Bob Filner case shows we still have much work to do on harassment
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is about to wrap up his two-week treatment for sexually aggressive behavior.
That’s one day for each of the 14 women who have publicly accused Filner of accosting them or making unwanted advances.
I could run down details from the accusations, but you’d probably have to shower after you make your way through the list.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said Filner was about halfway through his treatment; it was learned late Friday that he will complete treatment Saturday.
Fortunately, my colleague Robin Abcarian has done a fine job of chronicling the allegations and the fallout in her columns.
The complaints range from workplace harassment (putting an employee in a headlock and suggesting she work without panties) to clumsy unsolicited sexual advances (a leering gaze, a too-tight hug, a wet kiss on the cheek) at business meetings and public functions.
Maybe such behavior could be considered flirtatious by a 70-year-old man who’s accustomed to getting his way. But it alarmed and embarrassed his accusers — professional women who said they expected to deal with him professionally.
Filner has said he didn’t harass anyone, that he is simply a “hugger” who didn’t understand his actions might be seen as demeaning. Two weeks of treatment is supposed to cure and educate him.
Now we need to set about educating ourselves.
Complaints about Filner’s alleged behavior had been circulating for years. So why didn’t somebody out the man, backhand him or shout him down when he got out of line?
Like many women of my generation, I had my own Filner-esque moment; I was 20, working at a park in Cleveland for the summer.
My middle-aged boss picked me up for a “meeting” and took me to his empty office. He walked up behind me, wrapped his arms around my chest and began nuzzling my neck.
I wriggled away, dashed into the hall and waited for him there. Then he drove me to McDonald’s and we had a weirdly friendly lunch. I was creeped out and confused, but neither of us mentioned the unsettling encounter.
In fact, I never mentioned it to anyone. I felt dirty, afraid, embarrassed: Were my shorts too tight? Did I say something wrong? Should I have seen that coming?
So I understand the impulse that fuels a woman’s silence.
But the women Filner’s accused of victimizing aren’t naive college students. They’re presumably tough and impressively accomplished — businesswomen, military officers, executives, academic deans.
Yet it took years for any of them to muster the resolve to out a man who appears to be a serial groper.
That doesn’t surprise attorney Gloria Allred, who represents the first woman willing to tell her story in a public complaint. Her sexual harassment lawsuit against Filner last month “opened the floodgates” because it let other women know they weren’t alone, she said.
“It excited the women and empowered them to stand up to this man,” Allred said. “It’s fear that keeps women down as doormats.... They blame themselves, or they’re afraid to do or say anything about it. They don’t want to alienate the person in power. So they try to tough it out. “
But silence gives the offender a pass, and cinches the victim’s status.
The first public accusations in this case were by lawyers and a city official who wouldn’t name the women; they’d promised to shield them from the spotlight. That’s understandable, but it plays into the perception that victims are the ones with something to be ashamed of.
It’s too bad they didn’t take a page from the playbook of Anthony Weiner’s online paramours and let their cellphones record the action when they felt Filner got too close.
Because while calls for Filner’s resignation are growing, so is grumbling about the timing and the flood of accusations.
Some San Diego residents are upset that they’re saddled with a mayor they wouldn’t have voted for had they known about the sexual complaints. Others complain that the women are making too much of an old man’s amorous advances.
“Professional, intelligent women don’t wait 8 years to tell about a pat on the butt,” one man wrote on the website of a San Diego radio station. “Women of class and ‘high-standing’ simply ignore the one-time flirtations of men to which they are not attracted.
“This is an obvious political campaign against a strong Mayor,” he wrote.
And that’s obviously the view of someone who’s never been sexually propositioned while trying to escape a headlock.
It’s hard to understand the reluctance to go public unless you’ve been in that spot. But it’s also time for women to step out of the shadows, arm themselves and battle sexual harassment.
This really isn’t about sex, it’s about a bully’s effort to flex his power — and silence is his ally.
Filner long has had a reputation as a tyrant. He considers himself simply impatient and brash. Progressive politics are his stock in trade, confrontation his calling card.
He likes to brag about the months he spent in a Mississippi jail, as part of the country’s storied Freedom Riders brigade. He says he learned to fight for civil rights at the knee of Martin Luther King Jr.
I think he needs a refresher course if he has hasn’t managed to figure out that women have civil rights too.
His behavior is an affront to the movement’s legacy. And we shall overcome only when women are willing to speak up.
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