Imagine, if you will, this particular scene, this moment. It’s the final evening of an annual conference, and as always, the conference wraps up with a banquet and dance. You might think this would be staid and dull. With this gathering of graduate students and professionals in sport psychology, however, even among the oldest, that knowledge and skill in how the body moves means that a large number of people—even men—dance with vigor and rhythm.
Having been to this conference—and dance—before, you have a few guys on your mental list that you would enjoy dancing with. And indeed, you dance with one of them—let’s call him George. As in prior years, it’s great fun to dance with him, upping your own game.
It’s a warm and sultry night, so when George suggests that the two of you go outside and walk for a while, you think, well, why not. The two of you walk for a while, then find a bench to sit on and talk. Except George makes a move on you. Totally unexpected. He’s an age-mate, married, a colleague whose intellect is more attractive than his body (except when dancing).
You say, “No,” and the two of you resume talking.
For a while.
The same scenario, over and over again.
After maybe the fifth “No” (but who’s counting), you and he finally get up and go back to the hotel and say goodnight.
Pretty innocuous in this day and age, right? Not traumatizing. Not even worth doing anything about…and what would you do, anyway?
Well, yes but…
Your reaction—or in this case, my reaction, because I did experience it—is uncannily similar to that of those women (primarily) who have come forward in the current torrent of accusations, lawsuits, and just plain sharing.
While it was going on, I thought, “It’s like I’m on a date that I haven’t agreed to.” That’s actually from Erika Rosenbaum, among the first actors to describe being molested by Harvey Weinstein..
She also comments “I have to talk my way out of it without angering him.” Check.
My reactions afterwards:
And truly it wasn’t a big deal.
Except that every time there’s something in the news about sexual assault or harassment, my mind goes to that bench and those moments.
What have I learned?
Well, for one thing I have so very much more empathy for women (and a few men) who find themselves in this kind of situation. Bewildered, blind-sided, feeling helpless to stop it…and feeling at fault.
I was asked this year to participate, at this annual conference, in a panel of professionals of long standing, to reflect on the topic, “If I knew then what I know now…”. I thought about sharing this anecdote. I hesitated, yet again minimizing and discounting my experience.
I spoke with a colleague with whom I’d shared this story. She encouraged me to do so, if I felt ok about it. This would be a reminder that no profession or environment is immune to such situations.
Within sport, we’re aware of the number of (primarily male) coaches who have personal, boundary-crossed relationships with their (predominantly female) athletes. I think, for example, of a 22-year-old high-level female athlete I worked with recently: Her coach had had an affair with her. She thought they were in a relationship, then discovered that he was dating someone else. How do you go on to world championships or attempt Olympic gold when you’ve got this constant reminder that this sport that you love is compromised by his behavior—to say nothing of the need to find a different coach, just a few months before a major event?
(I wrote the above paragraph one morning. That afternoon, I read long distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s searing account of coach molestation in the New York Times.)
What about the graduate student, the intern, or the new faculty member whose studies, research, or career is dependent on not making waves?
(I reviewed the above paragraph, just before sending this blog off, a day or two later. And what’s in my inbox a moment later? An article about years and years of faculty sexual harassment and abuse of students at major U.S. colleges.)
I am reminded of a book—an oldie but goodie: psychiatrist Peter Rutter wrote Sex in the Forbidden Zone. The subtitle tells it all: When Men in Power—Therapists, Doctors, Clergy, Teachers & Others—Betray Women’s Trust. Sadly, frustratingly, we can add all kinds of “others” to that phrase.
I did share this vignette at that conference. Not surprisingly, a number of people spoke with me about my contribution. Mostly women, thanking me and alluding to similar experiences they’d had. A male colleague and friend inquired: Do I know him? Yup, I replied.
As it happened, one of the other speakers on that panel was Carole Oglesby, Ph.D., a long-time advocate for women and sport. She pointed out that, over and over, it is up to us to spread the word, to keep the ball rolling, whether directly or in our mentoring role relationships. She used as an example, the “pink and blue world” of gender stereotypes:
I am sure Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed she had won that battle; same with Simone De Beauvoir; same with Fannie Lou Hamer; same with Gloria Steinem; same with [psychologists] Eleanor Maccoby and Sandra Bem. What I, personally, have come to see now is that institutionalized knowledge alters, but then re-sets (or one could say goes back to default mode) as soon as “no one is looking” so to speak and the next year, or decade, or generation, the proof must be offered once again…slightly different labels and vocabulary…but the same argument must be won again.
And so I share this with you, in whatever field you’re in, at whatever stage of development, whatever your sex and gender identification. Although it may feel—as of this moment—like a tipping point, the kind of change that we need is societal. What we can do as individuals is to keep speaking out.