With the current climate in our country being one where awareness about sexual harassment is virtually exploding all around us, I thought it might be helpful to explain some of the reasons why comments well-intended people make don’t automatically result in gratitude by the receiver.
I recently watched a video for children about consent (“Boss of My Body”). At one point, the lyrics describe an “oh-oh feeling” — that feeling in your body that helps you recognize, “I don’t feel safe right now.”
Whether it’s peer pressure to go somewhere you know you shouldn’t, getting catcalled or a seemingly innocuous greeting from a man you don’t know, that “oh-oh” feeling is all too familiar to most of us.
Too many women have had too many experiences of having that feeling, then hearing another voice tell us we were making something up, or it was not a big deal — and then realizing that “oh-oh” feeling had merit because what came next was demeaning comments, groping or assault. And we learned that we can’t always trust people whose words sound nice.
A friend posted recently on a #metoo thread:
“[A] lesson my mom taught me: She said, ‘Always, ALWAYS, listen to your body. It won’t lead you astray. The mind may play tricks but your body knows. So if something doesn’t feel right, remove yourself immediately. You don’t owe anyone any explanations, and you certainly don’t stick around to find out what’s wrong. Just leave.’ She was a great teacher.”
There are amazing parents who teach their children to listen to that internal feeling in their body that something isn’t OK, and who give them agency to listen and leave if needed.
And even with this empowering mother, my friend experienced harassment and more.
Being able to care for ourselves does not prevent every horrible thing that can happen.
So when I was walking through the Federal Way Community Center last weekend on my way to teach a class, and a man around my age whom I had never seen before greeted me with “Hello, young lady,” it didn’t feel like a compliment.
He may have had every intention of being friendly, but we live in a world where, too often, that kind of greeting is not innocent.
I am not a young lady. I am a mature, professional, middle-aged woman. I own my life experiences, the time it took to get them and the gray hair and wrinkles that have come with them. I am wiser for them. I am grateful to have lived to be the age I am.
I am not a young lady, nor do I aspire to be thought of as one.
Also, this man did not know me. His comment set off that uncomfortable feeling in me because there have been other times when “compliments” from men I didn’t know well did not end there. They went on to include additional statements or actions that left me feeling violated and powerless.
Even if you have not been physically assaulted, having multiple experiences that result in that “oh-oh” feeling takes its toll. A colleague of mine uses the analogy that one paper cut isn’t a big deal. It’s annoying. But if you imagine having 40,000 papercuts — that has a different type of impact.
Change takes time, and intention doesn’t always result in the impact for which we had hoped. Be open to learning what impact your actions have on others. And always, always, listen to your body.
Amy Johnson is a trainer and educator in the Pacific Northwest. She specializes in sexuality education and in promoting safe and healthy sexuality culture in faith communities. All opinions are her own. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.