- Introduction to Focus: Harassment
Responding to the firing of Matt Lauer from the Today show, Lauer’s former co-host Ann Curry said, “we clearly are waking up to a reality, an injustice that has been occurring for some time.” Comments along these lines, often including the phrase “we are waking up” or “we are now realizing,” became common in the weeks after #metoo and the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal. I support the Me Too Movement and applaud the people who go public with their stories. But my first reaction to the “we are waking up” commentary was derisive. Who’s this “we”? Not feminists, not women of color, not gender non-conforming people. Large segments of the population were wide awake already. Indeed, civil rights activist Tarana Burke created the Me Too Movement in 2006. Despite the fact that Curry herself has endured harassment, her collective “we” seemed to reference only a small subset of the population, the most privileged subset. Left out of the “we,” I thought, are those of us who have to organize our lives around harassment’s ubiquity. I am aware of the potential for harassment every time I pick out an outfit for work, doubly so since I commute by bicycle. I didn’t need a Twitter hashtag to wake me up.
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And yet, I re-read The Voyage Out in January. When I originally read Virginia Woolf’s 1915 novel, more than a decade ago as a graduate student, I barely registered Richard Dalloway’s sexual assault of Rachel Vinrace. It’s not that Woolf writes about it in a veiled manner. Rachel, a sheltered 24-year-old woman, travels to South America on her father’s ship. Richard Dalloway is a middle-aged married man and a relative stranger to the other passengers. One afternoon he follows Rachel into her room and the two make small talk for a few minutes. The ship suddenly lurches and Rachel stumbles toward Richard. He grabs her around the waist, kissing her passionately. His embarrassed explanation is predictable: “You tempt me.” Ten years ago, Richard Dalloway’s assault barely made an impression on me. He seemed a disagreeable character, but not remarkably so. Reading the novel after #metoo, I had a different reaction. I felt more aware of the harassment and more affronted by his arrogant explanation. I was, in short, more awake to harassment and assault. What other novels would I see differently now? What other scenes have I glossed over?
In the weeks after #metoo, I, like many people, re-assessed my own experiences, cataloging and weighing them against the latest accusation. After several days, I was dumbfounded to realize I wasn’t including in that catalog the years I spent waiting tables. I was unconsciously bracketing off that work precisely because sexual harassment is so pervasive in the food service industry. Doing so was a remnant of a mindset I developed during those years, one in which harassment was “just” part of the job. Comments and jokes (that I now recognize as harassment) came from the other waiters, the kitchen staff, the management, and the customers. Brushing off these comments allowed me to get through my shift. The mindset became part of my uniform, something I put on along with my non-skid shoes and half-apron. My bracketing of restaurant work continued, in the background of my mind, until #metoo made me aware of it.
This bracketing speaks to the kinds of harassment I dealt with (relatively innocuous), but it also speaks to the normalization of harassment. The coping mechanisms people cultivate to prevent and deal with harassment of all kinds become habitual, to the degree that Richard Dalloway’s assault is no big deal. I didn’t have to—nor did I want to—expend much energy thinking about the ways harassment forced me to change my behaviors and develop coping mechanisms. Putting such concerns on autopilot, then and now, allows me to focus on other matters. #metoo woke me up to the insidiousness of this habitualization.
At the same time, habitualization of this kind reveals my privileges even...