One benefit of living in Seattle is the easy access to beautiful, lush parks within minutes of my home.
I have regularly visited such a park for the past 20 years. Sturdy, old-growth Douglas firs frame a moss- and fern-covered ravine, with mineral springs and several nature trails—some exposed and others hidden beneath a canopy of fir, maple, and pine trees.
The park is big enough to get lost in and feel like you are the only hiker in this treasurable arboretum.
On a recent walk, Riley (my dog) and I happened upon one of the hidden trails. I suddenly felt a presence behind me. I turned to see a man about 50 yards away, walking in our direction. Suspicion arose in my body. We resumed walking. Periodically, I turned around. He went in and out of my periphery.
There was no snoozing my body’s alarm bell. I even felt compelled to warn a solo female jogger up ahead. I chose not to. And that led to feelings of guilt, while imagining headlines of “lone jogger assaulted in idyllic park.”
Eventually, at the apex of my trail, the man casually strolled on ahead of me. At closer range, he appeared nonthreatening and was casually walking, like me, on a cool summer morning.
It was in that moment that I felt relief and embarrassment. What made me think he was a threat? These were, quite simply, ordinary circumstances—a quiet, vacant park, me walking alone on a path, and a lone man walking behind me.
The #MeToo movement has brought much-needed awareness to the constant threats women experience every day of their lives and the assaults they endure in professional and personal environments.
As women, we have often encountered moments like mine, when a quiet Sunday morning stroll turns into a fight-or-flight moment, without real reason (except for the very rational reasons, such as being a woman, hearing other women’s stories, and living through our own stories).
But one important factor I ignored this morning, and one I encountered in a must-read book for men and women titled The Gift of Fear, is that benevolent men with good intentions do not want to impose fear upon women. They may even go out of their way to avoid raising the hairs on the back of our necks. And this made me think about the three young boys, soon-to-be men, that I am raising in my home.
We may all feel helpless around the important issues raised by the #MeToo movement—some are even concerned it will become a forgotten trend. The healing of assaulted women is a necessary focus of societal attention. And it is tantamount to educate the young boys and men in our lives around respectful and appropriate language and behavior.
First, it starts with how we talk to each other. Buddhism calls it “right speech“—an essential component of the Eightfold Path for spiritual liberation and insight. We make a daily intention to do our best to remove lying, divisive speech, and abusive speech from our interactions. Before speaking our words, we can ask ourselves if they are factual, helpful, and kind.
We have all listened to jokes with misogynistic or prejudiced overtones, or have heard others’ stories overshadowed with stereotypes and judgments. I turn off my teen sons’ music that is peppered with overly sexualized lyrics.
We may have all experienced being the “unpopular” one in the group and put a kibosh on an inappropriate joke or moved away from topics of discomfort.
But here is the point: we need to be the killjoys in the group, especially around young teen boys who are on their way to becoming men.
Psychological research suggests that disparaging humor, like “locker room” talk, promotes discrimination against certain groups, including women. Our speech quickly becomes our beliefs and our actions, way beyond the end of the joke or last line of a song.
The excuse “a joke is just a joke” trivializes the historical mistreatment of women and minority groups and is no longer an acceptable “hall pass.”
Second, we examine our actions. Buddhism refers to this as “right action“–another important component of the Eightfold Path that refers to the actions of our body. We make a conscious decision to avoid bringing harm to ourselves and others, which includes not taking the life of another, not taking what was not freely given, and refraining from inappropriate sexual conduct.
The best way to live with right action in the context of the #MeToo movement is to talk about consent.
The standard for an “affirmative” consent is that it needs to be vocal, enthusiastic, and continuous—straightforward and clear. But, if that is too ambiguous for some people, here is what non-consent looks like:
>> Silence. In the animal kingdom, we call it “playing possum.” Most people who are being assaulted will lie motionless, not wanting to provoke more harm onto themselves. This is a survival mechanism—it is not consent.
>> Previous Consent. If a person consented to kissing, oral sex, or intercourse on Saturday night, it does not automatically give the green light for consent on Monday night.
>> Change of Mind. It is a person’s prerogative to change their mind from “yes” to “no,” even if they are in the middle of sex. Remember—consent is vocal, enthusiastic, and continuous.
>> Consented to another behavior. Consent to kissing does not mean consent to oral sex or intercourse.
>> False pretenses. Lying or misleading the person into having sex by saying you are monogamous, STD-free, or on birth control, for example.
>> Yes, but incapacitated. If the person is sleeping, drunk, or unconscious, there is no way they have provided the “affirmative” consent.
Educating people about the definition of consent is part of the solution. According to a study called the Enhanced Assess Acknowledge Act Sexual Assault Resistance Program (EAAA), these four steps can help reduce sexual assaults:
>> Identify risky situations. 80 percent of rapes are committed by someone we know, and about 50 percent occur in our home or within one mile (RAINN). We are at greater risk when we are isolated (for example, going into a room at a party where no one can hear us). A preventative measure is to inform friends of our whereabouts during parties and encourage each other to notice our prolonged absences.
>> Trust Our Gut. Pay attention and respond to the “something is not right” feeling. Women in particular have been taught to be “nice,” to not “rock the boat,” or to tell ourselves “it’s nothing.” The more we listen to our bodies, the better equipped we are to prevent risky situations from progressing.
>> The perpetrator can be an acquaintance or friend. We need to challenge our belief that someone we know can’t actually harm us. This will prevent the situation from escalating, rather than us trying to explain or rationalize the perpetrator’s behavior.
>> Use verbal or physical resistance. Pleading with the perpetrator is not effective. Use forceful verbal resistance, like yelling or swearing in their face with physical resistance.
This is not a man versus woman issue. This is an us issue. We are all impacted by sexual assault, and we must work together with compassion to educate each other and keep one another safe.
“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.