When I was 18, a married man kissed me on the lips.
He was a friend of my father’s and they knew each other through work-related business. He was much younger than my dad, maybe 25. I will call him Jeff.
I had just been accepted to Ivy League schools and Jeff had attended Dartmouth. My dad thought Jeff could answer questions or share tips on navigating college. He took me out for pizza.
Jeff was married with at least one child. He was a nice man. We had a nice dinner. He even took me to his house after dinner to meet his wife and child.
But I knew something was weird when he asked if I wanted to see the place where he worked. It was 45 minutes away and it was 9pm at night. I declined.
Then when he dropped me off at home, he walked me to the door and kissed me on the lips. He may have described it as a peck, but it definitely seemed in appropriate to me. I didn’t kiss back, but I didn’t smack him either. I said good night and went inside. I didn’t tell my dad and didn’t dwell on it until Jeff showed up one day at the restaurant where I worked. That’s when I realized this guy may have wanted more from me than I had any interest in giving him. Thankfully, nothing else happened and I never saw him again.
I haven’t thought about this incident in many years, but with sexual harassment in the news a lot, I’d like to point out a couple of things.
1- People who experience unwanted sexual advances may initially feel embarrassed, confused, or weirded out rather than harassed or angry. For me, it was almost like being in shock, paralyzed or numb. Responding defensively was impossible because this man was my dad’s friend, not a random guy off the street. I needed to ask myself, “What just happened?” because the man who violated me was someone I trusted. To an outsider, women may seem really weak or complicit if we don’t slap a boss or date who goes too far. I’m just saying that is not the reflex I felt. I didn’t even tell my dad until nearly 10 years later.
“Remember that time you arranged for me to have pizza with Jeff?”
“Tell me what he did to you so I can kick his a**.”
That kicking never transpired, but the whole story serves as an object lesson in trust, in parenting, and in how children carry violations to their bodies that they don’t share with their parents.
2) I wonder if there is another term besides “harassment” that we can use to describe the situation I experienced. To me, harassment implies persistent, aggressive, mean-spirited, or obscene advances. I didn’t really feel like Jeff was harassing me even though it fit the legal definition.
3) Like discussing the importance of doing well in school or loving Jesus, we have to include sexual propriety in our child training. This includes defining for our children ways their own behavior could be misconstrued or actually be inappropriate. In the age of cell phones and social media, the potential for impropriety is greater than ever. I certainly wouldn’t want to walk my kids through a lawsuit, suspension, or job loss because they were clueless or predatory.
One of my daughters recounts a time in college when a dean in the student life department asked her for assistance on a project. When she arrived to his office, he closed the door where he was listening to music she described as “sensual.” The project turned out to be something tied to his personal life and his behavior made my daughter so uncomfortable that she walked out. Good for her.
Not all women (or men) have the guts or state of mind to remove themselves from these circumstances. Fewer still have the emotional energy to report incidents like this. Fear of losing a job or retribution are real fears, and unless one has experienced sexual violation, it’s difficult to get that. In worst case, secrets are carried for many years, innocence is lost, and healing and interventions are required.
Hopefully, we can get ahead of these situations by wading into the nuances of sexual harassment for our own sake, and for the sake of our kids.