The #SheToo Movement?

“My hair is curly today and Erica won’t quit saying how much she likes it (it looks awful by the way),” says 24-year-old Christine Merrick. “She's been sending me texts about how our signs are compatible. I told her was tired and she told me that I could go over to her apartment to sleep. Yeah, let me think about that … never!”

Unrequited love is often the theme of epic romance stories; literature has taught us the heroism of loving someone who doesn’t love us back. The raw reality, however, is much different and can be an emotional minefield for both people — especially those who work together. And especially when one’s gay, the other not.

How does an awkward and messy situation like this even begin? “A few weeks ago, I asked Erica if she wanted to go on a walk with me during lunch, she did and it turned into a regular thing,” Merrick says. “During these walks she would tell me about her girlfriend and eventually she would tell me how she wanted to end things and that they were essentially roommates.”

And while Merrick felt as though she was demonstrating her acceptance of Erica’s relationship as any friend would, Erica was catching feelings … and they began to present themselves in uncomfortable ways.

“She’s always had this weird ass fascination with my chest; she would always make comments about it to me and pretty much anyone else who was around,” Merrick laments. “It got to the point that when I would go in the office to talk to her she would just stare at my chest and then tell me that she couldn't say what she wanted to say to my face.”

This isn't appropriate behavior between women who work together, not even remotely, says Abigail Saguy a professor of sociology and gender studies at UCLA and author of the 2003 book, "What is Sexual Harassment?" “One of the reasons it’s men who are punished for harassing women, and sometimes other men, is that this is about power and overwhelmingly the people in power are men. But if a woman makes another woman, or a man, uncomfortable sexually, it’s absolutely the same situation,” explains Saguy.

Data for the number of women who are perpetrators is hard to come by because most agencies — civilian or government — generally keep track of the accusers’ gender, not the accused.  

"It is extremely rare — it does happen but it is extremely rare," says Genie Harrison, a Los Angeles-based attorney who specializes in workplace sexual-harassment cases. "Women can be abusers, and I've represented victims where a woman was the harasser, but I would say it's at best a 99.9 percent to .01 percent ratio."

Additionally, numbers are even harder to quantify because many women are reluctant to report harassment from either men or other women. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimates that number to be as high as 80 percent of incidents that go untargeted. “For woman-on-woman, the only difference is that if it’s a lesbian issue, I don’t know that power and position really matters,” says employment lawyer Todd Harrison of Long Beach. “Often it’s just a case of two co-workers involved in sexual harassment and one of them stepping over the line.”

According to sex therapist Jan Marcrom from Denver Health, the propensity for women-on-women sexual harassment may not stem from purposeful predatory behavior but from lack of social conditioning. “Lesbian women, and indeed all gay people, are in an interesting period in the group’s emergence to acceptance," she says. "We are straddling a period where being gay was kept very quiet and the current one of almost immediate social normalcy in a very short period of time, so rules are still being learned at the same time they’re being defined, and this creates confusion from everyone involved.

“What is currently acceptable behavior between two consenting lesbians may not be acceptable between a lesbian and a heterosexual woman, but those lines are not only blurred, in many cases, they haven’t even been drawn,” adds Marcrom.

“I do feel bad!” Merrick explains. “For several reasons, for one I feel like I gave the impression that I am interested in women. My co-workers and I mess around but we all know that we are only playing. I never acted with [Erica] in that way but maybe she saw us and assumed that we were being serious. Before I thought she was crazy, we were talking about past relationships and I accidently mentioned a few ex-girlfriends of mine but I also stated that was years ago … so I feel like I opened the door to her advances.”

“Human behavior is contextual,” says Saguy, “and that's why fixing the longstanding but hardly discussed problem of workplace sexual harassment (by women) requires changing the culture and not just laws.” 

The issue is, many still see sexual harassment — even when that harassment comes from women — as a gender-first cultural issue. Even an attack on men perpetuated by women. As one example, Franklin Raddish, a South Carolina Baptist pastor with a nationwide following, declared as a means of supporting Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, that the #MeToo movement against men in politics and Hollywood amounted to a "war on men."

“More women are sexual predators than men,” Raddish claimed. “Women are chasing young boys and other women up and down the road, but we don’t hear about that because it’s not PC.”

He provided no evidence of this because, well, there isn’t any. Of course.

Though the idea that much needed cultural change is necessary, this provides no current consolation for Merrick, who still works with Erica and had to handle the unwelcomed advances on her own. “I just requested to be moved to nights so I only have to see her about an hour a day during shift changes,” she says.

The argument can and should be made that while the LGBTQ community will only enjoy true equality and social acceptance once the full menu of rights and privileges is afforded to it, this should be accompanied by the full expectation to behave within the same standards and boundaries, and penalties, as everyone else. Culturally, many may be unsure or reluctant to enforce the latter.

Is this how Merrick would have dealt with the situation if it was a man who was encroaching into her comfort zone? “No it’s probably not even close to how I would have handled it, but for now, I couldn’t come up with another solution.”

[cover photo Kinga Cichewicz via Unsplash]