Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Power Thing

I was born into a world with clear boundaries, honored in the daily performance of chores. My mother, trained as a classical violinist, kept house. She did it well, too. She created a comfortable home for us, while caring for her aging parents who did not drive, and helping her uncle with his business.

She lived a family-centered life, directed by duty to others. The challenge lay in how to be happy and fulfilled within the restrictions that life required.
She had tricks for coping that she tried to share with me. Prayers played a large role. Count your blessings (of which there were many)…Her struggle would today be called a “first world” problem, a matter of “white privilege.”

Those descriptions, however, do not remove the sharp sense of wasted capability, as the years dwindled away. Perhaps that’s why she encouraged me to explore a wider world, despite her fear of the risks that entailed.

Today, working wives are the rule, rather than the exception. Women compete head to head with men. Work beside men.

And find, in every arena, that men remain the gatekeepers, the bosses to a large extent, the powers in government, entertainment, publishing, the churches.
We, as women, are still petitioners, needing their approval to rise in all fields outside the home.

Without this imbalance, we wouldn’t have Harvey Weinstein, FOX’s O’Reilly and Ailes, and the whole less well known army of unattractive older, powerful, men who sexually harass women who work for them.

“Me, too,” is the hashtag that peppered social media last week with support for the brave women who brought this common experience into the light of public attention.

People were shocked by the sheer number of women using the hashtag to express shared experiences of harassment, abuse or outright rape. Men were shocked.

Men have a hard time with this issue, I think. A hard time calibrating whether a joke will be sexist, whether friendly banter will sound to the woman like harassment. A friend, being prepped for a medical procedure, felt violated by the male doctor’s self-deprecating sex joke.

Why did he tell a sex joke at so vulnerable a moment?

Was he supposed to know that because he was a man, and she was a woman about to go under anesthesia, sex references were off limits? Personally, I have doubts. More likely, it never occurred to him how she would feel.
That’s not always true, however.
A restaurateur I once worked with referred several times in a discussion to whether I’d ever seen or eaten a particular pastry in the shape of a woman’s breast. It made me feel uncomfortable, but only now do I recognize that I had pushed him on a subject—unrelated to pastry or breasts—about which he felt far more uncomfortable. The sexual reference was intended as a warning: stay away. He cancelled the project soon thereafter.

When I was young and for a long time afterward, a boy, a man, was expected to be the suitor, the initiator of a date, a goodnight kiss. Rejection must have been dispiriting. Infuriating, often.
Perhaps those abusers whose transgressions have been plastered all over the news in recent months never recovered. Maybe their substantial egos were wounded so deeply they couldn’t forget.

Then, monetary success gave them the opportunity to retaliate. Beautiful, sexy young women who needed their approval and assistance would be made to pay for every painful rejection by a desirable woman in the far distant past.

When we dismiss sexual misconduct as an expression of disproportionate male sexual need--“boys will be boys,” after all--we miss the point completely. Utterly.
It’s a power thing, baby. 

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