8 things to know about sexual harassment

Gina Berreca
Tribune News Service

No. 1 Looking back, it feels like sexual harassment. As I remember it, many desks in the schools I attended had a picture of a penis drawn or carved into them. Maybe it was smudged because somebody tried to clean it off or paint it over, but it was there. It had been there for generations. There were penises etched into school cafeteria tables and trays, drawn in chalk on brick buildings, spray painted onto walls. They appeared on the inside and outside of all forms of public transportation. I always assumed they were drawn by boys and men.

In contrast, girls don't spend a lot of time drawing vaginas on anything. Perhaps it's simply tough to draw a reasonable one during a brief elevator ride or before lunchroom workers catch you with a Sharpie, but I think there's more to it. Girls and women don't want to plaster representations of our genitalia on all available surfaces. Yet some boys and men seem to feel a need to display themselves. This should not be encouraged outside of art classes, consensual relationships or designated beaches.

No. 2 Sexual harassment, abuse and assault have nothing to do with attraction or affection; they have to do with power, the need to dominate and the need to degrade. Harassment expresses unbridled contempt, not desire. People don't get harassed because they're cute; people get harassed because they are in the same place as the perpetrator.

No. 3 When I am invited to give talks by organizations or companies on the subject of appropriate and inappropriate humor in the workplace, there's often a banner announcing "Dr. Gina Barreca: Sexual Harassment Workshop." Usually some of the audience members clearly believe I'm there to help them do it better. I sum up my talk by asking the audience to remember that "Harass is one word." I can see that some are puzzled.

No. 4 Here's why it's called sexual objectification: Making a human being so insubstantial and unimportant that you can grab him or her and then throw him or her away after you've satisfied yourself — as if there are no consequences for your actions — makes that person into a thing. The person is stripped of any individual identity. The idea that the object might have its own conflicting desires, wishes or inclinations is unthinkable. It's merely something to which things are done; what it wants is meaningless. It's disposable, like a Kleenex.

No. 5 We need to clarify to the young and vulnerable that being sexually intimate with those in power does not mean power will rub off. Being close to somebody who radiates fame will not give you fame. A manipulator in a position of power who uses his apparent weakness as lure to gain sympathy is the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing. Under that false wooly familiarity, you'll find sharp teeth and lingering drool.

No. 6 It would be comforting to tell ourselves that this is just a mutant moment in modern history. But is it? Perhaps there has always been a split between comedy that relies on sexual vulgarity and comedy that treats its audience with more respect. "We can see (a) difference in old and new comedies," commented one critic. "For the writers of old comedy it was indecent language that was ridiculous, while those writing new comedy prefer innuendo." The critic was Aristotle, who lived from 384 B.C. to 322 B.C.

No. 7 Even though sexual harassment, like other forms of aggression, is nothing new, that doesn't make it OK. Certainly women in Hollywood have had to deal with it since the first movie shot was framed. There's a story that when brilliant comic actress Judy Holliday was being chased around the casting couch by a director, she decided she had enough and yelled, "STOP. JUST STOP." Holliday then took her falsies out of her brassiere, handed them to the director and said, "I believe it's these you're after."

No. 8 Stop. Just stop.

— Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of "If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?" and eight other books. She can be reached at  www.ginabarreca.com.