The Subtle and Not So Subtle Ways Some Men Try to Exert Sexual Power Over Women

This was published on Guerrilla Feminism and is being republished with permission.

“Love the new profile pic, except I love when your hair is long. Gives me something to pull on when I think about you.”

Had this declaration come from my husband, I’d have to interrupt this blog for a little while and um, prove him wrong. However, it did not. It was a Facebook message from someone I have known since high school.

At first I was in disbelief … and no, I wasn’t thinking I was imagining it. I was just really surprised because this person—let’s call him Greg—speaks so highly of his wife, mother and daughters. He is a Christian whom, as he phrases it, “puts God at the center of his marriage.”

I didn’t reply right away. I wanted to think about it before deciding how to respond. It gave me a headache, truth be told because I knew ultimately what had to happen—I had to defriend him. His comment was inappropriate on too many levels.

And no, I wasn’t flattered and it didn’t make me feel desirable. When I want to feel desired, I have my husband to turn to. I don’t need more than one man seeing me that way. This is not to say that I don’t believe it’s possible another man finds me attractive, but it’s got nothing to do with that.

I was angry because he put me in an awkward spot because now I was going to be the one to look like a bitch for standing up for myself, which I obviously had to do.

I shared it with my husband and while there was never a question in either of our minds how I would handle it, I did tell him that it really pissed me off that I was in this position. Absent this incident Greg was a nice guy—both in high school and on Facebook.

So I had a growling session with my husband and then I thought about how I’d handle it.

I chose to be more passive than I would normally recommend a woman in this position be, but I did so for a reason. I was always in control of the situation. There was never a moment where I felt threatened, dirty or ashamed. I was pissed off, but I didn’t let it show immediately. I wrote back the following, “Are you done being inappropriate with other women, and the bigger question, does your wife know you do this when she’s not around?”

“I don’t want to talk about that.” He replied. “Let’s get back to me pulling your hair.” OK, I thought to myself, dude just called my bluff.

He escalated things, and so I did as well. I had to make it clear and leave no room for him to be unsure of where I stand on this. “Greg, what the fuck is your problem? You’re married and have three kids. I am married. You talk about your wife so lovingly. What’s up with that? And when did I ever give you or anyone on Facebook the impression that I am even remotely interested in another man? Your questions are totally out of line, but I don’t have to tell you that because you’re a smart guy; you know this.”

He replied with one of those completely half-assed apologies, “I’m sorry if I offended you.”

For real? I thought to myself. I replied with a long message, but the highlights went something like this:

“You haven’t offended me. You offended and disrespected your wife and daughters. You surprised and angered me. You paint yourself as a self-righteous and God fearing man. And I believed you and respected you for your beliefs. I am angry because you’ve put me in a very awkward position. If I remain friends with you, I’ll have to continually wonder whether you still think these things—despite that you are married and you know I am happily married. I am pissed because we’ve known each other since high school and I always saw you as a stand up guy. I liked you and liked the guys you hung out with. Greg, I hope for your sake you look at this situation and learn from it. I hope you don’t do this again. But you probably will.”

He claims he was joking, and that I misunderstood and took it out of context. This is a tactic men use to put it back on the woman who calls them out for their crap. He also called me a few names that didn’t surprise me in the least bit. I have been on this earth for nearly fifty years, and for far longer than that men have been calling women bitches for standing up for themselves.

One might be inclined to ask why I overreacted. Maybe he was “only joking,” or I took him out of context, or I need to lighten up and even be flattered.

Actually no, I don’t, and neither should other women who are in this position because comments like these—while of course are inappropriate—have a way of escalating when men who say them aren’t called on them immediately. What happens when they’re dismissed is a woman feels she imagined it or she is too embarrassed to confront the guy saying it is that it sends the message that this is acceptable… and it’s anything but.

Was I Always This Way or Did I get Harder With Age?

A little of both. My parents raised me to be very independent and a feminist, but on the other hand, I am not always good at discerning the subtle ways in which men make sexual advances at women.

I remember when I was nineteen I was hired to be the secretary to an executive in the restaurant business. I was asked to come into his office so he could dictate a letter to me, which I was supposed to type and mail out (pre Internet and email, my friends). As I wrote down what he’s telling me, he suddenly asks me, “Sarah, is it hot in here, or is it me?”

“Well Steve, you’re wearing a sweater and the heat is turned way up,” I reply. Assuming he’s going to ask me to turn my head or he would excuse himself while he goes to the restroom to change, I have to admit I was caught completely off guard when he not only removed his shirt but he reached across his desk and took my hand and asked if I wanted to touch his chest.

I wasn’t as inclined to curse out a man, and certainly not my boss, as I am today, so instead I took my hand back, stood up and opened the door to his office and walked out. I left the door wide open so everyone meandering in the hall could see him standing there looking stupid and confused. He couldn’t put his sweater on fast enough.

That afternoon I was brought into the president’s office where all four partners, including my boss were present. Ernie asks me to sit down and he says, “Sarah, how do we make this go away?”

“What? Steve? You want to know how to make Steve go away? That’s easy, fire him.” I knew what they were really asking, but I wanted them to say it.

“Let me rephrase this. How much will it cost us to make it go away?” Ernie asked me.

“You’ve been here before, I take it?” I asked. “Now I know why Steve goes through four of five secretaries a year.” I rolled my eyes at them.

They each looked at each other. They looked at Steve. They looked back at me. I spoke up. “Steve, you’re an asshole and a misogynist and I doubt I am the first woman to tell you this. And I won’t be the last. We can make this go away, but you (my eyes locked with all of Steve’s partners’ eyes) need to stop covering up for this asshole. You seriously need to fire his ass or you’re going to keep paying women in exchange for their silence.”

Now thirty years later I am not proud of myself. I had his home phone number and you can’t know how often I thought about calling his wife to tell her what he did, because I am so sure she didn’t know. They didn’t have Bill and Camille Cosby’s money, but enough so that her life was extremely comfortable.

I don’t think I did anyone any favors—least of all Steve—by not filing a civil suit against both Steve personally and the company, but I was nineteen and living on my own. The money came in handy as I was able to look around for the perfect job without the pressure of having to take one I didn’t want or with people I didn’t want to work with. I also travelled and put the rest in savings.

My next few bosses were women.

Is This Common or Am I the Anomaly?

Very common and I am hardly unique. Day in and day out men put young girls and women in very awkward positions by making both subtle and overt sexual advances toward them. Sometimes they quickly escalate and we read about them in the news. Bill Cosby, ol’ Jell-O eatin’ Fat Albert/Dr. Huxtable himself knows a thing or two about escalation and coercion.

Women get hit on every day but there’s being hit on by a stranger in a random setting, one in which you’ll likely never run into this person again and others where it’s a family friend, a boss, a mentor, a teacher, a friend, a date, a coworker or a neighbor.

These situations create an unnecessary and completely avoidable awkwardness for the woman who’s being harassed. And make no mistake, this is harassment. Flirting is one thing and things usually don’t go any further but when they do, it’s usually the woman who ends up not being believed, fired, shunned, judged or shamed—by both friends/family/colleagues and in the minds of every Tom, Dick and Harriet in cyberspace.

Often times women are made to feel as though we asked for it. Bullshit! If only we didn’t dress or act a certain way, these things wouldn’t happen. And by ‘this’ we’re talking about everything from having men make repeated sexual advances to stalking and even rape.

This is their problem to own, not ours. And in most cases this is something women don’t get until we’re in our thirties, and sometimes older, and quite often is the case, not until a mild flirtation escalates to something dangerous.

Although I know I am not alone, I still had to ask a bunch of women to share their experiences with me on the topic. In all, twenty-five women participated in a survey that asked them questions about men making sexually inappropriate gestures and advances toward them.

The infographic above illustrates their responses better than I could.