I felt emotionally distressed while watching Confirmation, which re-tells the story of the hearing on Anita Hill’s accusations that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. I was angered while watching the all-white, all male, senate judiciary committee imply that Hill’s story was untrue because she did not express a formal complaint sooner. I cringed at seeing black women protesting Anita Hill because we have been socialized to protect and support our black men, even at the cost of the well being of ourselves and our sisters. I was frustrated with the implication that because some people had positive experiences with Clarence Thomas, this meant that there was no way he could do something harmful. Overall, I was saddened as I was reminded of how common it is for sexual harassment to be dismissed as insignificant and how often we as women are forced to grin and bear it in order to keep our jobs, our reputations, and ourselves safe.
Most black women are no strangers to the experience of sexual harassment. The unwanted comments about our bodies as we walk down the street. The inappropriate, unwanted physical contact when we are out at a bar or club. The sexual comments from co-workers and assumptions about our own sexual proclivities based on stereotypes of black women. Unfortunately, many of us have gotten used to bearing the weight and discomfort of these experiences and to protect our safety, we keep silent. There are far too many examples of black women losing their jobs, being harmed and even killed when we reject a man’s unwanted advances and stand up for ourselves verbally or physically.
Regardless of your opinion on what happened between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, sexual harassment remains an issue in this country. What follows are lessons about sexual harassment.
Lesson 1: Sexual Harassment is Real
Sexual harassment is a real thing with harmful psychological consequences. Sexual harassment can involve an interaction in which you felt someone was coming on to you or talking to you about sexual topic in an inappropriate way. If you worry that turning down someone’s advances or establishing boundaries might risk your job or safety, you are likely experiencing sexual harassment. Although it is painful to acknowledge negative encounters, much power and liberation comes through giving voice to our experiences. You are NOT to blame for any sexual harassment you may experience.
If someone tells you about sexual harassment that they experienced. Do not belittle their experience, provide empathy and support to that person.
Lesson 2: Seek Support
One thing that can happen when we experience sexual harassment is that we feel shame, we look for reasons that we are to blame for the problematic behavior of the other person and close ourselves off from others. If you have been sexually harassed, I encourage you to share your experience with people who you love and trust and have historically been supportive to you. Just sharing your experience can provide relief. If the harassment is negatively affecting your functioning, therapy can be a safe space to process and heal from your experience.
Lesson 3: Report the Harassment if You Can
If you feel safe enough, you can file a complaint against the person who harassed you. There are laws in place that allow for legal charges if you experience sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination. Further, colleges and universities are required to address issues of sexual harassment because of Title IX. Many organizations have work to do related to of addressing complaints appropriately but there should be a process in place that protects you from retaliation if you file a complaint with human resources or your Title IX office.
If you witness someone being sexually harassed, intervene if you feel safe doing so. You can also talk to the person who was harassed and determine if they would feel comfortable with you reporting what you witnessed to HR.
Lesson 4: Stop Harassing People
It is absolutely not acceptable for men to harass women because “it’s in their nature” or because “boys will be boys” or because if they are attracted to a woman they feel they have a right to touch and or comment on her body. If you are a man reading this please watch your own behavior. Be aware of what you do in your romantic interactions with women and make sure (you can ask explicitly) that the person you are interacting with is comfortable with your behavior.
Also, listen to a woman’s no. There are countless ways that men ignore women’s no’s and as a woman this can be scary and aggravating. If someone tells you no, listen to them and stop whatever you are trying to push (a drink, a dance, a date, sex). If you are reading this and you did not realize that your behavior in this area was inappropriate and potentially harmful apologize to the person you may have hurt. While your at it, encourage your male friends and family members to refrain from this type of behavior.
Lesson 5: Support Those who have been Harassed
As black women, it is essential that we support each other. That means providing emotional support to each other when we experience sexual harassment, sexual assault, and abuse, even when it is done by black men. Making black women feel guilty about standing up for their own rights and safety because a black man may experience a consequence (for his harmful actions) is extremely problematic. Allowing black men who sexually harass people without consequence is similar to police officers protecting other officers who they know are engaging in inappropriate and harmful behavior. Ultimately, this is bad for the entire community. We protect our community not by defending everyone against any critique and consequence but by striving to create an environment where everyone feels safe and harmful behavior is addressed appropriately.