I have always been extremely cautious, not at all inclined to take risks. I have usually been able to learn from mistakes and misfortunes of others. If someone else has had a problem with something, I tend to shy away from it. This proclivity toward cautiousness was the reason I have never tried any illegal drugs, I have never been drunk to the point of illness and I have gotten only one traffic ticket in almost 40 years of driving. I watched other people’s pain and embarrassment, and I avoided following in their footsteps.
But being cautious also means I have missed out on many opportunities that may have been wonderful. I don’t take risks in general. If someone, sometime, had any sort of problem, I tended to avoid similar problems. I avoided “difficult” courses in college. I gave up a job that was probably really interesting because it did not guarantee a certain income (though I was good at it and probably would have been well paid) and other people had financial difficulties. And, more importantly, being so cautious has always meant that I avoid any situation that might present a risk to myself.
The recent reports of women and men who were sexually abused by powerful people — and random strangers — has me thinking about how many situations, jobs, and experiences I have avoided because of the risk of being sexually abused. The lesson I learned about sexual abuse as I was growing up was that it was going to happen unless I stayed away from certain situations, and dressed in a very certain way. That was just the way it was. What I never learned was how to stand up for myself, and say STOP. I never learned how to protect myself, beyond avoidance. If this was driving cars, I would have learned to avoid all traffic accidents by never driving a car — effective to be sure, but terribly limiting behavior.
I was raised to be a southern lady. The worst thing a southern lady can do is to break the social norms — to be rude. Confrontation is often taken as rude behavior, so I was never taught how to confront people. I was taught to smile and ignore poor behavior, then to talk about the behavior with a third party with the understanding that the message would eventually get back to the person behaving badly, in a round-about, passive-aggressive manner.
When I was in high school, my favorite activity was drama. I loved being on stage. Being an actor seemed like a dream occupation. I participated in every school play I could, and sought out voice and acting classes outside of school. But my dreams died the day my mom explained the “casting couch.” She told me I would never make it as an actor if I was unwilling to sleep my way into roles. As I saw it, if I was unwilling to participate in these “extra activities” and failed to reach my goal to be a professional actor, I would never know if it was because I wasn’t good enough. To fail and to know I just wasn’t good enough would be hard enough. But to fail and never know what could have been would never had been acceptable. So I gave up that dream, and never went back on stage.
In college, I was really good in calculus. I worked hard, but kept an A average. I knew I was good in math when I picked up a friend’s statistics textbook (a class I hadn’t taken) and was able to understand the chapter and explain it to her. But just as I was about to consider a major in math, I picked up a science fiction novel my professor had written. It was sexually graphic and disgusting. I could no longer look that man in the eyes, much less go to that man’s office to seek advice on math careers. I had heard of other students being sexually molested by professors, and had been warned about being in a closed room with men all of my life, so I avoided another potentially dangerous situation.
Sexual abuse does not just affect people overtly. It has a ripple effect throughout society. Because some women have been abused, other women have taken themselves out of many situations completely. The overt act shames and diminishes the woman who experiences it. But the ripple effect diminishes many other women who are watching.
Women have been diminished enough. It is time to call out every abusive act, from the small to the large. No one should be diminished by another person’s crude joke, misplaced touch, or innuendo. It is not ok and should not be tolerated for another minute.