I was recently the only woman in a group with six men discussing the current flurry of sexual harassment accusations. They believed that we were witnessing an epic reversal: instead of victims feeling ashamed for speaking out, shame was now falling squarely where it belonged, on the perpetrators of abuse. I had to agree that the quick downfall of the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., and Kevin Spacey could have a chilling effect on bad boys. What man wouldn’t now think twice before groping, fondling, exposing or sexually forcing himself on a woman, or another man for that matter?
I couldn’t help but think of two high profile sexual harassment scandals from the nineties with quite different outcomes, where the judgment phase dragged on for months and the accused escaped punishment: Bill Clinton and Clarence Thomas. Maybe times have changed.
I’m Guilty, But I Can Hardly Believe It Myself!
Something gnawed at me, however. I agree that shame is a powerful deterrent, one of the best, in fact. Yet for it to be effective, it must be accompanied by a sense of wrongdoing, an admission of guilt, however unconscious or denied. The flock of the recently accused have offered an interesting array of denials and confessions. Oddly, the accused seem surprised by their own behavior! Here are a few examples:
From Harvey Weinstein: “I so respect all women and regret what happened.”
From Senator Al Franken: “This has been a shock, and extremely humbling,” he told a gaggle of media… “I am embarrassed. I feel ashamed.” Franken also said, “I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t,” he continued. “And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.”
From Charlie Rose: “In my 45 years in journalism, I have prided myself on being an advocate for the careers of the women with whom I have worked.”
From Louis C.K.: “At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my d*ck without asking first, which is also true. But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your d*ck isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them.”
These men were “shocked and embarrassed” to discover that their self-image did not match their actions. The very behavior they would condemn in others they excused in themselves.
It’s not that these men did not know what sexual harassment was. It’s that they couldn’t see that what they were doing was sexual harassment.
I’m Too Good To Be Bad
It’s not just perpetrators who are blind to the truth about themselves; their supporters and cohorts fall into the trap as well. Stop and think about it for a second. If it’s someone from your party or political leaning who is being accused of sexual harassment or abuse, you find yourself coming up with excuses and saying things like, “This is different. You’re comparing apples and oranges.” But if it’s someone from the opposing party or political leaning, you easily condemn them on the spot. If we had counted ourselves on their side beforehand, we trust their denials. If we counted ourselves as against them, then we trust the accusers. It’s that simple. No fact finding, no serious attempt to discern the truth, only a gut reaction based on nothing other than our belief that we are always on the right side.
It’s this unshakeable faith in being right that makes us all susceptible to doing bad things without ever doubting our own goodness. It’s for this reason that I find it hard to believe that the recent spate of high profile downfalls will have a deterrent effect. You can’t deter someone from doing the bad thing they don’t think they are doing.
The Guilty Scapegoat
Which is why the rush to judgment in the court of public opinion also gives me cause for concern. It is a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say, to finally give victims their day in court. Because unfortunately, the judicial system has a history of terribly mishandling sexual harassment and abuse cases. The accused have benefited from unfair privilege and their accusers have been demeaned, shamed and silenced. Bill Clinton and Clarence Thomas are just two high profile examples of systemic and cultural failures to protect victims and hold perpetrators accountable.
Which can make the current rush to judgment in the public arena feel like a long overdue remedy. It is not. It does help us all to feel self-righteous, but that is hardly an answer to the problem of sexual harassment. The cascade of accusations against high profile men is like a runaway train – it may run over the wrong people or leave others who are just as guilty unscathed.
It’s a weird concept to wrap our minds around, but the guilty can also be scapegoats IF we convince ourselves that the problem is solved by bringing them to account. We are facing a bigger problem than even this steady stream of perpetrators indicates. Sexual harassment doesn’t just happen on movie sets or among the rich, famous, and powerful. Working women are harassed in restaurants and hotels, retail stores and small business, hospitals and nursing homes – you name the workplace where men are in a position of power over women, and you will find sexual harassment there. Who will hold these perpetrators to account?
The Montessori Remedy
There is something we can do to create a new cultural attitude toward this problem and it comes from the Montessori method of early childhood education. In particular, it involves when and how the question of sharing is negotiated in the classroom setting. It’s a lesson adults would do well to learn.
Remember that the adult-child relationship is a lot like the man-woman relationship in these sexual harassment cases. Like the abusive man, adults hold all the power and children must comply with our wishes or suffer the consequences. It’s uncomfortable to think about, but when we insist that children share their toys, we are setting up the same dynamic in which men insist that women share their bodies. In both scenarios, sharing is forced without regard for the desires of others.
When we force children to share, we teach them that people in power can force the powerless to submit to every request for their time, space, or stuff no matter who is asking or how inappropriate the request might be. They learn that their protests do not matter and their desires don’t count. And they learn that it’s good to be king. Not a great lesson.
Sharing is an important value to teach our children, but we cannot teach it through coercion. Sharing is a response to feeling safe, secure and respected. The Montessori method begins with the understanding that everyone’s desires matter and are respected. So if, for example, Bobby has chosen the pink tower to play with, he is entitled to play with it as long as he wants. If Katie wants to use the pink tower, too, the teacher will never force Bobby to share. Instead, Katie will be guided to ask for permission: “Bobby, can I work with the pink tower, too?” Bobby can say yes, agreeing to share the tower with Katie and they can play with it together. Or Bobby can say no.
Let me repeat that: Or Bobby can say no. The teacher does not impose her will on Bobby or automatically assume that Katie’s desire trumps Bobby’s. If Bobby does say no, Katie has two choices. She can sit quietly and watch Bobby work or she can go do something else until Bobby is done with the tower.
This teaches a very different lesson than forced sharing! The children learn that you cannot just take, grab, appropriate or impose your will on another person. Permission must be asked and granted before you can touch what belongs to someone else. And permission will often be denied and that’s okay! Because other people’s desires matter as much as yours. Montessori children learn that their desire is not an ultimate good that must be satisfied at all cost. They learn to redirect their attention, to satisfy their desires in another way, and to be patient instead of impulsive.
These are the lessons that will solve the plague of sexual harassment. If a cultural shift is going to happen, adults will need to examine the ways in which we privilege our own desires as an ultimate good and how we are passing on that misguided value to our children. Everyone’s desires deserve respect, not just our own. No one wants to be caught acting in ways that violate their values. Best to begin by getting our values in order and becoming a worthy role model for the next generation.