It seems like everywhere we turn today in the news, there are accusations being made between men and women. Those accusations are of a serious nature and are costing people on both sides in life-altering ways. Sexual misconduct and abuse, physical abuse, and gender bias are among the many claims being made mostly by women against men. These men are usually in positions of power. Therefore, they are in a prime position to commit the crimes and bad behavior they are accused of without a lot of resistance initially from their victims.
But something has happened lately. What was once too shameful to speak about out loud is now front and center for all the world to see. What was perpetrated behind closed doors has now been shoved out in the open by a chorus of voices saying it happened to #MeToo. One of the difficult angles in these revelations is how the rest of us receives these stories. Many people without hesitation take sides with the women who are accusing the men. Those men are immediately dumped from their perch and have lost not only high-paying jobs and careers but also their shiny reputations (some were not so shiny in the first place), their place in the industry and community, their marriages and families, and the hope for their futures. With many of these men, their behavior was exacted on multiple women so it's not a huge leap to believe that the accused is a predator.
But in other and fewer instances, the story involves a single incident with a high-profile person who says he remembers the events differently. He had no idea (he says) that his actions were interpreted by the woman in such a distasteful way. He's surprised and embarrassed by the accusation. We listen for the details, and we want to side with the accuser. We don't want women to stay silent as they have for so long, enduring all types of abuse by men for centuries, and denied the support they needed from others to believe them and help them. So we are careful not to blame the victim or accuse the accuser. Therefore, we become stuck with the dilemma of whether we should believe the man or not when he decries the account as a misunderstanding. Actions like words are left up to others' interpretations. When five, fifty or a hundred women come forth and accuse a man of a common vile behavior, it is easier to conclude that the guy did it. Even without solid evidence, where there's smoke, right? But when it's one-on-one, he-said-she-said, then things get a bit trickier.
Was the sex really consensual like he thought or was she disgusted by the act and only went along because he was powerful, and she was too afraid to speak up? Was his touching her body in places they laughed about really funny to her or was she screaming inside for him to stop? Is his continuous asking her out at work even after she said no his way of being persistent or is it harassment?
Sexual abuse, rape, force, touching, groping, impeding on anyone's personal space and making them uncomfortable cannot be misinterpreted. They can be ignored by the offender but not misinterpreted. Some things are very clear. But the gray areas of "I thought it was okay because you didn't tell me it wasn't" makes it harder to determine how to hold people accountable for their actions. Clarity in our communications and firmness in our rejections have to be conveyed without room for misunderstanding. It sounds like this on the job:
"I told you that I don't want to date you, and if you persist in asking, I'll be forced to report you to HR."
"You do not have the right to touch me that way without my permission. Don't ever do that again. If you do, I'll be forced to file a complaint against you."
"I find your words in poor taste and offensive. Don't speak to me or around me that way. If you continue, I'll have to bring management into this."
Notice that the verbiage is sharp, serious, and unwavering. You can tell that this is no joking matter. Her body language is likely stiff and her stance bold. She has also issued consequences once the bad behavior is called out.
When commands are given clearly and bad behavior is threatened, then there should be no doubt when a line has been crossed. Speaking out against bullies, sexual predators, and arrogant power players can help eliminate the "he-said-she-said" tug-of-war. When you're clear, confident, and commanding, the perpetrator can't say he didn't know. Remove the excuse for him, and regain the power for you.