The Cold Equations: Opportunity Cost in Low-Key Sexual Harassment

When I was in junior high, girls who stopped for a drink of water at the intersection of the hallways were asking for “it.” The drinking fountains were a constant wheel of fortune: would I be able to lean slightly to get a drink without being groped? Every girl I knew was a potential gropee in that game; I still believe that — hopefully — only a small percentage of the boys were gropers. When possible, girls monopolized the fountains for the three minutes between classes, seeking safety in numbers.

The teachers across from the drinking fountain regularly shoo’d the “clumps of girls clogging up the hallway,” as they referred to us, down the hall. These teachers could see when several girls were crowding around the drinking fountain, but claimed they never saw the boys’ hands snake around to grab our breasts or shove their fingers between our legs as we bowed for a sip of water. After a few attempts at reporting the assaults and finding that our teachers were unwilling to do anything as simple as stand by the drinking fountain to make the point that no one should touch anyone else, we quit reporting it. Those teachers — two popular male teachers in their first few years of teaching — made it clear that continuing to complain made it likely that we would be labeled paranoid, sex-obsessed snitches.

Telling our mothers led to problem-solving, like the idea that we should get a hall pass during class when the halls would be relatively empty to get a drink instead of doing it during class changes. As far as I recall, going to teachers or principals was never suggested. Learning to navigate low-key harassment was part of growing up, apparently.

That was more than 40 years ago. I rarely contemplated that facet of my early teen years, and when I did tell that story, it focused on annoyance that the teachers would not do anything. Until the cultural discussion of #metoo started, I did not consider the water fountain groping to be sexual assault. In my mind, it was not even sexual harassment. It was boys being boys, and we could either figure out a work around or tolerate it. It did not happen every time, and it only lasted a moment — and sometimes, if I turned fast enough, I could “accidentally” elbow the offender in the gut with a fair amount of force.(And yes, the teachers did usually notice elbowing. I once was forced to apologize for my clumsiness to a groper. It was still worth playing the odds to see if I could nab the culprit.)

The past week, though, I find myself in a vaguely similar situation, which has me re-thinking other times when I either failed to create boundaries or chose to not enforce them. I again find myself in a situation where I could shrug a man’s behavior off as an example of “men being men,” with no malicious intent or ability to learn better (following the old dog/new trick theory of learning), or decide on a course of action to ensure it does not happen again.

Stated that way, the decision sounds obvious: take action to ensure it does not happen again. The flow chart is not that clear, though. Trying to make sure it does not happen again offers three branches:

  1. Tell the man in question that his groping, then forced kiss was inappropriate and he needs to both apologize and be warned that if anything like that happens again, our friendship is over; I’d give excellent odds that this option would include snarky comments pointing out that we have played and flirted occasionally, so do I expect him to read my mind about when he should not try to initiate something? (Hint: when I have my coat on and am getting out my keys, I’m signaling that I’m leaving. That is not code for “abruptly stick your hand up my shirt while you grind against me.”) Knowing him, the sarcastic comments would happen every so often, so this would not be a one-and-done discussion, unless the done refers to our friendship.
  2. Tell the man I’m having health issues and any sort of sexual activity is not possible for the foreseeable future; he was sympathetic when that was true earlier, but he checked with me every regularly to see if the situation had changed and I could play; that got old — and I got better, so our relationship was again physical at times; hoping that my situation would change would be reasonable, so the topic would be raised again. And again.
  3. Tell him that I’m in a new relationship, and it is monogamous; history shows that he would accept this reason with no future hassle as long as I occasionally mention my new boyfriend. Another advantage to this is that it does not upset any social groups or change our friendship in any fundamental way — we could still be in touch, still chat about common interests, even go out to dinner sometimes, all with a high degree of confidence that he will keep his hands and his suggestions to himself. Because we live in different cities, this option is viable. We don’t have common friends who would know any differently. The downside: it is a lie, even if it is for the greater good of preserving our friendship in a drama-free manner.

This sort of consideration, playing through the opportunity cost of each option, may seem like overthinking, but similar conversations with female friends over the years make me believe this thought process is not unique to me. A friend in an abusive marriage spent weeks talking through possible approaches to dealing with or escaping from her husband. Another friend in a supervisory position played through a variety of ways to tell a new hire that his compliments on her clothing and appearance were crossing a line. There are consequences for not letting boys act like boys — especially when the “harassment” is as low-key as a breast squeeze and bruising kiss from a sometime lover or getting bumped into in a hallway so that the man involved (possibly accidentally…more than once) cops a feel. “That doesn’t really hurt you,” I was told when expressed dismay that I again got bumped into by an older man. “Maybe he got a cheap thrill, but you’re ok,” was my partner’s reaction.

Thanks to #metoo, we are now telling some of these stories, and we are having discussions about definition and degree, consequences and consent. My generation should have started those discussions when we were inventing disco, I know, but somehow the buzz about Saturday Night Fever involved surprise that Travolta could dance, not that the movie was a sympathetic portrayal of a character who attempted rape after some moderately stalk-y behavior.

Discussion of these topics, however, should not imply agreement on them. One friend said that choosing to work in an environment with men means you deal with their behavior without whining — she admitted that an extra heavy staple gun that she kept on her desk has fallen on the feet of men who leaned over her desk in an apparent attempt to look down her shirt or crowd her too closely. Friends applauded that as a brilliant solution, far better than reporting the issue to HR. “No reason to get a reputation as a tight-ass,” one of my friends said. None of the stories we told involved “real” sexual assault or harassment, just the daily stuff that happens.

Several of my friends who have both sons and daughters have told me how much more concerned they are about their sons than their daughters. “His career could be derailed with an unjust accusation,” a friend said. When I asked about her daughter, she shrugged. “My daughter knows how to deal with life,” my friend said. Both statements are true — but that does not make either of them right.

Most of my friends and I were born at the end of the Baby Boom or soon after. Our attitudes were formed after the birth control pill changed the sexual landscape, and before AIDS changed it again. None of us have the same mores and expectations that we did when our hair was styled like Farrah Fawcett’s, but those experiences are still part of our history. The man who recently groped me is slightly older yet, part of the Howdy-Doody section of the Baby Boom. He’s enlightened, but only in comparison to the norm through his college days. Even though times have changed, history comes through.

I hope — no, I believe — that my grown children and their friends would frame all of these experiences differently, and their flow chart of options would include either more honest options or the willingness to walk away, damn the consequences. I am also confident in saying that most men, most of the time, are aware of social boundaries and operate within what is appropriate in given situations. Men do not want to be “that guy,” and most of them aren’t.

As I thought about my junior high water fountain situation, I realized that as far as I know, none of the girls told the boys — the “nice” boys, the ones we knew were not the gropers — what was happening. Our cousins, brothers, boyfriends — I think it is very possible they didn’t know. Maybe they saw a girl get groped at the fountain once or twice, and shrugged it off as an anomaly. Maybe they heard a friend brag about touching a girl at the fountain and laughed at the obvious fiction. I have to believe that most of the boys I counted as friends in junior high would have been embarrassed and appalled if they knew that was a fairly routine experience for the girls in our class. Probably. Maybe.

So what am I going to do — if anything — about my recent experience? I don’t know. The idea of controlling the situation so he doesn’t have the chance for a repeat groping, like our mothers suggested about the water fountain, may be the path of least resistance and the most honest. On the other hand, I’ve always liked the name Tod. He could be a forest ranger who writes poetry during his stints in the fire tower. That could work.

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