Americans have been left breathless with all the talk of sexual improprieties over the last few months: sexual harassment, sex acts with underage kids, sexual assault and even rape. Allegations, admissions, apologies and confusion reign.
Let's take a collective deep breath and reflect for a moment. What are we to make of all this? What lessons should we take away?
The grievances, some of them decades old, have bubbled forth from women (and, in a few instances, from men) in all sorts of careers and situations, from the entertainment industry in Hollywood to the news business in New York; from corporate suites in Silicon Valley to politicians' offices and state houses across the country.
The complainants are finally unloading about the men in their lives who they say are guilty of groping, stalking, shaming, making lewd comments or threatening their job security. Of course, the reports that should get our fullest attention are those from individuals who allege they were sexually assaulted. That is a criminal offense.
I feel the pain of all the women who have stepped forward. Been there, done that — or, more precisely, I've had that happen to me in the past. But I've resisted joining the trendy #MeToo campaign and been content to sit back and watch it all play out.
I've come to the conclusion that we are watching a sea change in human behavior. Interactions between men and women at work (and elsewhere) will never be the same. Anyone with a brain will henceforth watch what they say and do with their colleagues very carefully. Women should be on notice that there could be a backlash, and that men might start lodging their own sex-based complaints.
In some respects, this is too bad. I liked having a colleague tell me he noticed my new dress. I liked seeing him smile back when I complimented his haircut. But I also adore the empowerment women are displaying, how they are finally putting their collective feet down and saying, "Not anymore."
Now it's time to better define what we're talking about and precisely how transgressions should be handled. What is sexual harassment anyway, and what should we view as merely boorish behavior?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission puts it this way: "Although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)." State laws differ, of course, but harassment has also been identified as including ongoing "pervasive jokes/comments, looks, and body language that makes an individual feel harassed."
OK, so how do we define sexual assault? Well, that's where it gets complicated, again, depending on states' laws. In general, sexual assault falls into one of three categories:
—Unwanted penetration of a body part by another body part or with a foreign object.
—Unwanted contact with an intimate body part.
—Exposure of an intimate body part.
It also includes sexual contact with a family member (incest) or a minor.
With the spotlight now firmly on those who commit sexual harassment and assault, I hope women everywhere don't hesitate to step up, speak up and file police reports when the behavior warrants it. Only when confronted with public condemnation will perps be shamed into changing their dreadful conduct.
I have felt inner satisfaction watching the recent downfall of those obviously guilty of being serial predators. But I still have questions that, honestly, are not intended to be insensitive to victims.
Question: By bringing up an episode from 10, 20 or even 30 years ago, don't we inevitably erase the possibility that the guilty party has grown as a person over the years and learned the error of his ways? I know I did things decades ago that I'm not proud of — things I would never do again.
Question: How do we handle the man who delivers a seemingly heartfelt apology for his past bad acts? If we continue to vilify him, aren't we guilty of the very act of shaming we condemn? If the woman's goal is a big money settlement, couldn't that be seen as a predatory act, too?
And my final question: By automatically accepting an accuser's version of events and immediately heaping scorn on the accused, haven't we forgotten to give the accused an opportunity to defend himself?
That said, if multiple victims step forward to point the finger of blame at one person, well, that's pretty telling. But let's make sure we don't robotically accept each and every complaint as true. False reports are more common than you'd think, and once exposed, they can dilute the power of legitimate complaints.
As we sail these turbulent waters toward true gender equality, let's be sure not to go overboard. It would be a shame if this important voyage were to become waterlogged by its own rhetoric.
To find out more about Diane Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com. Her latest book, "Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box," is available on Amazon.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.