There’s a new teachable moment we have to confront as parents and it’s one that is long overdue. As the #MeToo movement was taking off, it hit home for me with the memory of an encounter my daughter experienced as a 24-year-old summer law associate.
Although I knew her strength and character would not let the incident cut her down, it certainly left a lasting impression on her. Her experience involved a civil rights icon who was a friend of the law firm’s managing partner and whose nonprofit was one of the firm’s clients.
During a dinner, the summer associates met the client. Paige said he came over to their table to say hello to the managing partner, and the partner introduced him. Someone then asked for a photo of the summer associates and the man. “I felt like I had to take a photo with him to be polite,” Paige says. “It was during the photo that (he) groped my butt. I remember feeling surprised at his behavior, but in a cynical way, because his wife and family were at this event. Like wow, you grabbed my butt with your family nearby? I remember turning to my other coworkers (women) and being like, did you just see him grab my ass? I was angry about it but I also felt like that was just something that happens that I will have to deal with.”
Paige knew she shouldn’t think that way “but when society doesn’t give you a choice, when society doesn’t believe women, and when black women have to work 100,000 times harder to be recognized at the table especially in my industry, my choices were absolutely limited,” she says.
My daughter feels lucky, and so do I, that her story didn’t involve brute force or serious harm. But her story still matters. “As a young woman basically on a summer-long interview at a law firm, I didn’t want to cause any drama so I didn’t say anything to anyone about what happened. Anyone who would have an impact on whether I received an offer,” she says.
She had to weigh whether it was worth not being considered for this job by putting a spotlight on herself. The alternative was staying under the radar and tolerating it. It’s worse for women with more painful and humiliating encounters, she admits. “Looking back, I’m not sure how they would have reacted, but I regret not speaking up for myself. I’m proof that even women who consider themselves strong and outspoken can still feel like they have no voice in certain situations.”
It’s a good time for parents to see this opportunity to talk to their kids about what sexual assault is, what it looks like, and what it can feel like. Educate yourself first on every working definition of sexual violence, harassment, assault etc. and be prepared to be an advocate and an ally for your children.
Discuss the power dynamics that come to the surface amidst the #MeToo stories that women everywhere are sharing. The idea that the perpetrator in any given relationship is using their power over another person irresponsibly. Using power irresponsibly can look like a lot of things. It can be taking advantage of a relationship, emotionally, in a way that leads to sexual violence. It can be someone with social capital (the most popular person in school, for example, or a lead singer of a band) knowing that their social stature is attractive to others — and using that in a sexually manipulative or coercive way.
Paige offered this advice for me to share: “I think parents should also encourage their daughters to learn about their own bodies and to explore their sexuality the same way that parents encourage boys. I think it’s also important to teach girls the significance of saying no, but also the significance in affirmatively saying yes and to explore what yes means for her and what that looks like and feels like to her. Girls should have choices and agency, and it doesn’t always have to be no. Part of being a sexually responsible human being is also knowing the difference between the two and being assertive and affirmative about both choices.”
Recently Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, told me more and more female colleagues, friends and volunteers have been sharing their stories with him because the movement has helped them feel free to open up. Rosenberg said the latest cases have the same elements he sees in child abuse cases — the victims say they just wanted the abuse to be over, they had no control, they didn’t know they could tell anybody and they thought it only happened to them.
Parents, this is a teachable moment we can’t lose.