Thoughts on sexual harassment

How we talk matters. “It starts with not calling us ‘girls,'” says the Rev. Melanie Lee Carey.

REV. MELANIE LEE CAREY
Nardin Park UMC, Lead Pastor

At a recent regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment, I found myself in the midst of a waiting room conversation that began with this question, posed by a male patient, also in the waiting room:  “Were you girls surprised by the Matt Lauer thing?” 

The question was directed to the women working behind the counter in the doctor’s office, and to all of the rest of us in the waiting room as well, as we all happened to be women except for the man asking the question. “Were you girls surprised by the Matt Lauer thing?”

I watched as the women behind the counter looked carefully at one another and then at all of the women in the waiting room and then one of them said softly, “No, I was not surprised” and the rest of us nodded our heads in agreement.

The man then looked at all of us and asked incredulously, “None of you girls were surprised?” I did not hear the remainder of the conversation, as I was called back to my appointment … but I could not help but reflect on what I might have said, if I had stayed in the waiting room.

“No, Sir”, we were not surprised by “the Matt Lauer thing”, or by any of the other high profile men who have recently been accused of alleged sexual harassment and misconduct. Why were we not surprised? Our lack of surprise stems from our own personal experiences, and that of our sisters, daughters, mothers and female friends who have long related harrowing stories to us of legions of incidents of inappropriate behavior, comments and worse. We are not surprised because the sad truth is that this kind of harassment and misconduct happens in epidemic proportions. 

In my first ministerial appointment, I was the only woman clergy in a small town. The clergy in that town, all from different denominations, met together monthly. Often during the meetings, one of the male clergy constantly referred to the kind of hot tea that I drank as “erotic” and he would laugh and comment, out loud and in front of the other male colleagues, how “it must be challenging to fit my breasts into my robe.” It was hard for me to decide which was worse: this one clergyman’s clearly inappropriate comments to me or the fact that my clergy brothers said nothing to him nor to me when he spoke to me that way!

In every one of my appointments since that time, nearly 27 years ago, I have had at least one, usually several people, not want me to be their pastor simply because I am female. They usually decided this before they even met me, or heard me preach, or officiate a wedding or funeral. Thus, their decision was not based on my abilities, but rather on their pre-conceived belief that because of my gender, I was less than.

When I served as a district superintendent for five years, at least one staff parish committee per year would tell me that they did not want a woman pastor and when I asked them how they felt about a woman D.S. they would say, “We like you, we just wouldn’t want you to be our pastor.”

No sir, we are not surprised by the “Matt Lauer thing” at all.

Unfortunately, it is far too common of an occurrence for women and some men in all walks of life and it takes lots of courage to speak up and share the truth. I didn’t speak out 27 years ago because it was the same year that Anita Hill testified regarding Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ behavior toward her. 

While we often question why it takes victims of sexual harassment and misconduct so many years to come forward, we forget that healing and courage take time to develop. In focusing on why the victim decided to come forward at this time, we are concentrating on the wrong question as well as minimizing the difficult story itself.  Instead, we need to focus on the inappropriate behavior, and while I believe in due process, more often the allegations are true rather than false.  And while there are many brave stories being told these days, the most important thing we can do is listen and change the way we treat each other. This kind of inappropriate behavior harms all of us.

Finally, if I had the chance to speak to the man in my doctor’s waiting room, who I am guessing, like me, was in his early fifties, I would ask him why he called the women behind the counter and all of the rest of us in the waiting room girls? 

Webster’s dictionary defines the word girl as “a female child”. And thus the reference means that we women all are children, rather than adults. It is just another way to say that we are not taken seriously.

And while he may not have meant anything by calling us girls as that is just “the way he talks”, I doubt that he would want someone referring to him as a boy or a child when he is clearly a grown man.

The way we talk reveals how we think. It starts by not calling us girls.   

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