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Cobalt Blue: A Novel

A novel for courageous readers and seekers, COBALT BLUE is a turbulent, gorgeous ride into sacred sex..

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Emails to my Therapist

#MeToo? I Guess So

Dear Nicholas, I haven’t posted a #metoo or written before about the upwelling of sexual harassment accusations because I’ve never felt traumatized by the minor incidents in my life. However, recent news does stir my  memories and I have to get down one thing that happened long ago.

Really, It Was Almost Funny

Back when I was a reporter at The Raleigh Times, a man who was a regular news source for me asked me to lunch and in the same conversation mentioned that perhaps my competition, The News & Observer, would get to break a story I’d been wanting. I felt he was subtly threatening me if I didn’t have lunch with him.

workplace sexual harassment

I agreed to go to lunch (he was an attractive and interesting guy, he didn’t need to threaten me.)

But then I decided to give my editor a heads-up in advance in case I was going to get beat on the story; I had no plans for lunch to become anything more than lunch.

Snitching

So I went into the managing editor’s office and said, “This guy is after me.”

“I gather he’s married,” my editor indulgently said.

Well, yes, that was true. But so what? I realized after I went back into the newsroom that I’d left out the point. I’d neglected to mention the linking of getting together with him and getting the news story.

It appeared I’d gone to my editor to complain that a married man had invited me to lunch.  I felt embarrassed and ridiculous.

Maybe I Made It Up

My next wave of emotion: I started thinking I’d probably misunderstood and this nice guy hadn’t meant to threaten me and why was I talking/thinking bad about him.

So I went to lunch with him, managed to arrive a half hour late, making myself a too-troublesome-to-bother-with target for harassment. He didn’t propose any more get-togethers and I got the story I’d been after.

The episode didn’t end there.

Here’s what a reporter would call the “second day story,” the follow-up. Many years later, the man’s name came up at a dinner with people I hadn’t known before. One woman said, “He was fired, you know.”

Oh?

“Yes, for sexual manipulation….”

#Me Too

Vindicated! And at the same time, I wondered why I had questioned my perception. So many other women posting #metoo have said the same thing: I thought maybe I’d misunderstood.  

What’s wrong with us that we think that way, that we don’t trust our own experience?

A Bit Creepier

Pondering all this, other incidents that are less equivocal have come to mind. Once when I was sitting in the press section of the State House, a passing legislator leaned over and firmly grasped my leg at mid-thigh and said hoarsely at my face, “How’re you today?” I stared at his hand. I wanted him dead.

Decades later, I can still see that thumb. As it happens, he did die, but it was  years later. Here’s an important distinction: I’d never found him attractive.

A Trump-Style Incident

 
I was attacked once on a dark side street in Quebec City. A man came up behind me and did a quick grab, Trump style. He said, “Viens avec moi.” Come with me.

#metoo dark street

Up ahead the street T-ed into a wooded cemetery. No one else was on the street. I foresaw rape and murder.  I whopped my shoulder bag across his face as if I were swinging a bat, (clobbering with a pocketbook seems in retrospect so Blondie-esque, of the cartoon Dagwood and Blondie.) I’d meant to hurt him, to knock his head off, but he stepped back and kept backing and chuckled. We ran in opposite directions.

Not A Workplace Issue

 
But that wasn’t harassment. That street wasn’t my workplace; my professional advancement wasn’t at risk. It was simple assault, and  he wasn’t very serious about it.

That night, I went on to my hotel, relieved that the moment had come to nothing. Then the next day, I was walking
along in the sunshine feeling fine, until I heard footsteps come up close behind me. At the sound, a wave of adrenaline turned my legs weak, my heartbeat suddenly loud and fast in my ears. The innocent pedestrian walked on past, posing no problem for me. I was astonished by my intense bodily reaction. It occurred without a single conscious thought crossing my mind. When I calmed down, I was fine again and had no further response to the incident.

Repeating Images of Violence

 
The one time I could say that I had any lasting trauma came ironically from violence that may not have even happened. While I was in Varanasi researching my novel Sister India, riots broke out in the city over a Hindu versus Muslim conflict. There was no English-language newspaper. My news came from the grapevine, from neighbors talking. I heard that on a nearby street women had been pulled off a rickshaw and hacked to death.

#metoo Varanasi rickshaw

Did that happen? I had no way to be sure. But images of what I pictured happening on that street dogged me for two years after my return to the U.S. These were quick flashbacks, over and over, of an imagined event. Each time one rose in my mind, I felt a visceral response, a physical recoil.

The experience of those imaginings was worse than anything that had ever happened to me. They amounted to real and repeating shocks for me, whatever the facts of the matter.

Talking Turkey

 
At Thanksgiving dinner, one of my sisters-in-law and I decided that there needs to be distinction in the levels of accusation now being made. Pinching a butt once thirty years ago is pretty much nothing in my view, and it shouldn’t be equated with the cases of alleged rape. If I’d pinched a guy’s butt thirty years ago (and who knows, I may have), I’d be seriously angry if my picture repeatedly showed up in line-ups with accused rapists.

A distinction also needs to be made between unwanted sexual advances and mere overtures. An appropriate overture, verbal or physical, welcome or not, is simply an invitation that one can accept or not. What’s important is that there be no coercion at all and no overtures in any situation where one has power over another and the cost of saying no is high.

The Audacity!

 
I’ve never been a male-basher. Some of the nicest people I know are men. And on the whole, I’ve been approached by men in a rather decorous manner.  I’ve sometimes been flattered by a bit of male audacity. Not long ago, I was pumping gas and I felt a light touch run partway down the length of my back.  I turned to look and the man was already several feet past me heading for his own car. He looked back and smiled and said, “Beautiful.” He was about thirty years younger than me, nice-looking, a seeming kindred spirit, professorial in tweed. I said, “Thanks,” and felt good. I took no offense at all. I hope we’re not on the road to stopping flirting.

How to wrap this up? Really I just wanted to get it down and off my mind. I think I’ve said what I needed to. It’s now 3:32 a.m. I wasn’t getting to sleep and this stuff was rattling around in my mind so I got up to put it down here. And now to sleep… I hope.

Peggy

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Comments

  • Kenju
    November 28, 2017 at 2:54 pm Reply

    Excellent post; I agree with you about the severity of the deed and accusations. Some women imagine things and blow them up out of proportion.

    I have a story I’ll share with you later.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 28, 2017 at 5:20 pm Reply

      I don’t at all mean to disparage anyone else’s experience, kenju. I just think that there are varying levels of offense.

      And I’m curious about your story!

  • Robert Braxton
    November 29, 2017 at 2:48 am Reply

    A feeling that “jibes” with my experience of reading your books (very pleasant): “between unwanted sexual advances and mere overtures. An appropriate overture, verbal or physical, welcome or not, is simply an invitation that one can accept or not. What’s important is that there be no coercion at all and no overtures in any situation where one has power over ” I really like how you’ve laid this out here.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 29, 2017 at 5:39 am Reply

      Thanks, Robert. Not totally sure how this post jibes with my books, but it does all come from the same source. Laying it out here helps clarify my thinking– a very different experience than letting thoughts arise in fiction.

  • Ron Perkinson
    November 29, 2017 at 3:40 am Reply

    This is an area where I believe there is a real distinction between the expectations of the genders. I think the males are wired and programmed , either by genes or environment or some combination to see almost any situation as one encouraging or suggesting sex. Freud seemed to adopt that thought. The real issue,to me, is not how to change that status. It’s how to regulate the male response to sexual stimuli and situations to conform to acceptable behavior. I don’t know of any dogs who have become vegetarian. While females may initiate sexual conduct, they have the societal right to say no or stop. If not initiated by the female, sex is likely to be a subject of guilt or anger. Seems to me this whole matter is reduced to word “harassment”. That leads to the relative power positions of the party. A female should never feel that her status is dependent on her willingness to engage in sex only because the male has the ability to affect her status. On the other hand, if she desires to so engage, and is competent by age and intellect to make that decision, should either of them be criticized or denounced?
    Many years ago I did a piece of material which I somehow think is relevant today. Reader alert! I am going to do this exactly as I did it in front of live audiences. “Ladies it’s time you knew the truth. Men are assholes; they’re jerks ; it’s inbred and it ain’t going to change. You may meet a kind, sensitive , caring man who holds your hand as you walk on a moonlit beach. Just remember one thing-HE’S TRYING TO F..K YOU!!!”
    And so it goes….

    • Peggy Payne
      November 29, 2017 at 5:51 am Reply

      I agree, Ron: the world needs to be safe for office romances. And I sure won’t try to argue with you about the male perspective. But some guys do take it slow, whatever the ultimate goal. Also, there’s a pair of stereotypes that I think are a burden to both sexes: that men are continuously bent on sex and all women want to get married. My generation was raised to believe these notions and I’ve seen both cause lasting misunderstandings and problems.

      • Ron Perkinson
        November 29, 2017 at 2:04 pm Reply

        Peggy-Agree with you generally, but find a couple of words troublesome. Labeling something or someone as a stereotype does not preclude the description from being factual. I agree that stereotyping can be harmful, and avoided because of its potential for distortion. The word “notion” seems dismissive of a thought process that I believe to be far more accurate than not when applied to males . Not all, certainly. Perhaps my view is proof positive that I have a great deal of room to improve.

        • Peggy Payne
          November 29, 2017 at 4:34 pm Reply

          My feeling, Ron, is that there’s a huge difference between a fact applying to most of a group versus all of a group. All those people who don’t fit into the majority picture are vulnerable to damage. And even those who most often seem to fit the dominant image likely don’t fit that profile at all times.

          I appreciate your attention to words.

  • November 30, 2017 at 12:53 am Reply

    Excellent, Peggy, thank you, and a great message to trust our instincts because they are never wrong. It is good that the a–holes of the world are on notice, but I do think they are the minority of men. There are predatory women out there, too, of course. But please oh please let us not live in a world without flirting. To wit, I was from Spain recently and an attractive man kept looking at me as the plane was still boarding. I finally asked , across several seat rows, “Do you know me?” And he answered, “No… Unfortunately.” I burst out laughing. And that was the end of it. But it made my day and still makes me laugh.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 30, 2017 at 2:22 am Reply

      Oh, Frances, I LOVE your Spain story! Thanks for sharing this. I think we agree on these matters.

  • Roy Skinner
    November 30, 2017 at 4:28 am Reply

    Peggy, this is a great essay. I will have to share it too.
    I have just changed careers. I retired from the Florida Dept. Of Corrections and mostly worked with men. Now I am working in a call center that is dominated by women. I am finding myself being rather careful. Heck of a time to be changing worlds.
    Thanks for writing, and I hope Garrison is innocent.

    • Peggy Payne
      November 30, 2017 at 5:07 am Reply

      Thanks, Roy, and I suspect a lot of men are likely to be much more careful, probably the ones who have the least need to be. I’m betting on Garrison, not just because I’m a fan, but because what’s reported is allegations of only one person and his account feels believable to me.

  • November 30, 2017 at 5:00 am Reply

    I like your post about personal qualifications of the larger issue – I sure want men to be sensitive and kind to women, not bullies or sexual extortionists.
    And to the previous comment: My instincts, and many others’, have often been wrong – the intuition system is just that, not logical, and tho I make my living largely on my very personal intuitions, I’m wrong at least half the time. So I usually describe my guesses/gut instincts/intuitions as my “imaginings”, because they are just that until/unless the other says they’re true. I’d feel unwise and presumptuous to always trust my imaginings over the other person’s direct awareness of their perception/feeling/intention. In most non-therapy situations, and even in some therapeutic exchanges, people do mislead and hide – it’s not necessary to tell the whole truth all the time. But if we want to be fully known, I think it’s necessary and wise to tell our closest intimates our important truths, preferably, diplomatically. And some truths that would be genuinely and unnecessarily hurtful just don’t need telling. Beware “I’m just being “honest” – it’s often intentional &/or unconscious aggression..

    • Peggy Payne
      November 30, 2017 at 5:08 am Reply

      Interesting. I think I don’t trust my intuition enough.

  • Lee Grohse
    December 3, 2017 at 3:23 am Reply

    Such a complex issue-sex, power, perception, aggression, attraction. There just aren’t that many interactions we have in life that can run the whole gamut from flattering and intensely pleasurable to humiliating and life threatening , but “approaching” someone sexually can do just that. Encounters like yours at the gas station and Frances’ Spain story are charming and fun. But pushed to the level that Ron describes and you begin to tap into why women perceive catcalling as so unpleasant. Has the nasty feel of the fox reminding the rabbit “you may think you are enjoying a pleasant walk, I am here to remind you that you are prey. ” Our current sexual harassment news cycle is an unpleasant reminder that as far as our society has come in terms of equality, the power differential still plays a big role in who gets to decide . It get’s played out on the most vicious level with ISIS kidnapping and enslaving girls and women and in its more civilized level in Matt Lauer’s office. Even for women who haven’t had to deal with sexual assault or harassment, it’s an unpleasant and possibly infuriating reminder of those primitive realities. A quote that comes to mind: At the core, men are afraid women will laugh at them and women are afraid men will kill them.

    • Peggy Payne
      December 3, 2017 at 1:17 pm Reply

      I’ve long thought that men must be angry at viewing women as having the power of yes-or-no and maybe that drives some guys in a bad direction. But one way and another, men also say no. There seems to be a strong masculine investment in the image of always saying yes.

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