How Reading can Prevent Sexual Harassment

I’ve been thinking a lot about Harvey Weinstein lately and how appalling he was to so many women. Mr. Harvey was like an incubus always searching for his next penile power grab. A lot of women have come out against Harvey, and the world has generally begun to talk more about the closeted topic of sexual harassment. Some of my friends on Facebook have written “Me Too” on their wall to show people that these disgusting acts are happening close to home. The question is how to fix this epidemic? Obviously, we must continue conversations about sexual harassment and push the message that it is never okay to take advantage of another person. That is an excellent starting point, but in my opinion, it falls short of what will actually help the problem.

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Let’s first point out the obvious – the majority of sexual harassment involves women as victims and men as predators. Not all men are like Harvey Weinstein, and not all men are predators, but a lot of men have a second brain dangling between their legs. This second brain is exceptionally persuasive. How powerful is it? Speaking for myself, when I went through puberty, my penis was like a mini-Danny Devito continually giving me commentary throughout the day. Suffice it to say, Danny Devito never really goes away because of the evolutionary urge to procreate. The primal default of a man is to spread his sperm throughout the world. The penis is constantly screaming “ME, ME, ME, ME, ME!!!!”

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These urges along with other primal tendencies, like aggression, are kept in check by societal norms, laws, and morals. Norms can only go so far; when push comes to shove, that second brain gives a rat’s ass about standards, punishments, or consequences. Sexual harassment usually occurs behind closed doors when the predator can get away with the act. So what can be done to control that second brain? I think a lot of men have a good handle on their Danny Devito because they were taught from a young age what was right and wrong. Maybe they had a great set of parents who modeled a healthy male/female identity. Maybe it was a community role model who exemplified the attributes of respect. Maybe it was a religious upbringing that taught the importance of the Golden Rule.

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Whatever the reason, some men have no problem shutting down that bald-headed beast. But, not everyone is so fortunate to be raised with these types of people or messages – and sometimes even with these efforts – some men miss the point. Speaking for myself, I was raised in a home with excellent parents who taught me morals, and I had friends who came from similar backgrounds; in later years I found out that some of my friends did sexually harass women. So how can we fortify this cracked roof of parental advice and community support so that young men won’t continue to slip through and cause irreversible damage? The key is empathy.

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In my opinion, empathy is the single hardest trait to master in life. Empathy entails stepping into the mind and body of another person: seeing what they see, touching what they touch, feeling what they feel. It is such a complex idea that no person will inadvertently acquire it as a skill – one has to be deliberate. So how do we become empathetic? One of the key ways we evolved to acquire empathy was through storytelling: stories allow us to use our imagination, gain knowledge and think more deeply about problems. Books provide the most in-depth opportunity for storytelling through first-person and third-person accounts; allowing one to fully understand the emotions and personalities of various characters. Reading permits people to step into worlds which are very different from their own and to explore divergent viewpoints. I was never very empathetic until I started to read the classics and entered the masterful characters of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Melville. These stories force a person to see, think, and feel what a character feels – empathy anyone?

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I never grasped the magnitude of rape, murder, harassment, and adultery until I took the time to sit down and open a book. This brings me to my ultimate point: We need to push young men** to read great works of writing so that they can begin to understand what it feels like to see life from different vantage points. Parents, teachers, and community leaders need to stop thinking books are for SAT prep or just entertainment and start realizing that they are instruments of empathy and deep-psychological understanding. For example, try to read Anna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Les Liaisons Dangereuses without wrenching over the emotional states of the main characters. There is no excuse for not reading to your child, setting time for your teenager to read, or sitting down to read yourself – only a high source of empathy will allow a predator to stop – and step – into the soul of its prey.

This post started to get a little long (I actually want to turn this post into a book), but I would love to hear your comments on the effects of reading on your own empathy and how we should go about sexual harassment prevention. 

**We obviously also need young women to read, but this post is mainly targeted towards young men. 

Dirtbag Sex Ed

“She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness… Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods… The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

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When I was in 5th grade, my Mom received a letter from the school that detailed my need to attend the “puberty” class. This class was split between boys and girls; the male topics were all about hair growth, deodorant usage, and unexpected erections. I only know of these subjects from second-hand sources – I actually bailed due to feigned illness. I didn’t want to go because it seemed unbearably awkward and I guess my Mom let me skip to preserve my childhood for as long as possible. Flash forward to high school. Most of my sex education came from friends and the wrestling coach – Mr. Bittenbender. Mr. Bittenbender was one of those “five-decade” teachers who got a job post-WWII and refused to retire; his tenure was so long that he actually had my Dad as a student.

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Well, Mr. Bittenbender taught health and prescribed to the 1950’s style of teaching – short, simple, and outdated. Sex ed to him was showing a chart of the female and male body while simultaneously yelling about STDs and Communism. There was no talk about condoms, birth control, or even intercourse; just a poster of a wiener and vagina with an old guy touting the virtues of forced sterilization.  As if the Administration knew the flaw in this pedagogic method, they enforced a second layer of sex ed through English class. This sex ed was the most dirtbag of them all – The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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The Scarlett Letter is a great classic but why did every single high school student have to read it? Why didn’t we read Moby Dick or A Tale of Two Cities? Why was The Scarlett Letter the absolute must read? One answer. Sex. The Scarlett Letter follows the story of Hester Prynne who is convicted of adultery and forced to wear the letter “A” on her bosom for the rest of her life. It is a tale of Puritan hypocrisy and the ability for a person to be both condemned and redeemed from their past. The book actually details how Hester rises above her label to become a revered member of society and a person sought out for wisdom. The character – who is arguably most tormented – is not the accused adulterous but rather the adulterous Pastor who keeps his secret and eventually dies from guilt.

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The problem though with this profound message is that it sails over the heads of high schoolers. Nathaniel Hawthorne writes with such obscure syntax that most of his sentences drive even the most ardent teenagers to Spark Notes. Instead of reading the complicated story, students usually only get through the first part where Hester feels like crap because of her adultery. What point gets most hammered into the heads of teenagers? Sex is dangerous. Sex can destroy your life. Sex can be a devastating label. And hence this is the dirt bag sex ed which most of us had to endure. I can’t imagine a young girl going from first-hour Health to second-hour English and not feeling overwhelmed to the point of joining a monastery. Of course, sex is complicated and shouldn’t be taken lightly…but neither of these approaches did much to steer me in the right direction. I laugh now, but I wonder if a Bittenbender clone will be teaching the same stuff to my children? Will The Scarlett Letter still be used to fill holes in the curriculum?