It’s 8pm on a Thursday, and I’m sweating through my t-shirt waiting for the phone to ring. The expected caller is a 64-year-old man who has for decades made inappropriate comments about women, and I’ve reached out so that he and I can have a direct conversation about his behavior. I’m feeling galvanized to start this dialogue—#MeToo messages have been flooding my Facebook feed for a week—but I’m also nervous. After all, he is my dad.
#MeToo has caused many women, myself included, to reflect on their experiences with everything from routine sexism to outright sexual assault. It has also forced people to start having some uncomfortable and healthy conversations about sexual harassment. Women are explaining to men—sometimes for the first time out loud—how pervasive the threat of harassment can be. And while some men have responded defensively, as humans are wont to do when they feel their fundamental goodness is being questioned, many have been open to the conversation. Some have even admitted culpability.
A good number of these conversations are playing out in public, online in particular, but many of them are happening IRL—in workplaces and at home, with colleagues and loved ones. While I’m in awe of social media’s power to highlight the enormity of this issue, I suspect that the key to progress lies in those smaller dialogues, with people we love and trust, whose character and motives we understand. The people we either wouldn’t or couldn’t excise from our lives over bad behavior.
My father is politically progressive. He’s loving, supportive, and incredibly intelligent. But he is sexist. He is sexist in the way of many men of his generation, which is to say that he doesn’t even hear it coming out of his mouth. He speaks often about women’s appearances, sometimes directly to them, and not always nicely. His idea of woke is complimenting the brunette girl-next-door instead of the blonde bombshell. But, of course, I love him. So if anyone is going to help this particular guy do better, I think it should be me.
Once we’ve dispensed with the pleasantries—I talk about work, he talks about football—I start by asking my father to paint me a picture of life when he was my age (32). How did men interact with women at work and in social settings? Maybe more important, how did men talk about women when the women weren’t around?
“We were the same as everybody else,” he says. “‘Man, did you see the short skirt on her?’ ‘Oh my god, those legs…’ We did that; we still do that. But it’s the way it is. When women dress so that we can see what they look like…. Why would they dress like that if they don’t want us to look?”
And we’re off. I explain to my father that there are many reasons women wear clothes, reasons that have nothing to do with men. I explain that women shouldn’t have to bear the burden of his perception of their outfits. I explain that “She’s wearing that to elicit a reaction from me…” is a few hops, skips, and jumps away from “…so I’m going to proposition/harass her.” After a few more jumps, “…so I’m going to put my hands on her” becomes visible on the horizon.
“That is bullshit. The fact that you even brought that up affronts me,” my dad replies. “You just lumped us all. Some of the men you are talking about might think that, but most men will not think that. It’s a very small percentage.”
If the virality of #MeToo wasn’t evidence enough of sexual harassment’s prevalence, an ABC News-Washington Post poll released Tuesday (Oct. 17) found that 54% of US women have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances” in their lives. Nearly a third have had those experiences with a male colleague, and a quarter with men who had some measure of control over their careers. Is 5% of the male population sexually harassing more than half of the female population? I doubt it. Nor is the idea of a few million super-harassers particularly comforting.
My dad and I move on to the workplace. I ask him whether he thinks he has ever sexually harassed anyone. In 1981, he says, he was tipsy and tried to give a colleague at the US Chamber of Commerce a hug. (“Tipsy” is likely an understatement. Until about 2008, my father was a champion alcoholic.) She pushed him off. “That pretty much taught me the whole deal,” he says. “Never go near a woman because why would you conceivably think that they might appreciate this approach.” Otherwise, he says he didn’t witness sexual harassment in the workplace. By my father’s account, men weren’t even particularly vulgar with each other. “We knew who was hot and who wasn’t, but we never actually stood and looked at each and said ‘Oh, she’s hot,'” he says. “It was conservative Washington DC in the 1980s. That would have made you look like a fool.”
Funny, my mom remembers things differently (they’re divorced now, so this is common). Sexual harassment “was going on all the time,” she says, though it wasn’t always considered in those terms. In 1980, while my mother was a communications assistant with a financial holding company, her boss brought a bottle of wine into the office to “celebrate” her birthday, then proceeded to come around her desk and kiss her on the lips. “Why didn’t I do anything? I could tell you a hundred reasons, but you wouldn’t get it. You’ve been raised in a different era of awareness and sensitivity,” she tells me. “It was a male-dominated company that had a men’s-only dining room. The only woman was in HR. I didn’t think I’d get a sympathetic ear even if I were inclined to do anything. My reaction was, ‘I’ll find another job.'”
Eventually, she did just that. But on my mom’s last day, someone mentioned that her predecessor had left under similar circumstances. “Now I look back and think, that’s what happens when women keep their mouth shut,” she says. “Guys keep repeating it.”
A few years later, my mom was in a management position at a different company when a colleague with whom she was friends started making lewd comments around her. He kept escalating them, until one day she confronted him. “He had a reputation for this. Yet he seemed shocked when I told him that we couldn’t be friends if he was going to behave that way,” she says. “He was stunned. But he apologized and knocked it off. When I pointed out that he was also recently married, he admitted that he’d be mortified if his wife heard about any of it. For a lot of guys back then, raised in an entirely different era, it was just second-nature. This particular guy told me he couldn’t shake that ‘thrill of the chase’ where women were concerned. Honestly, some men thought it was complimentary. And so yeah, you brushed it off unless it was aggressive or someone threatened your job.”
I can’t help but see reality at the intersection of my parents’ stories. My father looked around his workplace and saw nothing wrong. Sure, the mostly male employees had mostly young, attractive female secretaries. Sure, sometimes they slept with those secretaries. And sure, a guy might occasionally step out of line with a colleague, especially if drugs or alcohol were involved. But that’s how it was; those were the times. My mom saw the same world, and knew it was wrong—but she didn’t think it could change. She was also wary of going scorched-earth on male colleagues whom she believed were fundamentally good people, guilty of bad actions.
My mother couldn’t understand what compelled her coworker to risk his marriage and career by crossing that professional boundary. My dad, on the other hand, might have said it was biology. Later in our conversation, I challenge what I see as his tendency to evaluate women body first, face second, and as people last.
“Human males are programmed to look for mates,” he tells me. “For 50,000 years, that’s what we were supposed to do. And losing that is a process; it really is. ‘No, I’m not looking for a woman to give me babies; I’m looking for somebody to talk to me.’ That takes a lot of time.”
It’s a shame you can’t see eye rolls through the phone. Surely, I respond, the smartest and most advanced species on the planet can manage to check its “biological impulses” enough to progress as a decent society. “Listen,” my dad says. “If you had a baby, which you have not, [author’s note: 🔥] and you walked into a hospital and into the maternity wing, and you heard a baby cry, you would lactate. Because it’s in your biology.”
“OK, let’s extend that bizarre analogy,” I reply. “What if that did happen, but rather than keeping it to myself and maybe being struck by how inappropriate biology can seem in the context of civil society, I instead walked up to the new mother and said ‘Hey, can I breastfeed your baby?’ That’s how you’re suggesting we use men’s so-called biological imperative to justify their behavior towards women.'”
I win this point. Wanting to end on a productive note, I attempt to give my father some homework. Stop commenting so much on women’s appearances, and definitely stop doing it in public. Stop assuming that the culture of sexual harassment is the product of a few bad actors. Stop implying that women are somehow complicit in men’s reactions to them. Start seeing how that exact attitude often leads to harassment in the first place.
The next day, someone will ask me whether I think this conversation changed anything, and I’ll find that I’m not sure. But while I’d like to believe that my father will now hear my voice in his head every time he considers objectifying a woman, I also know that I wasn’t just trying to change him. For years, my sister and I have danced around his comments, rolling our eyes and moving along rather than engaging directly. To actually have an honest conversation with him feels empowering. To talk to my mom about her experiences feels like a seismic shift in our ability to converse as adults. In other words, addressing sexism with someone who needs to hear it might not change them, but it can still change you.
All the same, I’m hopeful. “I just think you could be more thoughtful with your words, and that you can progress in your attitude toward women,” I tell my dad as we wind down our phone call. He agrees, so I press my luck. “Sometimes you just look like an asshole,” I say, “but sometimes you look like a sexist asshole.”
My father laughs, the resigned laugh of an old dog that’s been asked to, if not learn new tricks, then at least retire his current trick arsenal. “My dad is a flaming asshole…” he muses. “That’s fine; you can write that.”