I admit it: I’m in a quandary. My skin crawls every time another sexual harassment case becomes public. This is not a new story — for millennia it’s gone on and without much consequence.
And yet, I cringe when individuals are unjustly accused. There was the case, for instance, of fraternity members being falsely accused of a gang rape at the University of Virginia, ruining students’ reputations bashed and leading to the temporary shutting down of the fraternity.
On the other hand, some are quick to accuse victims who come forward of low and loose morals, as if that would have justified being attacked. Many victims have thus kept quiet for decades. And then there are those who knew, who kept silent and covered up the harassment.
Nonetheless, I’m not a #MeToo person.
Why not? What bothers me is that we seem quick to exchange victims. Those accused do not deserve lynching, but due process. Paying for accusations or encouraging them a few days or weeks before an election is suspect.
Having said that, sexual harassment is a reality. And I know this personally.
At 14, I began high school. The college prep track helped plan for PSATs, SATs and appropriate coursework — pretty exciting stuff for a kid whose parents hadn’t been able to graduate college.
We had a few group meetings. Then I went to the college counselor’s office to register for the PSATs. I bounced down the hall, never a doubt in my mind that I’d go to college, major in English and begin my writing career.
“Mr. Martin’s” office door was open and a chair was pulled up close to his desk.
“Close the door, Susan,” he said smilingly. “I bet you’re excited to start this process.”
“I sure am.” I smiled back and sat down in the chair.
The forms were on his desk. Mr. Martin reached for some files, brushing my leg. I thought nothing of it. As he continued talking, his hand rested on my knee. I froze.
His hand traveled all the way up my skirt. My heart pounded and I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. It seemed hours until I finally stood up, opened the door, walked down the hall and returned to class. I didn’t say anything to my friends.
“So did you sign up for the PSATs?” my best friend Kathy asked me. I nodded. Should I tell her? Another friend came by and the moment was gone.
I didn’t remember a word that was said the rest of the long day. When I arrived home, my parents were still at work. My brother was in the Navy, in Guantanamo Bay.
During dinner, I was quiet, rarely telling my parents about my school troubles. My dad looked closely at me and asked, “So, how’s my girl?” and I burst into tears.
Shame. That’s what I felt. Why hadn’t I said something? Why not leave sooner? Why not go straight to the principal or dean’s office?
The story came out slowly. My parents’ faces showed their anger and hurt. My dad raised his voice: “I’m going to call the principal right now and give him a piece of my mind!”
My mother, who worked in the school system, ultimately called the principal. My dad opened his arms and held me. I knew he was angry, and if it weren’t for my mom knowing the principal, he would have been yelling on the phone so loud our neighbors would’ve heard.
My mother spoke to the principal the next morning and insisted that he do something.
“I will do the appropriate thing,” he intoned vaguely, no doubt hoping to avoid the teachers union, problems with the counselor’s tenure and other headaches.
“You won’t be going back to that man again,” my mom said that night at the dinner table. I had been reassigned to the vocational counselor, whom I saw for the rest of my high school years. A nice respectful guy, he knew nothing about preparing for college, and I was on my own.
Kathy asked me later that month, “So how come you’re not seeing Martin?” I shrugged.
Mr. Martin stayed in his job during my high school years and beyond. I didn’t speak to him again. There’s little doubt in my mind that other students had his inappropriate groping foisted on them.
This incident faded to the back of my mind until the recent spate of sexual harassment charges. I thought to myself, “Boy, I was lucky never to have anything happen to me like that.” Then I remembered Mr. Martin.
At first, I was angry with myself for not speaking up, not slapping his hand or not telling other students. My second reaction was to wonder why students weren’t protected from predators, why this individual was allowed to stay. Why had my school system and teachers union shielded this employee?
Those who should have been defending us often have not. Disappointingly, some feminists have protected liberal predators. A congressional slush fund pays off representatives’ accusers. The media shields some and attacks others for political reasons.
No one questioned me at school about the incident. They didn’t want to know.
Legally, silence implies consent. This is not to blame the victim. This is the silence of those who know, who allow perpetrators to continue their molesting and go unpunished or allow others to falsely accuse. Bullies thrive on silence.
In Ecclesiastes, we read that there is “a time to keep silent and a time to speak.” Many say that now is the time for men and women to speak out when they see sexual bullying, harassment or abuse. That’s true.
But then, it’s always been the time to speak out — when it’s the truth.
Susan Weintrob is a retired educator and writer in Charleston, S.C.