OPED: Let’s start calling out harassment
Let's straighten something out: The Harvey Weinstein story is not a "Hollywood problem."
So, please, let's stop wagging our fingers at this group or that group every time another powerful man is caught sexually abusing women. Let's stop pretending we've never turned a blind eye at the signs of sexual harassment around us. And let's quit with the collective outrage asking, "How could this happen?"
But let's also consider that, possibly, we are getting better at dealing with this nonsense. And it may be thanks to the millennial generation.
The alleged sexual misconduct of men such as Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and countless more has nothing to do with the tribes to which they belong. Their despicable behavior has everything to do with their own sense of power over women and a lifetime of experience that taught them they could get away with it.
Shortly after The New York Times published its blockbuster story Oct. 5 accusing Weinstein, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, of sexually harassing and abusing a number of young female actors, Weinstein issued a statement, in part offering that he was merely a product of his time — "the '60s and '70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different."
That line is no excuse for what, in some cases, may have been criminal behavior, but Weinstein also wasn't wrong.
Consider how differently we educate our children now about personal safety than we did a generation or two ago. "It's never appropriate for anyone to touch you there," we teach our 3-year-olds. "Always tell an adult if someone makes you uncomfortable." Kids today are taught to speak out and report bad behavior. It wasn't always that way, and most of us who were born before, say, 1980 developed other, quieter ways of dealing with dicey situations.
In the mid-1970s, when I was about 11 years old, I caught the school bus a few blocks from my house. I loved my freedom to walk alone each morning — we were all free-range kids then. One morning, a car pulled up to my bus stop, and a man with shaggy blond hair called for me to come over and go for a ride with him.
I froze. I shook my head "no," but the man persisted. After a moment of panic, I had an idea. I pulled my sweater open to reveal to him the silver safety-patrol badge pinned to my white safety-patrol belt strapped around my waist and across my chest. I wore it proudly, as I'd earned the coveted job of helping the younger students at my school get on and off the bus safely. But in that moment, it was my superpower. I remember the rush of adrenaline as I told the man in the car that I was on duty and he needed to leave me alone!
Confused by my precociousness (or possibly having second thoughts about abducting such an odd child), he sped off and I never saw him again. I felt thrilled that I'd fended off an obvious Bad Guy, but I felt weird about it too and so I didn't tell anyone. Not a soul.
Why would I? Nothing bad had actually happened, but if my parents found out they'd probably never let me walk alone to the bus stop again. No way was I going to jeopardize that.
Another time, also as a young child, a car pulled up as a few friends and I were playing on a neighbor's front porch. A man got out and started masturbating in front of us. We screamed in horror and he jumped back in his car and drove off. But, again, we never told any adults about it — I'm sure we felt too embarrassed to describe what we'd seen. And anyway, we'd taken care of it ourselves.
In today's world, both of those incidents might've made the local news. Our children are taught to report problems immediately and are far more comfortable using anatomical terms to describe what an adult might have done to them or in front of them.
The women of my generation carried our childhood coping strategies into adulthood. When someone — be it a Harvey Weinstein or a Joe Nobody — made us uncomfortable, we handled it ourselves and then tried to forget about it. We used humor — our own safety-patrol badges — to shrug off unwanted advances. We dubbed certain colleagues "creepy but harmless" and tried to avoid them. We shared some of our stories among ourselves, but we rarely reported them because the career risks seemed too great.
A few of us fell prey to the more egregious office predators — and then we felt guilt and shame for being so gullible, or vulnerable. It felt confusing. But we soldiered on, smarter for it.
And along the way those predators learned they could get away with it. A few of them became CEOs or movie producers. TV personalities, presidents of the United States. Most are people you've never heard of, though, and some of them are our own colleagues. And still, if it's not too bad, we let it slide.
It's not just a Hollywood problem, see? Sexual harassment is an "everywhere people live and work" problem. Small-town offices, hospitals, factory floors, law firms, newsrooms. Why do we act so shocked when some big name gets caught? It's all around us, festering at every level, and it's time to call it out.
Women (and men) I know who are in their 20s wince at the stories we tell of the sexual harassment we've brushed off over the years. They say they'd never stand for it, and although that's easier said than done, I believe them. These are the 3-year-olds who were taught to raise hell if anyone touched them, and now they're filling the workforce.
The silver lining of a generation that became obsessed with trigger warnings and micro-aggressions is that these millennials also have a no-tolerance attitude toward sexual harassment, which is refreshing and welcome.
So let's take a cue from the next generation of leaders. Instead of shouting about the sins of Hollywood (or Washington), let's start talking — loudly and urgently — about the sexual harassment problem all around us.
Lara Weber is a member of the Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may email her at email@example.com.