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Our sexual harassment problem from the eyes of a transman

I was born female and identified as female until my early 20s.  I transitioned to full-time male fairly quickly, and even moved to be able to stay undetected.  This gives me a somewhat interesting position to evaluate the sexual harassment problem that is recently being addressed (though it’s been around forever).

But first, a disclaimer.  All opinions here are my own, and don’t represent those of all transpeople, transmen, men, female-born, or humans in general.  Just little old me.

Beyond lay some unpopular opinions, but again I suggest that living as female then living as male gives me a unique perspective.


A late-bloomer

I’m not one of those transpeople who knew since I was a child.  I identified as female well into my adult life.  I wasn’t a feminist, still don’t consider myself one (I call myself an “equalist” for reasons that are well outside the scope of this post), and truthfully, I was pretty problematic.  Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of friends.  I was often bullied.  But the friends I did have were a decent mix of men and women.

When I transitioned to male, I did it pretty quickly.  There was a 1-year period in which I presented androgynously.  About 40% of the time, people thought I was female, and 40% people thought I was male.  The remaining time, people were just confused.  But starting hormones, moving to a new location, and being introduced as male made a big difference.  From that day, no one ever questioned whether I was born male.  The few people that I told about being trans always acted as if I was joking.

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Living Stealth

“Stealth” is a term we use to describe living without being openly trans.  This was how I lived until recently.  Only my closest friends knew that I was born female.

So how was life different?

I think people would like to believe that society treated me the same, but that’s absolutely not true. I’m treated very differently by men, by women, by fellow transpeople, by the social justice community, by almost everyone.  And this is why I felt this post was important.



Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment has been in the news a lot lately, but what exactly is it?  It is just men exposing themselves to non-consenting women?

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) gives a very straightforward definition:
It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

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).

The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
It’s important to note in addition to the above statement that sexual harassment doesn’t have to align with one’s sexual identity.  In other words, a gay man can sexually harass a woman, and a straight woman can sexually harass another woman.

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A Personal Experience?

Here comes the first problem we are facing.  We feel entitled to harassment victim’s stories.  We expect full details of what the harasser did to fully justify why it was gone.  When harassment occurs, a person’s workplace should handle it in a sensitive and appropriate manner.  Instead, workplaces often separate the harasser and the victim but fail to address the problem in a sufficient manner to stop the further incidents from occurring.

There’s already a sense of shame of being a victim of sexual harassment in both men and women.  The stories we are hearing in the news are only news because incidents weren’t handled properly by workplaces.  And our society’s strange need to act as voyeurs through the media is a double-edged sword.  Hopefully, it will empower other victims to speak out, but the sensationalization of this topic may make some victims feel that they would be “overreacting” by reporting it or just not listened to when reporting it.


Whose fault is it?

Ultimately, whose fault is it when someone is harassed?  This should be an easy one: the harasser.  But I would argue that it is more complicated than that.

First, let’s talk about our society a bit more.  As I’ve already mentioned, we live in a society that likes to pretend that women are not objects or possessions, but perhaps I’ve been too simplistic.  To me, it seems that we live in a society in which those in power own things.  Those that want more power feel that they are entitled to people as well, thus have a sense of ownership over others.

I’ll share what may seem like an unrelated story.  When I first got my driver’s license, I got my first and only speeding ticket.  The situation was a bit sketchy, and my mother insisted it was a speed trap.  Too worried about it (is this similar to reasons victims don’t report harassment?), I urged her to pay it.  Then, after she paid, she happened to be talking to a woman in our neighborhood who was a judge.  That neighbor told my mom that she should have let the judge know, that the judge would have dismissed the ticket.

The judge wasn’t interested in whether this was a speed trap, she was exerting her power as a judge to help a friend.  She wanted to show off her power.  As I learned the hard way, sometimes taking these offers often means you “owe” this person something in return later, a sign that you are somehow owned by this person.

Now that I’ve bored you with our societal issues, let’s talk about real people.

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The 3 people responsible for sexual harassment

For individual harassment issues, I still stand that the harasser is as fault.  But for our broader sexual harassment problem, I think there are three types of people who perpetuate a culture of continuing harassment.

  1. The harasser
  2. Enablers who validate harassing behavior (popular in male culture but exists in female culture)
  3. Enablers who do nothing in the face of harassment (popular in both male and female culture)

The harasser

Oh, have I not talked enough about those in power and their feelings of ownership over other people’s bodies?

What about the fact that we perpetuate heavy drinking as a valid recreational behavior and then want to hold some people responsible for their actions while drunk while others shouldn’t be held responsible for what they do while drunk?

Let’s move on.

Enablers who validate harassing behavior

What does this look like?

  • Laughing when someone makes an inappropriate joke or action
  • Not calling someone out on making an inappropriate joke or action
  • Explicitly stating that a harassing joke or action is appropriate

As a female, I saw the last one all the time.  A boy is mean to you, and he likes you.  He bullies you, and he must like you.  Or the popular saying, “boys will be boys”.

As a male, I was startled when I saw how often the first two happen.  I don’t understand this at all.  When I see a man who has appeared progressive laugh at an inappropriate joke or not say something when another person does something inappropriate, it really makes me lose trust and respect for him.  But this isn’t just a problem in men.

A couple of years ago, I was in a situation where this happened.  One guy said something very inappropriate, and I called him out on it.  I looked around to the other men and women who were with me.  They refused to join me, so I just continued alone trying to explain why what he said was a problem.  Afterwards, when the other men were gone, two of the women thanked me for speaking up.

I haven’t figured out why men do this, but I have gotten straightforward answers from women.  They often say that they are worried about their position or don’t want to appear rude.  Clear indications of a lack of empowerment that is pervasive in our society.

Enablers who do nothing in the face of harassment

As terrifying as it is to see people laugh or brush off a harasser’s inappropriate jokes, I am startled at the number of stories I’ve heard from people who watch other people be physically harassed and did nothing about it.  From women who silently watch as others are harassed to men who become involved when asked. I think some of this also comes down to a lack of empowerment, but can’t help but wonder if it’s something more.

I’m deeply bothered by a society which glorifies heroes on the silver screen, but which is composed mostly of individuals that don’t help others in obvious situations of harassment.

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The harm in “men should”

In the past, as an argument against victim-blaming, I’ve heard that we need to teach men not to do these kinds of things.  And I do believe this is true.  But I think we can do better.  We should be aware that not only are men also victims, but women can also be harassers.  Our society lacks proper discussion of what consent is and thrives on media where consent is optional.  From my experience as a female watching other females engage and enable harassing behavior and as a male watching both men and women lack the empowerment to stand up to authority, it seems pretty clear to me that we need two kinds of action (in addition to teaching more about consent).

  1. Shame the harassers
  2. Empower victims and bystanders

We cannot, and should not, count on any one group of people to fix these issues.  After all, for all the news we are seeing about sexual harassers being fired, there are plenty more that are not even being reported, properly investigated, or properly addressed.


My best advice: When you see something, say something

And if you can’t, find a community of others who can empower you and join you in saying something.  Silence is by far our worst enemy in fighting this, and should no longer be an option.

Have you worked in your community to fight harassment?  How can we support victims of sexual assault?  Do you have ideas of ways we can we shame those who harass others?  How often are you calling out others?  Let me know in the comments.

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Image credit: “Angel Chained” by Gaius Augustus  Please do not repost or redistribute.

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