His name was Jesse. I would have considered him to be handsome but for his dark eyes, which looked at me in a predatory manner. Dressed in his blue security guard uniform at the downtown Denver library, he looked official and authoritative. I was only sixteen, an ugly duckling who wore an ugly mustard-yellow shelver’s jacket. At first, the attention from this older man was flattering. Then I grew afraid.
He would find me downstairs in the dimly lit corridors of the library basement. Alone and vulnerable, I just stood there as he crept closer and closer to me. He enjoyed my discomfort, a discomfort made obvious by my nervous giggles and scared looks. I had no idea of how to handle these encounters. Fortunately, he never touched me—just intimidating me gave enough pleasure to this creep. This was the late 70s, when his behavior was considered harmless. A librarian told me later that she had transferred to another library branch just to avoid him. Even this adult did not think of reporting him to his employer. He had not only the physical power to invade our space, but the institutional power of a system that would have dismissed our complaints.
The “Me too” campaign, recently launched in reaction to the Harvey Weinstein controversy, invites anyone who had been harassed or attacked to declare their status to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the problem. This campaign has reminded me of Jesse’s bearded face and heavy breathing as he edged toward me. Why did he choose to harass me? According to an expert on sexual assault, a perpetrator may use three criteria for the victim: vulnerability, accessibility, and the lack of credibility. On all three counts, then, I was certainly an ideal target for his cruel game because I was only a kid.
However, my story is not about the experience of being harassed (it was a minor event for me) but about the dynamics of bullies. The “Me too” campaign is trying once again to educate males about respecting women: do not catcall, do not follow too close behind, etc. Although this approach might work for the oblivious male who should know better by now, it ignores the reality of what happened to me and perhaps others. Jesse knew exactly what he was doing and he had fun doing it. He was clearly conscious of my reaction, which was far more gratifying to him than a kiss or touch. Telling a man like Jesse that his behavior was harmful would only increase his pleasure. He was not a clueless or awkward geek, but simply a bully.
By defining “bullying” as intentional cruelty that is done repeatedly to make somebody feel worse off, I am stressing the aggressiveness of both children and adults who bully. The traditional view of bullies is that they are insecure, so they build up this self-esteem by harassing others. My research into bullies (especially adult ones) contradicts this assumption because bullying has several rewards. The bad news is that it feels good to put somebody else down, either through violence or putdowns. The popularity of wrestling, for example, derives from the vicarious joys of watching one person smash another one into the ground. Verbal attacks on reality shows and sitcoms highlight the thrills of diminishing another person.
The social rewards of bullying also deserve attention, especially in a culture that emphasizes that nice guys finish last. People laugh at mean jokes directed at some poor schmuck. In countless movie scenes, the man who wins the fight gets the girl. (My choice of the words “man” and “girl” is deliberate, since the man dominates the girl.) Researchers note that no matter the gender, workplace bullying can improve your career. In fact, some European countries call workplace bullying “mobbing” to stress the herd mentality within an office.
As a form of bullying, sexual harassment has its own rewards. Admiration of a man’s alleged virility (i.e., he did it because he’s a man’s man) can override the condemnation of his boorish behavior. Bill O’Reilly, for instance, has a tough persona that was reinforced by the lawsuits involving sexual harassment; his recent actions indicate that he plans a comeback despite being fired in disgrace. I also wonder how many people envied Harvey Weinstein for his casting couch privileges instead of being sickened by this abuse of power.
Deliberate cruelty in the context of bullying, then, is another aspect of sexual harassment that merits an in-depth discussion. The assumption that all bullies/harassers simply need a good lesson on respecting others will not solve the problem of men who like to corner teenaged girls in a library basement. Jesse had taken a sick pleasure in stalking me–what do we do to stop men like him?
Gail Ukockis, PhD, MSW, MA, is an educator and social worker with an eclectic background that includes graduate studies in history. For eleven years, Dr. Ukockis taught a women’s issues course at Ohio Dominican University, which served as the foundation for this textbook. Her research interests also include HIV/AIDS, cultural competence, and human trafficking. She is author of Women’s Issues for a New Generation: A Social Work Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Related video added by Juan Cole: