By Shivaji Sengupta
As New York’s Letitia James said, “Governor Cuomo’s resignation is a sad day for New York.” It’s sad for everybody, the governor, and the eleven women who had to experience sexual harassment at the hands of the governor. Most of all, it is a sad commentary on America’s male-dominated culture of power.
We men have been doing this for so long that it is perhaps ingrained in the male system, at least in patriarchal societies which is most societies we know. Sexually harassing women has been going on since time memorial. Way back in the past, sexual harassment was much more than harassment. It was rape and murder. Today, the term has a definite legal meaning: it is approaching a person with gestures, verbal or physical, unwelcome to that person. It doesn’t have to be sexual, or even physical. As long as the other person being approached tells you that your interaction with her or him is offensive or even unwelcome, persisting with the same behavior is sexual harassment.
Notice that I have defined sexual harassment in gender-free terms. This is because sexual harassment is not limited toward women by men or vice versa. However, it is but begging the question as to which sex is more subjected to it.
Why this happens has been already suggested by me in the above paragraphs: because of men’s power over women, physical, social and cultural. Civics has attempted to bring fairness and equality, but in name only. The law protects women in most countries. But the laws are not applied. In this country we have perhaps the most progressive laws and customs that give women equal access to opportunity (though not equal pay – which is actually another form of harassment), give them the means to bring men to trial, but harassment goes on and on. The smell of the sperm is on all men.
In this context, the #Me Too movement has played an important role. It started as an individual quest by Tarana Burke to bring men who abuse women to justice. Burke was sexually abused as an adolescent and a woman, but received considerable support from her mother. She encouraged her daughter to give support to other sexually harassed women who did not have anyone to go to. Tarana started group discussions among such women, and the discussions led to the #Me Too group. It has now grown into a worldwide movement which dedicates itself to bringing men who sexually harass women to justice. #Me Too suddenly became famous in 2017 when almost 90 women charged Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood film producer, of harassing them sexually using the #Me Too forum. It is now perhaps the most well known social movement helping women to publicize men who sexually abuse women. It provides them with counsel, legal help and literally thousands of fellow women who have experienced similar abuse from men. #Me Too has mushroomed in the far corners of the world from Europe all the way round to Asia, Australia and New Zealand. In India, where rape is ubiquitous, there is a vigorous #Me Too movement.
One of the important Mission statements of #Me Too is: to encourage women to understand why regulating emotions more intentionally leads to better outcomes, and how recognizing and responding to emotions of others is equally necessary to foster better results. In other words, when traumatic events overtake us, render us helpless, it is important to get in touch with our emotions, rather than do anything dictated purely by the emotions. This advice is for the #Me Too women, many of whom have experienced harassment. But – and here is an answer to the question I asked at the begin of this column – the advice can be extremely valuable for men, especially those in positions of power. Also, for women in positions of power.
I had asked how can we prevent men from sexually harassing women? Plenty of worthwhile advice have been given to them regarding women’s dignity, about fairness, and to remember they are someone’s mother, wife and daughter. None of it has worked. It hasn’t worked because of a simple fact: male sexual desire is about men themselves, and their love of women. Sexual harassment is desire’s ruthlessness. It is an attitude, an attitude that says, I am turned on by this woman. I must have her, at any cost. This mind-set is all the more pronounced – and prominent – in men in power. They have become so accustomed to getting what they want that many do not question for an instant their right to demand sex from those exploitation, sexual harassment.
It is an interesting question as to why women in positions of power are rarely accused of sexual harassment. Compare, for example, the number of the recent American presidents accused of this crime: Kennedy, Clinton, Donald Trump, Joe Biden – even George Bush senior. Has anyone heard Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi or Golda Meir harassing men sexually? Why not?
I think the reason is that women, once again because of their vulnerable position in society, are much more sensitive about their own reputation than men. They bear a bigger share of responsibility for general good than men. They stand to lose more in terms of reputation than men. Finally, they seem to care more about their family’s image than men. Consequently, they are extremely cautious when it comes to sexual conduct.
I am suggesting that men, particularly those in power, would do well to take the same advice that #Me Too gives women regarding becoming aware of their emotions and the emotions of others. Doing so, they say, will lead to a better understanding of the Self as well as of others.
Understanding the Self is most important. It amounts to being self aware. I can tell you from personal example that most of the time I have done things I regretted is when I lost my self awareness. Temptation is the biggest enemy of self awareness. Temptations of money, sex, political power, can make us lose our awareness in a hot minute. Losing awareness is losing our sense of situation, our sense of where we are, physically and socially. I firmly believe that men need to develop more self awareness if they really want to resist temptation.
But then what exactly is self awareness? How do you develop it?
Self-awareness comes from being constantly in dialogue with others, especially with those you trust, and periods of self reflection after the dialogue. If Governor Cuomo, for example, would have talked with people he trusts, or perhaps with a therapist, about his temptations, if he had then self reflected (“What is this that I am doing? Am I being fair to the person concerned? Have I considered the powerful position I am in and how it is disadvantageous to the woman I am attracted to?) then chances are that he wouldn’t have sexually harassed the women, many of them relentlessly. If only the governor had more awareness.
Awareness requires dialogue. Dialogue requires highly developed skills in listening, responding and valuing. These come through long experiences of dialogue, through listening to others with interest and empathy, and responding to others sensitively, with honesty and authenticity. The other person(s) in the dialogical process must feel that you care about them, you are interested in them for their own sake, and that you are authentic. Authentic is being true to yourself as far as your self-awareness allows you to be.
None of this is easy. But the biggest hurdle to achieving self awareness is 𝑣𝑎𝑙𝑢𝑖𝑛𝑔 self awareness. Many people don’t even understand it. Those who do somewhat, dismiss it as weakness, feminine and so on. The result is exploitation.
Sexual harassment is ancient. It is not going to go away any time soon. #Me Too has forced a world-wide dialogue. I have tried most of my professional life to develop in myself, and in the educational setting, the importance of self awareness through dialogue and self reflection. It takes a lifetime, and that is not enough. Governor Cuomo is a prime example.
It is easier to advice than to do. I am not Governor Cuomo, nor was I ever meant to be. But I have seen men in powerful positions regret what they do, and fall from grace.
In several of those situations they have trusted me enough to confess. There was one common thread in all those confessions: losing awareness, becoming 𝑢𝑛𝑠𝑖𝑡𝑢𝑎𝑡𝑒𝑑, being displaced internally from where you are.
It’s easy to say all this, especially after the fact. However, if those who are tempted, speak to others about it, and self reflect, there is a sports person’s chance of escaping from the temptation.
It may have saved the governor, and other men in high places.
Sexual Harassment in High Places: A Plea for Self Awareness
By Shivaji Sengupta