#MeToo has launched an urgent cultural conversation – and a lot is still being figured out, such as rules around dating, punishment for wrongdoing, even what exactly the movement encompasses. People told us they are reconsidering many interactions, from a creepy Uber ride to dating cues to complimenting someone on what they are wearing.
Until recently, Maggi Johnson didn’t talk much about being sexually abused as a child. She knew how people thought about victims — as “damaged.”
Working in a competitive profession, as a landscape architect, she didn’t need that. And the few times she did tell people, they were so shocked that she ended up almost having to comfort them.
Then came the torrent of stories unlocked by the #MeToo movement. All of sudden, she said, “people are surrounded by wonderful, strong, competent women” who have been abused or harassed.
The dismantling of assumptions has come as a relief.
Confronting sexual harassment and abuseThe #MeToo movement has sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment and assault. From actors in Hollywood to security guards at the Seattle Public Library, more people are coming forward with painful and intimate stories of abuse, casting new light on behavior that for too long has been dealt with in whispers, secret settlements or not at all. So where do we go from here? The Seattle Times' occasional series explores that and other questions as we move forward in this changed landscape.
But as the movement has evolved, the 60-year-old Seattleite also has begun to think about its “complexity and gray areas.” She has two sons, and one of them, 20, recently asked: “How do you flirt?”
“I don’t think he should be worried about flirting,” she said. “But I think he really, really needs to understand about pressing unwanted attention on somebody or making them feel unsafe.”
“It’s almost like there needs to be a chart.”
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What we’ve got instead is an urgent cultural conversation that is still figuring some things out.
Here’s what we know: Sexual assault and harassment are wrong, and years of dealing with it have produced an anger like we’ve never seen. But sometimes, the lines aren’t so easily drawn. And even when they are, the right punishment isn’t always apparent.
In part, the movement has been head-spinning because of its breadth: What began largely with a workplace focus quickly expanded into a re-examination and renegotiation of all types of interactions.
It all made Betty Keeton — one of more than 120 women and men who responded to a Seattle Times request for #MeToo experiences and reflections — a little confused one day when an old friend greeted her at her Fall City church. They hadn’t seen each other in a while, and he put his arm around her while they talked.
“All I could hear in my head was an NPR sound bite that said, ‘Why do men think they can put their arm around a woman?’ ” Keeton, 57, recalled.
She quickly realized her friend’s warm greeting was a good thing.
Ali Cho, in contrast, has no doubt that an Uber driver entered into #MeToo territory when he kept pressing her for a date during a drive to the airport. Cho, a University of Washington senior who heads a leadership program, was headed home on spring break.
“I love Asian girls,” the driver said. She told him she had a boyfriend. He suggested it might not last.
All the while, she thought in the back of her head, “He knows where I live.”
In January, a young woman’s account of what she described as a traumatizing sexual encounter with actor Aziz Ansari, reported by the online site Babe, raised new questions about the lines between assault and a “bad date,” coercion and cluelessness. In the hypercharged, judgmental environment of social media, people took sides.
Was Ansari to blame for insistently pursuing sex despite the “verbal and nonverbal cues” to back off that the woman later described? Did the woman — who went to his apartment and made out with him — deny her own agency by not stopping him cold and walking out?
The questions resonated on college campuses.
“So many of my friends have said ‘I’ve had situations just like that. Now, I’m trying to figure out if what happened to me was OK,’ ” recounted Tess Riski, a Seattle University senior.
“We’re trying to navigate what consent is,” she said, noting it could get “murky,” especially when it comes to nonverbal cues. There are guys, she said, who don’t know they may have crossed the line.
One of those guys was leading a Capitol Hill workshop on Men’s Experience with Boundaries and Consent during the January weekend of the Women’s March. Galen Erickson, a men’s relationship coach, describes himself as committed to “dismantling toxic masculinity.”
Erickson, 35, started by reading a poem he wrote that related a time he had sex, then afterward was told by his partner there was a “consent issue.”
She didn’t say anything in the moment, he said. She froze up, though he didn’t quite realize it. He said he has come to understand it’s one way women convey unwillingness, and said he seeks to convey to men “terrified” of getting things wrong the importance of slowing down and paying attention to your partner.
Johnson, the landscape architect, experienced a far starker situation illustrating women’s varied and sometimes nonverbal responses to unwanted sex.
On a trip to Death Valley as a 29-year-old graduate student, she wound up in a hot tub with a friend and a couple of guys. One stuck his hand underneath her bathing suit.
“I wish I had said, ‘What the f … are you doing?’ ”
Instead, she went into another room. He followed, and assaulted her, she said. “I didn’t scream,” she said, explaining that her impulse was to escape without making a fuss. Her friend seemed to be happily flirting with the other guy. Would they want to break it up to come to her aid? Or would Johnson be ridiculed or dismissed? She said she couldn’t be sure.
Johnson highlighted the difference between that assault and the Ansari case: With her, “there was no consensual making out or anything.”
Putting that aside, she said, one of the take-aways for her from the Ansari story is a lesson she tried to impart to her sons when they were young: “The big rule of sex is that both people have to want it.” More than that, the other person “has to want it as much as you do;” one person shouldn’t be trying to see how far they can take things, and the other just saying “OK.”
Mom, daughter talk Ansari
What’s acceptable, and not, can look different across the generations.
Sylvia Sterne, 84, said she used to be called a “pushy broad.” Active in the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s, an enthusiastic reader of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” she went to graduate school and re-entered the workforce as a young mother. Working in public health, she said, she was sexually harassed by a boss, who once took her out to lunch and then headed for a motel. She told him to turn around, and he did.
Her first response, upon hearing about the controversial Ansari date, was this: “Why did she go to his apartment with him? You can’t say the woman is helpless.”
“No, he doesn’t get a pass for that,” said Sterne’s daughter, Susan Sterne, a 53-year-old businesswoman. Just because the woman went to Ansari’s apartment doesn’t excuse him for failing to notice her signals, Susan Sterne said. (According to Babe’s story, the signals included the woman’s backing away from him and saying “I don’t want to feel forced.” Ansari released a statement saying what happened “by all indications was completely consensual,” but he has not gone into details.)
Susan Sterne remembered getting herself into a similar situation as a 16-year-old: alone with a guy in a room, not wanting to go as far as he did. As she left, he called her a tease in a vulgar way.
It didn’t feel good.
She said young women need a chance to explore their sexuality without being blamed. But she also acknowledged that men as well as women may make mistakes in ambiguous situations, and she’d like to see room for that.
‘Nice dress’ no more
How much room is there for mistakes at work?
Plenty in the past, as evidenced by story after story of workplace harassment, many describing little or no consequences for the perpetrators, and sometimes long-lasting trauma for the victims.
Recent months, however, have seen a swift progression from accusations to firing, and some aren’t taking any chances.
“I will never say that again,” said Leonard Rolfes Jr., 53, a Bainbridge Island attorney who manages projects for aid organizations. He was referring to a remark he said he’s made many times over the course of his career: “Hey, nice dress.”
The self-censorship is one of a number of restrictions he’s placed on himself when dealing with women generally, including minimizing his interactions with women when he’s out running or walking around the neighborhood.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “I like talking to people.”
None of the well-known #MeToo cases involve a mere compliment; groping is far more common. Still, whether or not one can compliment a co-worker’s appearance comes up in discussions, leaving Rolfes with the idea that “the goal posts are moving.”
And firing is becoming a “default” for those who face any accusation, he said. “That’s not fair.”
He struggled, though, to articulate what behavior he thought should result in firing. He likened it to the legal conundrum of what constitutes pornography, and a former Supreme Court justice’s famous answer: “I know it when I see it.”
What fits the crime?
Sylvia Sterne, the once harassed public-health administrator, also wrestles with the question of appropriate consequences, but in at least one case from a place of self-interest. She said she was devastated by the ouster of TV host Charlie Rose, whose high-minded interview program she adored, after multiple women described groping and other lewd behavior.
The Belltown resident longs for some type of punishment that would fit the crime — working at a battered women’s shelter, or even castration, she said. “I’m not kidding.”
Al Franken, on the other hand, would get off easy if Sterne were doling out punishment. “I would fine him five cents,” said Sterne, who views the allegations against the former U.S. senator, including unwanted kissing and posing for a photo with his hands over a sleeping woman’s breasts, as much less severe.
“Where are the brilliant minds who can determine levels of punishment?” she asked.
Employers do have a range of options at their disposal, said Ann Marie Painter, an employment lawyer with the firm Perkins Coie. Short of firing, they can suspend offending staffers, dock their pay, require them to attend training or counseling, or move them to another job.
Painter, having spent years helping employers reach decisions in harassment cases, said there is no uniform set of recommendations that match given offenses.
It’s all “fact specific,” agreed William Tamayo, who directs a regional district for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that includes Seattle.
In surveys, only about 25 percent typically report having been harassed at work. Yet when harassment is defined as unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion, the number jumps to roughly 40 percent. And when sexist or crude behavior is thrown in — a joke about female managers, posting of pornography, use of the “c” word — almost 60 percent of women say they have experienced it.
Complimenting someone’s dress? Women are not going to complain about that, Tamayo said. “There’s nothing sexual about it.”
“Of course,” Painter said, “if you say that with a lecherous look on your face, or you say it 10 times a day, that might be a problem.”
But so is going too far, she said, in the other direction — avoiding saying anything to women or no longer including them in lunches or private meetings — which can amount to gender discrimination.
As for flirting, Painter said: “Many people meet, date, fall in love and marry” co-workers. But she is a lawyer, and when people ask her where the line is, she says this: “If you have a question about whether something’s OK, then you should not do it.”