By Paw Print Staff
This article was admittedly difficult to write as a staff. A balance of confessional, factual, and nuanced writing is complex to achieve in any particular scenario, and when coupled with the pressures of commenting on a collective cultural moment of such inhumanity with a poised, thought-provoking perspective, it is nearly impossible.
Initially, our desire was to provide a platform for members of the Payton community to share their own experiences anonymously, hoping the simple approach would encourage individuals to draw their own conclusions without the insertion of opinion statements.
While we are incredibly grateful for the personal stories we received, unfortunately their severity warranted them too likely to be dubbed “sensationalist,” thus violating high school journalism ethics. So here we are, writing an editorial on the topic that in the last few months has inspired a global conversation unparalleled in its volatility, igniting explosions throughout both personal and professional spheres and provoking an uncomfortable debate regarding an ingrained behavior that has so long been tolerated it now exists as the most widely accepted human rights violation: sexual harassment.
We have no intention of offering a comprehensive definition of sexual harassment. We are as resolute in our desire for an exhaustive handbook outlining explicitly what is and isn’t considered sexual harassment as we are sure such a resource will never be created. Doing such a thing would require a level of commitment to rectify these entrenched behaviors currently missing from the American consciousness, an admission of wrongdoing and acceptance of responsibility everyone seems either too prideful, or reluctant, to agree to.
However, one thing is clear. Going on four months of a national discussion intent on emptying every last skeleton from the closets of those individuals previously deemed untouchable in their prestige, power, and privilege, but simultaneously too senseless to shift this discussion’s tone from that of reactive anger to proactive engagement, we’ve hit a breaking point.
Nightly news broadcasts and Facebook feeds alike have been littered with pixelated image after pixelated image of scorned American icons, a never-ending procession of individuals joining that not-so-elite club encompassing enough that everyone from Academy Award winning actor Kevin Spacey to the neighbor two-houses down from you count themselves as card-carrying members.
While the repulsive details of each of these occurrences are eagerly devoured by readers (indeed, “penile” is a word we hope we never have to hear again), every exclamation of outrage is met with an equally strong pause of hesitancy, as though labeling sexual harassment definitively would be taking it a step too far, making the situation altogether “too real.”
The details by themselves are disgusting but palatable, like a sequence from a gruesome horror movie. However, when a face, name, and history are attached to each incident, this horror movie begins to twist, to transform. Suddenly it replicates real life a little too closely, as you are left to uncomfortably wonder if “that victim could have been my sister, brother, neighbor, or friend. I could have even been that victim. Wait, I have been that victim.”
Herein lies the problem: sexual harassment never has been, and never will be a “fringe” issue, and yet it is met with the same level of astonishment typically reserved only for those who have suffered freak accidents.
“Did you hear about Kelly? Yeah, she was eaten by a shark, isn’t it sad?” “Bobby was struck and killed by a derailed train; I should call his mother, she must be devastated.” “Brenda was exploited for sexual favors at her workplace, and threatened that her promotion would be revoked if she didn’t comply. Oh, that poor thing!”
We remain frozen and horrified, continually surprised and embarrassed that such “sweet,” “compassionate” people would be capable of such abuse when history has proven to us time and again that “No” means “Maybe” and “Maybe” means “Yes,” that those who take what they want without asking are not only protected from consequences but rewarded for tenacity, that the length of their skirt directly corresponds to how much they were “asking for it,” and that any potential barriers standing in the way of a sexual harasser and a successful career, among these professions the American presidency, are nothing that can’t disappear with the help of a good-enough lawyer.
While the Times Up and #MeToo campaigns have signaled a noteworthy shift in our growing capacity to believe and to learn from survivors of sexual harassment and assault, the reactive response we have assigned to approaching this topic renders it dangerously close to amounting to nothing more than today’s hot-button political issue, the momentary outlet for our frustrations before being unceremoniously dropped next season for something newer, more fashionable, more “2019.”
The uncomfortable truth is that while criminal investigations have been initiated surrounding the sexual misconduct allegations directed towards a number of high-profile individuals, many will be closed without explanation. As many, if not more, lawsuits will be settled discreetly, out of the public eye, than will ever actually reach the American court system. While the Harvey Weinsteins and Matt Lauers of the world must now face public humiliation for their actions, they won’t be required to relinquish the millions they’ve made throughout their decades-long careers during which their exploitative behaviors were conveniently ignored by their inner-circles, protected by a shield of complicity that dismissed an obligation for truth and justice in favor of the convenience of wealth and privilege.
So entwined has sexual harassment become with not only socially accepted, but socially expected behaviors, that its overhaul would require a monumental effort, one that would overtly confront not just our understanding of the existent power dynamics in sexual relationships, but those present in domestic, professional, sibling, parent-child, and teacher-student relationships as well.
A shift so foundational begins from the ground-up, by re-examining the values and behaviors society warrants acceptable and introducing greater support for healthy relationships specifically at the time when uncomfortable power dynamics first begin forming, an occurrence the Paw Print has witnessed aspects of within our own school community.
While the abolition of the school dress code was a welcome step in the right direction, channels of communication must be completely opened for meaningful discussion to take place. Microaggressions, rape and trigger jokes, catcalling, and the culture of harassment specifically targeted towards the lgbtq+ community have all become par for the course within the social environment created throughout secondary education, including at Payton, a particularly jarring fact when one considers how formative this developmental period is in the creation of healthy dating habits and romantic attitudes.
When these topics remain un-discussed, the Payton community collectively suffers.
In a period within our socio-political landscape when calls to action are stunted because of a greater unwillingness to have a conversation that may get too “real,” we must make a conscious decision to continue this discussion even when we would rather not.
Sexual harassment flourishes in silence and lives off of reluctance. Now is not the time to walk on eggshells and retreat to the background.
Candor, proactivity, and commitment are the only true antidotes to this disease. A school-wide conversation is not nearly enough, but it is a start.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE. HELP IS HERE.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
Crisis Call Center
800-273-8255 or text ANSWER to 839863
loveisrespect, National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline
The Gay & Lesbian National Hotline