Sexual harassment can be complicated

Feeling confused and hypocritical.

I have read a lot of sad posts lately about sexual harassment, by women in the technology industry who were sexually assaulted, women in science who were verbally harassed.

The reaction to the harassers of many people (and I admit, my initial response) has been akin to “burn ’em at the stake!”

An article from Slate on the science blogging scandal advised older people, established in their careers that

You will occasionally meet younger people who go out of their way to speak with you at professional events, ask you interesting and sometimes personal questions, and hang on your every word. Those are not puppy-dog, crushed-out eyes staring up at you. These are eyes hungry for a professional break. These people are not trying to sleep with you. They are trying to get hired by you.

Actually, I have seen that some times they ARE trying to sleep with you. When my husband passed away, I was 36 years old. For the next few years, until I remarried, there were students, newly-graduated PhDs and others who were hanging on my every word and I’m pretty certain trying to sleep with me. No, I didn’t take anyone up on it, but I’ll be honest, I’ve never, ever been attracted to younger men. Yeah, they can be cute but so can puppies and three-year-olds and I’ve never felt the desire to have sex with any of them, either.  I was lonely after my husband died. Would I have acted differently if I had been attracted to any of these young men? I like to believe so, but it’s hard to pat myself on the back for resisting a temptation I didn’t feel.

It’s certainly not just me.

I grew up with a nice guy, extremely shy, awkward teenager who as an adult was drop-dead gorgeous (but still shy). He used to tell me stories about his students coming on to him that are too graphic for this blog (and that’s saying something). All it did was make him embarrassed.

So, yes, sometimes they ARE interested in you but you’re just not interested in them.

Even if you are, that is no excuse. You, oh older established person, are supposed to be the mature one in the room. I knew a judo coach in his forties who used to date his young students, who were barely legal. Another coach said to him,

“That is disgusting! They are just attracted to you because of your position. You get in my car and we’ll drive down to the local high school and see how many of the girls find a balding guy in his forties attractive.”

I agree completely with all of this. Even if the person IS attracted to you, there is a power differential. You can never be sure if they really feel comfortable saying no. If they decide that this is not the relationship they want, they may not feel comfortable ending it.

And yet … when I was a young engineer, not only did I date one of the managers but when I was 26 years old and he was 44, we got married, had two wonderful children and were married for a decade until he died. (My daughters have noted that I have forfeited for life any right to describe a romantic relationship as ‘too old for you’ unless the person in question is older than their grandparents.)

We tried to keep our relationship quiet. In fact, when my supervisor overheard me saying that I did not have time to talk, he misunderstood it to be related to a project we were working on and advised,

“You might want to try to make a good impression on him. Mr. Rousey could really help your career.”

Well, he certainly helped my career, but a large part of that was paying the mortgage and the nanny while I earned my doctorate. So, there is the confusing, hypocritical part, because if he had paid attention to what all the human resource people said, to what *I* am saying almost 30 years later, to all of the warning signs screaming “No, this is not appropriate!” –  my life, his life, our children – it all would have turned out completely different.

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