It's a Powerful Thing

It’s a powerful thing -- to give your power away. A few years ago, I was invited to the office of a respected business person for a meeting. I’d been working for the organization for some time and had received compliments from industry and my peers about my work. I thought that this meeting was a result of that. I was wrong. What transpired was sexual harassment. I thought, because of this person’s position and demeanor, that his behavior was acceptable. I should have walked away as soon as I started to feel uncomfortable but I didn’t. When I did leave, it took about thirty minutes for my body to register what had happened; to sync with my mind. I felt ashamed and violently sick. How could I have not realized what was really going on? What a fool, I thought, to think that the meeting was about work and that I was there to be rewarded for my efforts. I called a counselor -- unsure of where to go or what to do. When I finally exited the train near my aparment, I cried. 

Thankfully, the situation with this person did not eventuate in a more serious case of sexual harassment or abuse but on some level I felt violated. On some level, I’d let him win at his game. I stopped working for the organization, and, slowly, I began to remove myself from all of my obligations. Easier to avoid situations; to protect myself from potential harm. I’d walked away on one level but I’d run away in another. I’d equated my good work with his bad behavior and, subconsciously, I’d punished myself. This person had continued. He kept his job, his paycheck, and his position. Usually, I would have fought back in some way — as I’d done in the past. Usually, I wouldn’t have let this person’s inflated ego overpower my own sense of self. I thought this person was more powerful than me because of his position. What I forgot, in giving my power away that afternoon, was that he is not.

Recently, I saw an exhibition about fear and how it’s used to control not only individuals but societies, and countries. How particular ideologies are used as a means of control, and how, when these ideologies result in trauma, the trauma can be perpetuated until it is healed. This may take moments, days, lifetimes, or generations. The artist likens the traumatic event to losing a limb. The injured party knows that the limb is gone but mourns for it. The resulting behavior can be one of anger and retribution or one of creativity and healing. Thankfully, I haven’t lost a limb but what I lost that day was intangible. That’s a different kind of pain. I couldn’t see what I’d lost. But I could feel it. This person might have used his intellectual prowess, emotional manipulation, and his status to attempt to control me but thankfully, he didn’t use physical force. I’ve been in situations where a person has exerted their power over my body using their own and it’s terrifying. Never have I felt so alone and so powerless. In those situations, it’s physically impossible to walk away. In those situations, one does not have power to give away. It is taken from you. Thankfully, I had a choice that day. I was able to walk away.

Reading the myriad of reports that are surfacing in the media, as this person's harassment has, is hard. There is something wrong with the system, a system which has rewarded individuals for abusing power in order to “get ahead”, and a system that encourages victimization and silence for the same ends — until recently. This system may be perpetuated by a few but the global support for victims who have spoken about their experiences is encouraging. It’s a time of change but it’s a strange time. Our values are being tested. It’s hard not to give into fear, especially when the someone in a position of leadership says, “and when you're a star, they let you do it, you can do anything... grab them by the pussy”. That news isn’t fake. It’s dismaying when women state that being fondled on the subway isn’t harassment. Any unwanted or unwarranted invasion of space on the basis of sex or similar innuendo is harassment. Your person is your own, regardless or cultural nuance or historical precedent. It should not be for sale, under any guise. That is your human right.

Reconciling the complexity of the feelings I’ve felt over the last few years with regards to this instance of abuse and the others that I’ve experienced, and now within a larger context of openness and discussion, is also hard. To try and comprehend what motivates one human being to negate, on some level, the existence of another. I wasn’t the only person targeted by this man but hopefully, because of the brave women who have spoken out about their interactions with him, we will be the last. Hopefully, because of the bravery of others who have spoken and continue to speak about injustice, the systemic nature of punishing abuse victims and rewarding their abusers, will stop. If you’ve read this far, thank you. This letter has been sitting on my desktop for months. Picking up the pen hasn’t been motivated simply by the desire to write from a place of freedom, to express, to understand, or to try and make sense of the world. On some level, I’ve had to check the fear that I won’t be punished for writing, or speaking out, or more generally, for my efforts. It’s a powerful thing, to give your power away. But it’s even more powerful to take it back.