What if we believed women when they said they’ve been sexually harassed?

My two Auntie Char posts have been a hornet’s nest of feminist backlash. My first article was really an article about how not to be creepy. It wasn’t an article about sexual harassment and it really let the creepy guy off the hook as just not knowing any better. It received the most views this site has ever had. It continues to get views and even the occasional comment, mostly delivered to me quietly over Facebook Messenger, but a few times over coffee. Overwhelmingly, what I hear is a variation of “but isn’t it your confusing signals that caused it” or “feminism has turned everything I say into a minefield.” In case it’s not obvious, both categories of comments come exclusively from men.

The second article, less moderate in tone, went so far as to call out the creepy guy on sexual harassment. It also scores high on the number of views it gets and scores equally in the “things that prompt men to have a hushed conversation with me.” Perhaps I could have called it out as sexual harassment in the first post, but I didn’t, and maybe that’s where things went wrong. As long as my tone remains gentle on the issues of harassment, maybe men will feel there is some negotiation room on what constitutes sexual harassment. Or maybe it’s just another opportunity to be mansplained to about what ISN’T sexual harassment. Point taken, gentlemen. I shall endeavour to be less ambiguous when I am calling men “creepy.”

In the endless debate over whether or not I was the willing object to the creepy advances, what has come up a lot is how I dress. Yes, how I dress is still subject to public opinion on whether or not I’m asking for it. And that, frankly, is more unsettling than whether or not I’m capable of judging when I am being objectified. It’s no secret that I prefer dresses and like pretty nails and that I live in heels. Yes, I am über feminine and I love it. But I’m missing the link here. If I dress like a lady, am I sending the wrong message? How, exactly, do I need to dress so I can avoid harassment/ensure it’s not my fault/send a message that creepy advances are not ok?

I can already hear the eye roll. It’s not hard given that some of those eye rolls have come in person. But what about the cleavage? Doesn’t showing cleavage send a mixed signal? For the record, it does not. Nearly everything I wear gives me cleavage because that’s how my body is shaped. So I can either live in high-necked tops (an option for sure) or I can wear what I want (also an option, yeah?). The question at this point circles back to, “How, exactly, do I need to dress so I can avoid harassment/ensure it’s not my fault/send a message that creepy advances are not ok?” At what point do I get to wear what I want?

So let’s be clear here. I like attention. I have zero problem being checked out. If you’re looking at me and thinking, “She’s a hottie!” then I am absolutely fine with that. I’m forty-six years old and I’m carrying some extra weight. You like what you see? Fab. U. Lous. I’m not talking about you admiring the view. What I’m talking about is when it gets creepy. And “creepy” is best defined as “the moment you go from looking to feeling you have a right to ownership.”

Back in September, I was at the Labour Day picnic and a man came up and grabbed my ass. I posted about my shock here. That’s the stuff I’m talking about, but it doesn’t always have to be physical. This man looked at me and decided he had the right to put his hand on my body in a sexual manner. He decided he had a greater right to my body than I had. He didn’t see me as a person. He saw me as an object.

And in case you’re curious, yes, how I was dressed came up as an issue on THAT day, too. There’s no cleavage, as is so often the case with my critics, but there is leg. I’m in shorts.

So back to the minefield. A really excellent opinion article appeared recently in the Washington Post about a restaurant that has addressed the issue of sexual harassment by assigning a colour code to the levels of harassment. And it’s brilliant. Finally both sides of the debate have the tools to disassemble the minefield.

“We decided on a color-coded system in which different types of customer behavior are categorized as yellow, orange or red. Yellow refers to a creepy vibe or unsavory look. Orange means comments with sexual undertones, such as certain compliments on a worker’s appearance. Red signals overtly sexual comments or touching, or repeated incidents in the orange category after being told the comments were unwelcome.” -The Washington Post, “I’m a female chef. Here’s how my restaurant dealt with harassment from customers.”

Using their colour codes, I’m going to try and explain how this can help defuse the mines.

Yellow: “Yellow refers to a creepy vibe or unsavory look.” Most men I interact with in a day aren’t in the yellow zone. Let me repeat that: MOST men are not in the yellow zone. Most men will never go into the yellow zone. This zone is reserved for men who make women feel like objects to be owned. It’s probably not a once-in-a-while thing. It’s probably their normal state and we, as women, just have the grave misfortune to encounter it when we encounter them. Sometimes these men are in our circle of friends and we ignore/downplay the warning signs, but make no mistake: creepy has no off switch. Me being polite to you in no way changes the fact that I am always on alert around you.

Orange: “Orange means comments with sexual undertones, such as certain compliments on a worker’s appearance.” The same men who appeared in the yellow category may appear here from time to time. It’s gross and we aren’t pleased that we ignored the warning signs that led us into this alley. “I like your dress,” from most of the male population will be taken as a compliment. “I like your dress,” from someone who lives perpetually in the yellow zone will be taken with the same flattery level as “I’d like to cut you into tiny pieces and eat you while the FBI searches for clues as to your whereabouts.” Think I’m being dramatic? I’m not. The feeling here stems from the exact same primal warning centre in the brain.

Red: “Red signals overtly sexual comments or touching, or repeated incidents in the orange category after being told the comments were unwelcome.” Red is the place where every boundary left has been transgressed and it probably was a LONG time ago back when the yellow zone was invaded. Red is the place where the guy from elementary school went. Red is the place where the guy from the Labour Day picnic went. Red is what happened when I went from being a woman to an object and they felt so inclined as to convey that message to me.

So here’s the problem: when I reported the incidents in my blog, I was reporting them as Code Red, but to my male friends who were interpreting the facts (on my behalf), they thought the escalation was premature and that – at worst – the incidents were isolated and didn’t warrant a colour code at all. What they didn’t recognize was that the offending men had been at Code Yellow for me since the first interaction. Why? Because my gut told me to watch out.

There is another piece here that can best be illustrated by two identical experiences I had at a coffee shop last summer.

I drive a lot for my work and one of my usual stops on the way home is a Tim Horton’s coffee shop on the island highway in a little town called Duncan. I have a few friends there, so whenever possible, I will see if someone is free to meet me. Last summer, I stopped and met a female friend. We were quietly enjoying coffee and a chat when we became aware of a man at a nearby table who kept looking at us. The more he looked, the less comfortable I became. It was creepy with a whole creepy vibe. Eventually I whispered to her, “Want to move outside?” and she said, “YES!” So we went outside to sit on the grassy boulevard overlooking the highway. It wasn’t quieter or nicer, but we both felt safer. Outside, I said, “That was creepy!” and she said, “Wasn’t it!”

A few weeks later, I was back on the same stretch of highway and I asked a male friend to meet me at the same Tim Horton’s. We sat down and not too long after, in walked the same guy from a few weeks prior, who also sat down a few tables away. Once again, he was all creepy stares. “Want to move outside?” I asked, in a complete repeat of the previous scenario. “Why?” he asked. “Just because,” I said. He looked baffled and made some comment about the strange ways of women (I’m not kidding). Once we got outside, I said, “That was creepy!” “What was?” he asked. “The guy at the next table?” I said it more like a question than a statement. “Oh. I didn’t notice anything.”

My male friend and I live in two different realities. In my reality, I have a heightened sense of awareness of my surroundings. When I feel unsafe, I want to take myself out of the unsafe surroundings – and my female friend, who lives in the same heightened sense of awareness, felt it and wanted to move too. My male friend didn’t see it. I had to explain it.

This is where the colour codes come in so handy. I moved this guy to a code yellow straight away. So did my female friend. We didn’t need data on this guy to see if he would eventually self-escalate to a Code Orange or Code Red. We have enough data from being women in this society to know it’s not worth finding out if we were right. But for my male friend, he never felt the vibe. He didn’t see what I saw. We didn’t tacitly agree this was a Code Yellow. We live with two different levels of safety and intuition. He didn’t question it, but I have been questioned before, which is why I am blogging about this: if you don’t see it, you’re going to have to trust me. It’s there and it’s real.

So what would happen if we just believed women when we said, “I’m being sexually harassed!” or even if we just said, “Code Red!” If my helpful male friends (the ones who asked me to take down the original post) are to be believed, the world might end. Or they’d be embarrassed. Or we’d have to explain it and that might take too long. Or. God. I have no idea. Their realities might be shattered. That can’t be good.

But let’s pretend the world didn’t end if we believed women when we say we’re being sexually harassed. Let’s pretend by being validated, the world became safer. And sexual harassment would be less accepted and less acceptable. And what I wear became my business as opposed to a topic to justify why harassment is not a big deal or my fault. Just for the record, that would be nice. I’d like that a LOT.

I’m the mom to a twenty-one year old daughter who is tiny and pretty and all the things a twenty-one year old woman wants to see when she looks in the mirror. I worry for her. I worry that if I don’t become part of the solution, she will live forever with the problem. I want a world that is free from harassment for me and for her. And for my future granddaughters. And great granddaughters. You get the picture.

If you really want to disassemble this minefield, when we talk about being sexually harassed, believe us. We don’t need you to help us downgrade it and we sure as shooting don’t need help figuring out the life lesson that helps us understand how we brought it on ourselves. If you REALLY want to help make sure you aren’t part of the minefield, when we say we are being sexually harassed, take a stand. Talk to the guy and say this isn’t acceptable. Eject the creeper from the event. Say something – anything – that says, “This is not ok and I will not let my sister be treated like this ever.”

But, for goodness sake, don’t tell me about how hard it is to be you because “feminism has turned everything you say into a minefield.”