#MeToo Is All Too Common in National Security

I signed the letter, but didn’t think I deserved to be called a “survivor.” Until I started remembering the trail of abuse.

Soldiers, officers, and civilian employees attend the commencement ceremony for the U.S. Army's annual observance of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in the Pentagon Center Courtyard on March 31, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Soldiers, officers, and civilian employees attend the commencement ceremony for the U.S. Army's annual observance of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in the Pentagon Center Courtyard on March 31, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When I was asked to sign a “me too” letter on behalf of women in national security, I hesitated. I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t want to sign. “We, too, are survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse or know others who are,” declared the letter. Sign that? No. Not me, too.

But the letter was drafted by women I like and respect, so I pushed myself to re-examine my aversion. Partly, I suppose, I was feeling that instinctive writerly reluctance to sign onto prose someone else had drafted: The letter wasn’t phrased exactly the way I would have phrased it, if I’d had the pen. Partly, it was my equally instinctive dislike of “me too-ism”: the tendency to jump on bandwagons for the sake of being one of the cool kids.

But these were bad reasons not to sign; if I objected to the phrasing, the letter’s drafters would have happily made changes, and expressing solidarity with women who have been subjected to workplace sexual harassment and assault is hardly the same as becoming the 38th person to hit “reply all” and offer obsequious compliments to a colleague. (“Kudos to you, Bob! Well done!”)

Mostly, I realized, I just felt like I didn’t deserve to sign, because I wasn’t a “survivor” of sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the national security workplace. I’ve had a happy and successful career, and I’ve had wonderful, generous bosses and colleagues, male and female.

True, it wasn’t easy being one of the rare women in a male-dominated profession; I often found myself the only women in rooms full of men. True, I often felt, like every woman in such settings, that I had to work harder and be smarter just to be considered an equal in those rooms full of men. True, I heard some horror stories from female colleagues, but nothing really bad had ever happened to me. So what right did I have to claim the mantle of #MeToo victimhood? I wasn’t a victim, or a “survivor,” as we now prefer to say. There was nothing to “survive.” Was there?

I signed the letter anyway, because people who refuse to sign group letters are jerks, and because I wanted to show solidarity with the many female friends and colleagues who really had experienced sexual harassment and assault.

Then something strange happened. A few days after I signed that letter, I started to remember some experiences I had conveniently forgotten about — experiences I had simply edited out of my own narrative.

I started to remember all the casual sexual appraisals: for instance, the two-star general at the Pentagon who looked me up and down after I introduced myself, then turned to his (all male) colleagues and announced, “The thing that’s great about [Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle] Flournoy is she’s stocking up the building with hot babes.” I don’t recall how I responded; probably, I pretended not to hear. In hindsight, there were a lot of things I pretended not to hear. Being slightly deaf was the price of admission to the boys’ club.

I remembered worse things, too. When I worked at the State Department, for example, there was the (married) senior foreign service officer — one of my closest colleagues — who grabbed me and shoved his tongue forcibly down my throat as we walked along a deserted canal in Venice, returning from an international law conference. The two of us had traveled everywhere together: Kosovo, Sierra Leone. We had seen civilians mutilated by rebel fighters and interviewed torture victims and political prisoners. I trusted him, and looked up to him. Now, I was fighting to push him away. He was drunk, and 50 pounds heavier than I was, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. “But I love you,” he declared tearfully, as he tried to yank my bra off. It took several minutes of skirmishing and several firm threats to shove him into the canal before he stopped pawing at me.

Afterward, he didn’t mention the episode. But a week or so later, back in Washington, he showed up drunk at the 30th birthday dinner our boss had planned for me, and told everyone, loudly, that I was a great girl but needed to learn to lighten up and have more fun. I gritted my teeth and smiled. It was not a good birthday party. A few weeks after that, I quit my State Department job. My boss was disappointed, and asked why I was leaving. I just shrugged, and said something about wanting to focus more on writing. I didn’t tell him I was no longer comfortable traveling with my colleague. I’m not sure I even let myself think that.

And until signing that #MeToo letter pushed me to start excavating my own past, I had forgotten all this.

I really, truly forgot it all. Not, I think, because these experiences were so terribly traumatic; even late at night by that lonely Venetian canal, I remember feeling thoroughly annoyed, but not particularly frightened. No: I think I edited all these experiences out because they just seemed so … normal. They were so common they were forgettable. Inappropriate comments and the occasional drunken assault? They were only what every woman expects to encounter in the workplace. You don’t get a special “survivor” merit badge when you’ve only gone through what every woman goes through, do you?

That’s when I started feeling angry.

Because, of course, this is the point of all those #MeToo tweets and letters and articles. The point is: How the hell did it come to this, ladies and gentlemen and not-so-gentlemanly men? How did we come to treat as “normal” a world in which even outright workplace sexual assault is often viewed, by the victim no less, as “just the way it is”? How did I ever let myself think that this was okay?

So let me be the thousandth woman to say it: It’s not okay. Men, it’s not okay to treat your female colleagues like pieces of meat; it’s not okay to ogle or paw them or whistle at them or comment on how you think they’d look in a bikini; it’s not okay to grab their asses or show them your genitals or suggest they join you to watch a little porn. No. No. No.

Just don’t. Okay?

To be clear: There’s a continuum of crappy male behavior, and it runs from the merely obnoxious and offensive all the way through to the clearly criminal. It’s important to make these distinctions: What Al Franken reportedly did was crude and offensive; what Harvey Weinstein reportedly did was rape. One merits an apology and a commitment to do better; the other merits prison time.

But none of it’s okay, and at every point along that spectrum from merely offensive to actually criminal, crappy male behavior is part of what pushes women out of the national security workplace. As Dan Drezner put it in the Washington Post, it amounts to a hidden “tax” on women: an extra burden that makes it that much tougher for women to advance or even stay in the workplace at all.

Looking back, I wish I had been braver at some crucial moments. I wish I had looked up at that two-star general and said, loudly, “I’m sorry, what did you just say? Did you just tell a room full of men that the best thing about having a female undersecretary of defense is that she’s stocking the Pentagon with hot babes?” I don’t know for sure, but I bet he would have flushed and apologized, and the episode would have taught his colleagues a different kind of lesson.

I wish I had confided in my boss at the State Department about my colleague’s drunken assault, instead of pushing it under the rug. My colleague’s alcoholism and serial affairs damaged his marriage, and I have no doubt he treated other female colleagues the same way he treated me. If I had blown the whistle on him, maybe he would have been pushed into counseling; maybe, in the end, it would have saved a lot of people a lot of grief. I don’t know.

But in the end, men, this will only change if you change it. Most of you aren’t sexual harassers or assaulters; the vast majority of men I have known have treated their female colleagues like human beings. But men, if you look back at your own past and find that you, like me, are starting to recall some episodes that don’t make you proud, say so. You don’t have to sign a group letter or publish an article, but you could start by apologizing to the women toward whom you behaved badly. Better still? Start the repair work. It shouldn’t be that hard: Treat women (and men) with respect and concern. Call out the men who interrupt women in meetings and the men who make inappropriate sexual comments. Make it clear to men and women alike that harassment and assault won’t be tolerated.

I’m committed to ensuring safe, respectful workplaces. Men, you’re welcome to say, “Me too.”

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.