Yesterday I was reprimanded for confronting a man who sexually harassed me.
You read that right. During the reprimand I was thoughtful, and listened. I knew that the person – my friend’s husband – was speaking from a sincere place. Furthermore, I was too shocked to firmly agree or disagree with what he was saying. When I got home and thought more about it though, I felt like he was completely wrong.
Here’s a summary of what happened: My friend, her husband and I were volunteering at a children’s Christmas party. Before the organisers decided what they needed us to do, we were standing outside, waiting. A man was sitting on a bench underneath a tree next to where we were standing, staring at me. His gaze was relentless.
I turned my body away. I walked a few steps closer to my friend’s husband, so he could partially shield me. I sat on the opposite side of the tree, behind the man’s back. Always, his eyes followed me. He shifted his whole body to turn and look at me. It was disgusting. Even in this short retelling I feel disgusted.
Finally, I walked over to him. I asked him why he was looking at me and told him he was making me uncomfortable. He mumbled some nonsense about me looking nice and him wanting to tell me – telepathically?? – and I asked him to stop. Then I moved away and again tried to stand in a place where he couldn’t see me.
A few seconds later my friend and I had to cross the lawn in front of the man to get to the room where we would be working. I didn’t want to move. Though it had only been a few minutes, I was psychologically affected by his gaze. I felt exposed, and violated.
Later, inside the room while we were working, my friend’s husband told me that I shouldn’t have confronted the man. He said I didn’t know how the man might have reacted, that things could have gone poorly. I was surprised, since although he was standing near me I didn’t know he saw what had happened. In any event, I told him that he was right, but since we were in a public space I didn’t think the risk was that high. Then he went on to tell me that I could have used that moment for evangelism. I could have chosen different words in order to ask the man if he knew about Jesus, or invite him to church with me.
Are you kidding me?
I was floored. This man saw me literally hiding from the harasser, and said I should be asking the harasser to spend more time with me? Our conversation continued with some back and forth. My friend’s husband compared my situation to a time when he was catcalled by a woman, and he did what he suggested to me – invited her to church. He also compared my response to a time about an hour earlier, when we were driving to the party site. He was aggravated with the slow driver in front of him, but in our conversation acknowledged that he didn’t need to respond as aggressively as he did.
These examples only showed me that he had no real understanding for what I felt under the tree. I tried to explain the powerlessness, the fact that I was on the defensive, that I felt alone, but the disconnect remained. He acknowledged that I was in a difficult position, but said although it wouldn’t be easy, evangelising in these moments was still something I should be aiming for.
I don’t remember how the conversation ended, but it did, and only left me feeling more upset. In fact, I probably would have forgotten about the creep under the tree if I hadn’t had this discussion afterward. Unfortunately, it would just be added to the pile of similar incidents.
I believe my friend’s husband said what he did out of concern for me and zeal for our faith, but all it did was rub salt in my wound. It was not his place to criticise my actions; all that did was make me wonder why he didn’t come to my defence on his own, or say something to the creep after I did. Moreover, I didn’t do anything wrong in choosing to stand up for myself. In a situation where no one else was going to do it for me, I took control of things in a way that made me feel less helpless. The contradictory statements – not to confront a harasser, to evangelise in confrontation – both encourage harmful behaviour that minimize the action of the harasser.
We are in a time now when many women are stepping forward and speaking about their experiences of abuse, assault and harassment at the hands of powerful male public figures. We are applauding their bravery and doing our best to honour their courage; we want to bring their perpetrators to justice. In telling me to be quiet, my friend’s husband only contributes to the culture that allows sexual misconduct to continue. Telling me to evangelise – to stay in harms way – contributes to people thinking of Christianity, and Christian men, as backward and oppressive.
I share this story to reject both those things. I share this story so that you, especially if you’re a man, will reconsider any situation where you think you ought to correct a woman for choosing to speak up. I share this story to call for more empathy from men, for the awful experience of any kind of sexual harassment or assault. We have a long way to go before we have totally shifted our attitudes and strategies dealing with sexual misconduct, and the vulnerable populations cannot be fighting on our own.