Stockholm Syndrome

So here’s the story. Last week I went out to dinner with some good friends. During the course of the meal, I said that an organization where I volunteer was going to have a sexual harassment training. The man I was sitting beside also volunteers there, and without missing a beat he said, “I’ve always wanted to get sexually harassed, but no one ever chooses me!”

Now, this is a stupid thing to say. Anyone who thinks it would be fun to get sexually harassed a) has probably never experienced any kind of harassment, and b) is probably not a woman. Because women know the score about sexual harassment. It was also a fairly hard thing for me to hear, since I was raped as a child, and rape is harassment in its extreme form.

The guy, like many guys before him, was responding to the word sexual, and discounting the word harassment — making a kind of guy-like joke out of the thing. A different kind of man might have asked why we needed the training, or engaged me in talking about it more seriously.

What’s interesting to me, though, is not his reaction, but mine. I didn’t say, “Shut up, you bozo” in a friendly tone of voice. I didn’t get ticked off and give him the double-barrel-feminist-shotgun response, explaining, with dripping sarcasm, how offensive it was for him to say this, not to mention unkind. I didn’t admit that I was one of the women who had spent almost a year organizing the training.

I did this really weird thing: I laughed loudly and played along. I patted him on his knee and said in a sexy voice that if he ever wanted some sexual harassment he should just let me know. Even as I was doing this, part of my brain was yelling in outrage, “Are you crazy?!!? What are you doing? You’re supposed to help stop asinine reactions like this, not foster them for God’s sake!”

It took me three days and one sleepless night to sort it out. He’s a big guy, my friend, and he was crowded in next to me in a booth. I wouldn’t have been able to get out if I had wanted to. He has a big-guy voice. I’d been having a hard day and was exhausted before we even sat down to eat. I think those factors greased the way so that I slipped into the prudent response of my childhood when a large man said anything, which was to agree, no matter what I thought, so I wouldn’t get hurt.

There’s a name for this: it’s called Stockholm Syndrome, after a Swedish bank robbery in 1973 when hostages were taken. It refers to the allegiance of victims to their perpetrators, when those perps have been in control for long enough and the violence or threat of violence has been great enough — the most famous example being Patty Hearst joining her kidnappers in the Symbionese Liberation Army and calling herself “Tanya.” It’s prevalent among child abuse survivors, battered women, and other victims of violent crimes, as well as prisoners of war.

Once I had figured out what was going on, I stopped beating myself up for being a jerk. I’m going to stop beating my friend up for being a jerk, too. People aren’t always careful about what they say, unless they’ve been taught that it matters.

Gentlemen, please consider this story your training in the fact that it matters. It really matters. Don’t be a bozo and crack jokes about it.


Molly Fisk is the Poet Laureate of Nevada County, CA and author of the essay collections Houston, We Have a Possum; Using Your Turn Signal Promotes World Peace; and Blow-Drying a Chicken, and the poetry collections, The More Difficult Beauty and Listening to Winter. Her essays air weekly in the News Hour of KVMR-FM Nevada City.

Fisk has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She works as a life coach in the Skills for Change tradition and owns Poetry Boot Camp (poetrybootcamp.com). Visit her at mollyfisk.com.

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