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Alicia Wallace: Living In The Minefield Of How Women Are Expected To Behave

By ALICIA WALLACE

After being found guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault of Andrea Constand, Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to ten years yesterday. Prosecutors and defence attorneys agreed to merge the three counts to one sentence. Cosby’s attorney had asked for house arrest given his age and legal blindness.

Judge Steven O’Neill said: “No one is above the law, and no one should be treated differently or disproportionally.” He noted “great weight” was given to the victim impact statement which he called powerful.

This case has been watched by people all over the world, many of us wondering if Bill Cosby or Heathcliff Huxtable would be sentenced. His celebrity status and the role he played for years on The Cosby Show led people to conflate his character with that of a “America’s dad”, believing it is impossible for Cosby to have drugged and sexually assaulted one woman, much less 60. The phenomenon is not, however, limited to celebrities. People view their own fathers, husbands, sons and friends in the same way, thinking these relationships prove they can do no harm.

The public response to reports of sexual violence is, more often than not, disappointing and harmful to survivors. From the questions we all know too well — about what she was wearing and why she was there — to attempts to minimise, it is clear far too many people are inclined to question and blame the survivor and protect the perpetrator. It is easy to chalk this up to misogyny, but there is more to it than that.

Expectations of women are high. We are supposed to put time and effort into looking attractive, but maintain some amount of modesty. We should be friendly, smiling and passive, but not too forward or trusting. We need to lean in and put in extra effort to get along with co-workers, supervisors and managers in the interest of our professional success, but draw a clear line, subtly communicating it to workplace superiors who approach it. We are told to be open-minded and to avoid judging people, but expected to use our intuition to get out of crisis.

Comparatively, expectations of men are below sea level. They are rarely seen to be responsible for their actions, frequently excused by their “nature” and the “seduction” of women who are given the responsibility of moderating men’s behaviour. In many cases, men known to be predatory, intrusive, or inappropriate are excused by reason of age, seniority, class, or just being himself (which everyone else should recognise and work around).

Last week, it was reported a young woman attending the University of The Bahamas was sexually harassed by a lecturer. She was speaking in class when she was interrupted by the lecturer who made several comments about her breasts and the way they moved as she spoke and gestured with her hands. Uncomfortable with what happened, the student spoke to the lecturer after class, explaining how she felt and was told it would be in her best interest to drop the class. In other words, the lecturer had no intentions of apologising or changing his behaviour and put the onus on the student to prevent further (inappropriate) interaction with him.

The University of The Bahamas claims it is investigating the incident, but has not pointed to any code of conduct, policy protecting students from sexual harassment, or steps to be taken in the interim, especially given the student’s registration in the class taught by this lecturer.

Other students have taken to social media to share their thoughts on the incident. Details about the incident were confirmed, but different perspectives were shared. One comment in particular noted the student “laughed it off, and covered her body with her jacket”, as though this meant it was a non-issue. The comment called the student “overly sensitive” and implored students to leave their “personal baggage” outside of UB. It also asked why the student would register for this lecturer’s class when he is “known for the way he conducts his classroom”.

There are numerous issues with the comment that beg to be addressed, but as a starting point, it is important that we read it as an indicator of the mindset of people where sexual violence is concerned.

Sexual violence is a spectrum with sexual harassment on one end and rape on the other. When sexual harassment is verbal, it is often dismissed, seen as trivial, but it can easily escalate and is part of the larger problem. As seen in the comment, sexual harassment is often laughed off, not because it is funny, but because it is uncomfortable and embarrassing. One of the only ways to quickly move on from this kind of incident is to treat it like a joke so the moment can past and, hopefully, be forgotten. Unfortunately, violence does not end with the interaction. The experience is harmful not only in the moment when it is happening, but in memory and reflection.

Why did this happen? What could I have done to prevent it? What does it mean that this happened? Does this person view me in a particular way? What do the witnesses think about it and about me?

The barrage of questions can be overwhelming, and it is difficult to face the person, name or describe the behaviour, and explain why it is not okay. To ignore or ridicule a person for taking this step is violence. To push past the ridicule to escalate and seek redress, exposing yourself and the incident to even more people, is a courageous act. On the other hand, to accept the lecturer just is who he is and everyone knows it is to be complicit in the inappropriate behaviour that can cause trauma, be triggering to survivors, or become an obstacle to completing a degree.

At Aretha Franklin’s funeral, Bishop Charles H Ellis III called Ariana Grande to the front and, his arm around her, fondled her breast. He did this in front of a packed church and on camera. Ariana looked uncomfortable, awkwardly holding her body away from him and laughed at his terrible joke comparing her Italian name to Taco Bell menu items. This is another example of a young woman moving through an uncomfortable situation, trying to laugh it off in hopes that it would end sooner. The bishop later apologised, admitting he “may have crossed the border”.

I imagine the “border” is drawn similarly to the line women are supposed to keep our eyes on and hint at so that men do not “accidentally” cross it. We are supposed to keep a fair distance from the line ourselves. It is fine to meet with someone who can help to advance our careers and it is fine to consume beverages, but only at certain locations, only a certain number of times and only if we accept that “things happen”.

It is fine to participate in class, but it may be advisable to sit on our hands and hold tension in our bodies to prevent the movement of any body parts we do not want brought into the discussion.

This is the line many of us already know, either because of terrible experiences or warnings about the potential for terrible experiences. What is less obvious is the expectation that women research the men we may have to interact with before we agree to participate in a class, meeting, interview, audition, business venture, performance, or just about any other activity.

It is difficult to find the words that will stand up against the respected and respectable man’s age, seniority, assumed character and other factors that translate to power. It is difficult to be vulnerable and admit that we have failed to do all the things expected of women in an effort to protect ourselves, but more precisely, to protect men from their unguarded, uncontrollable, animalistic urges to violate us.

Is the victim a failure because she has worn the wrong thing, gone the wrong place, had the wrong company, and drew the line in the wrong place? Is the survivor a nuisance because she talks about what happened and dares to seek redress through the channels available to her? Must the perpetrator always be left to occupy his position, knowing he, given his longevity and relationships, will not be unseated because the fighter will tire before initial investigation is completed?

We must be mindful about where we put our support, how we frame our responses, and the underpinnings of our positions on issues of sexual violence.

Cosby is sentenced to prison, University of The Bahamas has gone quiet on its investigation and the bishop has apologised. Is it finally time to rethink the border?

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