Sexual Harassment Happens Between Lesbians, Too

We don’t always like to talk about it, but blind solidarity can hinder the search for justice.

A woman with short hair holds her chin in her hand in thought.
The fact that same-sex harassment can occur among lesbians has barely factored into the wider public discussion.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Last December, as I was completing the online sexual harassment training course mandated for all faculty and staff at the college where I teach, my mind—like everybody else’s these days—wandered to my own “#MeToo” experiences. What struck me as I reflected upon them was that the most serious, sustained, and scary experience I’d had involved a perpetrator who was a woman. The fact that same-sex harassment can occur among lesbians has barely factored into the wider public discussion, which is not really that surprising: Even the 1980s women’s anti-violence movement—with its rape crisis centers, battered women’s shelters, and educational outreach, the vanguard of constructive response to these issues—took some years to acknowledge that sexual assault and domestic violence could happen off the heterosexual grid, and might require some nonconventional resources to support its victims.

What happened to me was 40 years ago. I lived in a rural village and so did (let’s call her) Margaret. We were friends for a few months and then had an unpremeditated and, in my view, improvident sexual experience. I immediately attempted to retreat back to friendship. Margaret had told me she’d been abused as a child; now (I can only speculate), feeling rejected in love, she lacked the inner resources to deal with it in a sane, mature, and responsible way. I am not without empathy for this, to a point.

One night, in the days before answering machines allowed you to screen calls, I received a barrage of enraged (and deranged) phone calls from Margaret. I was alone in my house. Margaret lived nearby. When I stopped picking up the phone, it continued to ring incessantly. Moments after it finally stopped, there was a burst of screaming outside my door; Margaret was mauling it with an evident intention to break it down. I called 911, but a neighbor had already done so; the police were virtually at my door as I dialed. Seeing their approach, Margaret had slipped away to her own house and recommenced phoning. The officers put their ears to the receiver and caught a follow-up volley of vitriol—surprised, to put it mildly, to hear it issued in a female register. I felt embarrassed at their perplexity, fearing that summoning them about a woman hassling me must seem like much ado about nothing. I knew of no feminist script for such scenarios.

Somehow, word got out, and a mutual acquaintance—a feminist academic—took me to lunch to upbraid me for my own part in the matter: Lesbians never call the cops on other lesbians, she said. Strangely, that was the worst part of it for me. I put extra locks on my door and kept the shades down at all times, but the sense of my own culpability rotted in my stomach more deeply than the fear itself.

Often after that, as I was out jogging on country roads around our little hamlet, I would turn a bend—and suddenly, there was Margaret, stalking me while out on her own run, yelling things that made no sense, delirious with the ecstasy of terrifying me. That last part was easy. I was an anxious person already. Now I felt like I was trapped in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The bucolic landscape turned sinister in its unpeopledness, its dearth of sentient witnesses and protection. I began to long for the comforting crowds of Manhattan, whence I had come.

Soon after, Margaret and I each moved away from the region. I did indeed repair to Manhattan, where I could jog in relative security around Washington Square Park, though never without jittery glances over my shoulder. I did not see or hear from Margaret again. Ultimately, the trauma faded as other bad things that happen in the normal course of a life—deaths, breakups, accidents, illnesses, betrayals—took its place.

In late 2017, doing that online harassment training, Margaret popped back into my thoughts. So I did what people do now in these situations: I Googled her.

She had done impressive, socially valuable things in the decades since I’d known her. Literally life-saving things. I followed the links to some of her public talks on YouTube. She now had snow-white hair, and her lean runner’s body had aged into something rounder and softer, but her mannerisms were instantly recognizable. Now they were tempered, though, by a gently self-ironic manner and a frankness that was appealing.

I was well aware that a speech is a performance, not a guarantor of authenticity. I knew that what I saw on YouTube was neither a transcription of her psyche nor a reliable gauge of her comportment in private life. Yet the sheer fact that she felt this was a performance worth mastering counted for something. I realized that inner turmoil can manifest itself quite differently at different times—and it seemed that she had found a way to do the right thing with hers, to spin the old, lugubrious raw materials into a higher-grade artifact. Perhaps this was still the Jekyll at odds with her inner Hyde. Nonetheless, she had bothered to redirect at least some of her considerable intelligence and manifold talents away from malevolent things like spooking me and into pursuits I deeply respected.

But if she had indeed redirected them, why should it matter to me?

I had carried neither the desire for retribution nor for resolution over the past four decades. I rarely thought about those days. Now I saw someone who seemed possessed of wisdom and grace, yet who also stored the memory of an exceptionally graceless episode in both our lives. I wondered what the Margaret of now would say about the Margaret of then. I was fascinated by the idea of the perceptions of these two Margarets cohabiting in one brain, the one eyeing the other clearly. Was it possible that the Margaret of now could be an ally rather than an antagonist? In her online speeches, Margaret depicted a moral universe, and employed a language and a rigor in analyzing it, that strongly reverberated for me. It was hard to resist the idea that she was someone with whom I could communicate. The world was not overflowing with such people. And I felt certain she would not frighten me now.

So I communicated with her.

“There was something really strange,” I wrote, “about finding someone who had tormented me in the past, and who had seemed to be breathing so much malevolence at one point, to be so engaging and compelling, and so (I know I may be taking things at face value) … spiritually generous and accepting of the world.”

She replied, “I have thought of you often in the almost 40 years since [then] and had hoped that I would someday have the opportunity to offer you a heartfelt apology for my bad behavior, for which I have only felt great remorse. Please accept my apology.”

Then she answered some of my questions about her life. In the end, she wrote, “Tell me more about yourself, please.” We continued to email for several weeks, with more questions and compacted stories. Then it stopped. There was no further mention of what had happened in the past. The brief lines about remorse had been enough. She got it, and that was what mattered to me.

I don’t believe that a penalty for her behavior, whether exacted by the courts, her workplace, or via social ostracism, would have provided me with any succor. In any event, availing myself of “services” was not an option in those days: Employers did not announce sexual harassment guidelines, counsel, or modes of recourse, and there was certainly no recognition of such occurrences among women.

As I’ve said, once I was safe and away from the situation—my overriding concerns—it was the assertion by the feminist academic that the crime was mine, in that I had violated a lesbian code of solidarity, that in the long run distressed me the most. Though I was not aware of ever having signed onto or even been made aware of that code, the news that, by attempting to protect myself, I would now be considered unprincipled in a community that had assumed great importance to me was devastating.

Margaret’s acknowledgment, in a latter-day and vastly changed conceptual universe, that she had done something terrible to me and was deeply regretful of it—indeed, that she had repeatedly reflected on it over 40 years—was key. I had no desire to “out” her to her workplace or social milieu. Her work had salvaged lives that could have been otherwise destroyed and had mitigated the suffering of others. I saw little purpose in letting someone else decide that she was too imperfect to be entrusted with this work any longer.

In short, Margaret’s atonement was to me—not to the putative Lesbian Nation and not to the state—and I felt that letting the matter rest in closure was my prerogative, not anyone else’s. Some call this “restorative justice”: an idealistic but, as my case illustrates, not altogether utopian project entailing dialogue and negotiation. It may well be the key to reconciling the compelling yet sometimes competing demands of queer solidarity, on the one hand, and meting out long-delayed #MeToo justice, on the other.