteins and changing the culture that protected him for decades starts by encouraging women and men to speak out against such predators.

Yet changing the culture won’t be easy, and unfortunately there will always be men who prey on young women. That’s why it’s a shame that some needed discussions are being short-circuited. Take the vitriolic response to Mayim Bialik’s New York Times op-ed, which called out Hollywood for a culture that objectifies women and describes how she managed her own journey through the industry:

I always made conservative choices as a young actress, largely informed by my first-generation American parents who were highly skeptical of this industry in general — “This business will use you up and throw you away like a snotty tissue!”— and of its men in particular: “They only want one thing.” My mom didn’t let me wear makeup or get manicures. She encouraged me to be myself in audition rooms, and I followed my mother’s strong example to not put up with anyone calling me “baby” or demanding hugs on set.

Sure, some of Bialik’s piece reeks of superiority: She wisely followed guidance that others didn’t. After a lifetime of feeling inferior for not being cast as a pretty girl, Bialik seems to revel a bit in the benefits of not having faced this kind of objectification. Bialik should have taken more care to make clear that she wasn’t victim-blaming—that women dressing more provocatively or pursuing sexier roles were in no way “asking for it,” and that harassment and assault is never justified.

Yet the attacks on her also go too far and could backfire in terms of discouraging people from offering sound advice to young women about best practices for staying safe and dealing with men (and women) in workplaces, particularly when the complicated matters of sex become involved.

Offering advice about how to protect oneself—to minimize risks and avoid the worst situations—is in no way giving a pass to those who would seek to exploit women. It doesn’t mean women who don’t perfectly follow these guidelines are in some way responsible for becoming the victims of a crime or for being harassed. Rather it is simply an important way to help women navigate our incredibly imperfect world.

I wonder if those who publicly slammed Bialik would really hesitate to offer their own daughter or younger sister similar, commonsense advice and warnings about the dangers of predatory men. Just as today I warn my children never to get in the car with a stranger, to stay close to home, particularly after dark, and about what is okay and not okay for a grown up to do or say to them, in the future, I’m sure I’ll be lecturing my kids—but particularly my daughters—about how to handle bosses and colleagues. I’ll warn them that, while men can be great mentors, they need to be on the lookout for men who will play the part but have another agenda; to be particularly cautious in outside-of-work situations, especially when alcohol might be involved, which can lead to awkward situations. And yes, I’ll lecture them about the messages they might inadvertently send, not because I would blame them if something terrible happened, but because I’m old enough to know that you can decrease the risk of bad things happening by taking precautions.

It can’t just be up to mothers to give such advice to young women, just as mothers alone can’t be the only ones instructing their sons on how to always respect and treat women properly. We all know that even mom’s best advice can be easily discounted by the young. That’s why we should want these messages to be echoed everywhere.

Of course, the real responsibility for ending harassment and sexual assault lies with the perpetrators. They alone are responsible for their actions and need to be held to account. But while important steps are underway to prevent serial abusers like Weinstein, we have to live in the world as it is, and make sure that young women are well-informed about the dangers they face and are empowered to protect themselves.

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One response to “Advice for Young Women about How to Avoid Harassment Should Be Welcomed, Not Silenced

  1. Good advice. I’d add another that has been getting too little attention in this dispute.

    Biblically, men have a role to play in this, particularly as fathers, bothers, friends and (in this case) professional associates. Good men are more likely to spot a creep and be outraged, as opposed to the intense intimidation often felt by women. Many, although not all, men also have a marvelous ability to shift in an instant into aggression and even violence. We enjoy that, particularly when protecting women or children. Feminists call that “toxic masculinity,” but if you’re the woman being protected, it’s a welcome masculinity. I’ll give examples.

    I spent some four months roving Europe with a rail pass. In Northern Europe, I had to take the initiative to meet American girls traveling. In Southern Europe, particularly Spain and Italy, I found that matters went much better if I waited and let them start the relationship. They wanted to vet me before talking. Once attached, they’d travel with me as long as possible.

    Why was that? Because all too many young Spanish and Italian males, I won’t call them men, were Weinstein wantabees. Two American girls I met on an train in Spain illustrate that. When we first met, I wondered why such healthy young women were carrying canes attached to their backpacks. Later they told me that’d had such a bad experience on a night train that those canes were to force Spanish males away. Interestingly, once I joined with these traveling girls, all their troubles went away. My mere presence said, “Buzz off. Mess with her and you’ll regret it.” Most creeps are cowards.
    Years later, I faced an even more complex situation when, after sixteen months of caring for little children with leukemia as a nurse tech, I transferred to the teen unit just as a summer began with a host of orthopedic surgeries that left both teen boys and girls bed-bound.

    Apart from me, the nursing staff was female and those helpless teen boys took that badly. All wore undies. All tucked in their gowns. All kept their sheets pulled up in a hot room. Even my male presence could not alter that.

    In contrast, the girls were used to women caring for them, so most were casual in their effort to cope with their even hotter room. “Oh my gosh,” I thought, “what if these girls start treating me like the boys treat their female caregivers?” Given how uncooperative the boys were, my only enjoyment as a caregiver came from the girls.

    Compounding the problem, I’d already learned that hospitalized teen girls are so willing to cooperate, they won’t say no even to something that makes them visibly uncomfortable. What was I to do? Would I end up as Mike the Creep.

    Fortunately, the answer came quickly. I made them an unspoken offer back up by deeds. I’ll do all I can to reduce you embarrassment to a minimum, if you’ll live with the rest. They liked that arrangement and all went well.

    Later, I realized where the difference between the teen boys and girls lay. The boys wanted to be in control of their care, including the embarrassment. Unfortunately, hospitals, particularly a children’s hospital like ours, do not permit that. As a result, those guys withdrew and became uncooperative.

    On the other hand, those girls did not want to be in control. Instead, they wanted to feel that the situation around them was under control. When I offered to do that, they were happy. I soon came to realize that many of those girls liked having a protective male as their primary care giver. Female caregivers were often too casual with embarrassing situations. I took their embarrassment seriously.

    One morning the nursing administration sent around a float, a guy that I saw in an instant was a creep. He was a bit too eager to hang around the room with those under-dressed girls. No, you are not going to do that, I thought to myself, I worked hard to make them comfortable. You will not ruin that. He got lucky, because in a few minutes administration sent him elsewhere. He was on the verge of a dictate from me that he was not to enter their room under any circumstances. I’d have made clear to him that I’d escalate just as far and necessary to keep him out.

    Yeah, we’re face to face with that toxic masculinity again. Those were my girls, went my male chauvinist thinking. They are under my protection and no creepy male is going to upset them. Feminists may attack that attitude, but from the most casual to the most modest, those girls liked having a guy around offering protection. They had enough to do recovering from extensive surgeries.

    There’s far more to that story that I can explain here. I’ve written a book for hospital staff on the topic that is filled with practical advice on how to make a hospital stay less embarrassing for patients.

    The books also has a lot of insight into the male/female issues we face today. Working on that unit I was in the perfect environment—one of great stress—to observe the differences between teen boys and teen girls. And teens are the best subjects for study. As people grow older, they learn what roles to adopt as patients. These teen boys and girls could have hardly been more different. They were endless fascinating as patients.

    –Michael W. Perry, Embarrass Less: A Practical Guide for Doctors, Nurses, Students and Hospitals.

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