For the past few weeks, I've been thinking about – and avoiding writing about – an incident that happened 20 years ago. I was in New York for a few days, writing stories for this newspaper. One of the events I covered was a gala dinner honouring a famous writer.
I knew no one at the dinner, but circulated with a glass of wine, interviewing people here and there, including an American publishing executive. When I found myself sitting next to him at dinner, I was pleased; here was someone I'd at least spoken to.
I was pleased, I should say, until I felt his hand on my thigh, under the table, as the dinner began. I froze. Later, much later, when I read other women's accounts of being groped, I would notice this, an almost universal reaction. They froze too.
The man's wife was seated on his other side. He stared at the speaker, blandly, as if his hand were not in my lap, as if it were a creature with powers of its own. I had no idea what to do. I was young, and a stranger among the gowned and tuxedoed literary elite of New York. I wriggled sideways, hoping that this, subtly, would dislodge his hand. Instead, his hand followed me, a thing from a horror movie, until it was actually in my crotch.
Finally, I unfroze and reached under the table and shoved his hand off. He didn't flinch. He also didn't speak to me again for the rest of the night. I sat through the whole dinner, miserable and humiliated, and went back to my hotel room to file my story.
I reread that story recently; of course I didn't mention the groping. I'm sure that the man was counting on my silence; how many other young women had he placed in that position? I had a reporter's notebook next to me at the dinner, as well as a tape recorder, and it still meant nothing. He knew I would be too embarrassed to say anything. He would have this power over me, and it was the power that gave him a thrill.
For 20 years I relinquished control and put that night in a drawer with all the other incidents of groping, fondling and chasing that happened when I was a young woman (every woman I know has similar stories). It wasn't all that serious, I told myself. It was too humiliating to write about.
As a feminist to the core, I knew I was not to blame, and yet I felt that my inaction made me blame-worthy. I was hardly the hero of the story. Rosalind Russell would have smacked that guy in the chops. Silence was much easier. But in these last few weeks, I realized I could hardly ask other women to tell me their stories of harassment and not have the nerve to share my own.
If those of us with a platform like a newspaper column don't use it, how can we expect women with no power and no platform to come forward? As Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker this week: "Sexual harassment is about power, not sex, and it has taken women of extraordinary power to overcome the disadvantage that most accusers face." She was writing about why the harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein were believed, while those against Donald Trump and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas were not. One of the reasons, she decides, is that Mr. Weinstein's celebrity accusers come from a place of power themselves, thanks to fame and (relative) wealth; this status makes them believable.
What happens to women who don't feel equipped to come forward, or whose credibility is judged insufficiently sterling? That's the worry of Anita Hill, who famously told the world of Mr. Thomas's harassment and was dismissed in the right-wing press as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." Prof. Hill, who now teaches law, tells Ms. Mayer she worries that the outpouring of harassment stories "won't translate to everyday women, or even those in high-profile careers in places like Silicon Valley."
While I do think the tide is turning, I share Prof. Hill's worry, especially for women who lack job security or institutional clout (and are therefore the likeliest targets for powerful predators). An Abacus Data survey this week revealed that 53 per cent of Canadian women had felt "unwanted sexual pressure" in the workplace; this is not surprising. What is also not surprising, though perhaps even more depressing, is that more than three-quarters of the women in the survey felt that harassers would face no repercussions.
An unrelated survey released by the federal government this week showed that workplace harassment is underreported, because the people who are its victims are afraid that they'll be the ones punished if they speak up. You might think this was crazy, until you look across the pond to Britain, where Kate Maltby, a woman who made a harassment allegation against Conservative cabinet minister Damian Green, was the subject of a two-page hit job in the Daily Mail.
There are consequences to speaking up, as these women are learning now, as Anita Hill learned in the past. But staying silent has consequences of its own, better hidden, potentially just as painful. Which is worse? These are calculations no one should have to make.