This post addresses the #MeToo hashtag trending on social media right now: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
It was 2001. I was 28 years old and “adulting” like a boss – working as a physician assistant at a cancer hospital and managing the patient load of two busy thoracic surgeons. It was an academic hospital, so residents and fellows were a regular presence. Although we had a number of female trainees rotate through our service over the years, most of them were male. And one of them – I’ll call him Jack – started paying a lot of attention to me that year. It was fun, flirtatious, and flattering at first, but once it turned vulgar, I became uncomfortable and anxious. Jack was pretty bold. He made his comments openly – in front of other residents and even in front of one of the attending physicians, who asked me later in private if I wanted him to speak to Jack about it. I said, “No, I can handle it.”
I can handle it. Somewhere along the way, I had internalized the false notion that vulnerability meant weakness. Whatever I was, I knew I wasn’t supposed to be weak. Besides, I thought, if he was truly outraged by what Jack was doing, he would have addressed it already based on principle, without having to ask me for permission to play the role of a chivalrous gentleman.
The more I intentionally ignored Jack, the more he escalated his comments. One day, he finally said, “You’re a lesbian, aren’t you?” The arrogance and entitlement behind that statement enraged me, but all I could manage was a glare and the response, “I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer.”
That afternoon, I was venting about the situation to one of the executive assistants in our department. Unfortunately, our private conversation was overheard by the office manager, who immediately came out of her office and asked me, “Has Dr. ___ been making inappropriate remarks to you? If so, there are strict institutional protocols concerning this kind of behavior.”
What could I say? She had just heard me talking about it.
The next 24 hours was a bit of a blur. I was immediately escorted down the hall to the deputy chairman’s office and required to tell him everything. I felt utterly humiliated as I repeated out loud the things that Jack had said to me over a period of weeks. I wanted the earth to swallow me whole. But the next thing I knew, I was agreeing to a meeting with Jack, the deputy director, and the office manager the following morning – agreeing to talk directly to Jack about his disgusting and objectifying words and behavior in front of these witnesses. He was the offender, but it felt like I was the one being stripped naked and put on display. Nevertheless, I did what was expected of me. (Although I did it with the distinct sensation of dying inside.) Jack looked chastened, but he was given an opportunity to respond. When he did, he said something about my having misconstrued his comments, something about having respect for me, and something about guaranteeing that if I had talked to him directly, he would have listened.
I suddenly felt like the jerk in the room. And when I was debriefing the embarrassing fiasco with the supervising physician who had previously offered to talk to Jack on my behalf, he said, “Remember, I asked you if you wanted me to talk to him, but you kept saying you could handle it.” That led me to a dark place where I concluded that the escalation to undesirable formal proceedings happened as a result of poor judgment on my part.
Because women are conditioned to self-crucify. It didn’t even occur to me to point out the injustice of being put in such an insufferable position in the first place.
That same day, I filed an official institutional complaint, which involved an interview with a Human Resources representative. She paused several times during my testimony, furrowed her brow, and said, “These comments are really offensive!” She couldn’t even help herself, and that made me feel better. A voice of humanity and empathy amid the coldness of institutional protocol and masculine indifference.
I don’t know what the procedure ended up looking like for Jack, but if there were substantive consequences, I never saw what they were. I still had to see and work alongside him at least twice a week in the clinic after that. At first, the tension felt thick enough to choke on, but over time, it eased. Jack finished his fellowship, then moved on, much to my relief… until a few years later when I found out he had been offered a position as an assistant professor/staff surgeon in our department. It meant he would be in a position of authority over me, even if he wasn’t my direct supervisor.
I’ve forgotten if anyone asked me how I felt about it. If they did, the gesture didn’t make much of an impression. I honestly don’t remember. The bottom line was that the group of men who knew what I had gone through with Jack had decided to make him one of them. My feelings never even remotely factored into their decision. They were irrelevant. That was, in fact, the message. Never mind that my interactions with “their” patients were far more frequent and in-depth than theirs ever would be.
So what did I do? I acted like I was above it all. I put on my big-girl pants, marched over to Jack’s office when he arrived, and said, “Welcome, Jack! And congratulations.” He thanked me, and that was it. End of ritual. We managed to have a decent working relationship after that. He seemed to have learned his lesson (at least with me), the past was never brought up, and my “maturity” made things far less awkward for him and everyone else. I had played the role of the sacrificial lamb for the greater good. Or not.
Why do we women self-crucify? Why do we cut ourselves open and allow our blood to drip on this unholy altar? I don’t know. There are many reasons, I suppose, and they’re different for everyone. I know it didn’t help that my upbringing had trained me to self-crucify as a way of life, which then made me vulnerable to the absurd claims of a narcissistic high-school boyfriend that he had certain rights to my body that he didn’t.
Sidebar: consent for even seemingly minor things isn’t really consent if one feels compelled to barter it in return for not being punished physically, psychologically, or professionally.
These experiences have a way of compounding over a lifetime. They form a tapestry of trauma. Those of us who are lucky can afford a good therapist or proper medication and find healing and restoration. But a lot of people aren’t so lucky, and that grieves me. Because even with all the progress I’ve made, PTSD is something I have to manage daily. While it’s no longer debilitating for me, it’s a bit like walking around with ten-pound weights strapped to my ankles – weights that I can’t take off, even when I want to swim.