*Trigger warning for sexual assault and sexual harassment
Ever since high school, I’ve read two advice columns per day, every day. I don’t quite remember how the practice came about, or when exactly it began, but it’s become the closest thing to a constant I have in my life. Though many people find the habit odd, I’ve always found it fascinating to read about the problems and questions everyday people are terrified to ask in real life. And usually, I’m satisfied with the advice doled out by my two favorites: “Abby” and “Amy” (of Dear Abby and Ask Amy, respectively). Even when the advice isn’t perfectly to my liking, I usually appreciate and respect the rationale behind it.
This morning, I woke up to advice from Abby that instantly and simultaneously angered and terrified me. I was and continue to be angry, because the advice trivializes and misinforms the general public about sexual harassment. Advice columns do not simply advise the seeker of advice- if that were the case, the advice would not be published publicly. The advice is meant for a wide audience and can wield widespread influence, which makes me all the more dismayed and angered at the misinformation that pervades Abby’s response. Furthermore, I am terrified for the author of the letter, “Aura,” and the situation she finds herself in after having reached out for help and having had her emotions and feelings diminished and rejected. I am terrified for the countless other women who have encountered similar experiences and have had them rejected and trivialized.
Here is the text of the original letter:
DEAR ABBY: Can you be sexually harassed/abused by your spouse? My husband talks dirty to me and grabs at my breasts. I have repeatedly asked him to stop, but he doesn’t listen and continues to do it. We have two small kids at home, and by the time they go to bed, I could care less about being intimate.
His behavior disgusts me, and to be honest, I don’t want to have sex with him. I have female problems and have told him it hurts, but it makes no difference to him. He touches me in front of the kids, and I have to slap his hand away.
I can’t leave him because I don’t have a car or income for myself, nor do I have family or friends close by. I can’t go to his family because they see him in a different light. What would you suggest, and is it harassment — and could I press charges? — LEAVE MY AURA ALONE
And here is Abby’s response:
DEAR AURA: You have mentioned so many problems in your short letter that it’s hard to know where to begin. While your husband’s attempts at foreplay are beyond clumsy and ineffective, I can’t help but feel some sympathy for him because it appears you have him on a starvation diet.
How long this can continue for either of you is uncertain. Rather than try to charge harassment, why not schedule an appointment with your gynecologist and find out why having sex is painful for you. It is not supposed to be, and your doctor may be able to help you resolve the problem. Marriage counseling might also help, because it’s clear you and your husband aren’t communicating on any meaningful level.
If these problems are not resolvable, you can’t continue living like this and neither can he. Because your family isn’t nearby and you have no transportation, call or write them and let them know you may need their help to return. If they are unable to help you, contact a domestic abuse hotline. Unwanted sexual advances could be considered harassment, and sex without consent is rape.
Abby’s response is so riddled with problems it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s start with the most obvious: Nowhere in her response does Abby state what Aura is experiencing is, in fact, sexual harassment.
The closest she comes is at the very end, when she says: “Unwanted sexual advances could be considered sexual harassment” (emphasis added). First off, “could” be considered sexual harassment? This is sexual harassment. Aura repeatedly states in her letter that she is being touched by her husband despite having “repeatedly asked him to stop.” Furthermore, Aura is forced to resort to “slap[ping] his hand away” in order to get him to stop. Because Abby so spectacularly failed to state this, I am going to say it very explicitly: Aura is being sexually harassed by her husband.
The fact that Abby does not acknowledge this fact is beyond troubling. But she goes a step further by trivializing and diminishing the experiences of Aura.
At one point, Abby has the gall to describe Aura’s husband’s harassment as “attempts at foreplay” that are “beyond clumsy and ineffective.” The situation as described by Aura does not include “attempts at foreplay,” but does include sexual harassment. The actions of Aura’s husband are not “beyond clumsy and ineffective,” but are non-consensual acts that constitute sexual harassment. Using the word “ineffective” to describe the husband’s actions is especially demeaning, as it implies that his goal, non-consensual sex, is somehow acceptable, but that it’s not worthwhile simply because it’s not producing the desired effect (that is, sexual harassment).
Abby’s next move involves copious amounts of victim-blaming, as she describes how she “can’t help but feel some sympathy for him because it appears you [Aura] have him on a starvation diet.”
Is sexual harassment acceptable because Aura is not satisfying her husband sexually? Are Aura’s husbands actions Aura’s fault? Is sexual harassment acceptable, ever?
The answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO. Aura is not at fault for the actions of her husband. She cannot be blamed for the actions of someone else. She cannot be blamed for being sexually harassed.
Finally, it’s important to note one of Abby’s more subtle missteps, if only for the fact that many readers may have missed it. When Abby advises Aura to seek medical attention from her gynecologist for her lack of desire to engage in any sort of sexual intimacy with her husband, she is once again trivializing the feelings expressed by Aura. She is implying that there must be something biologically wrong with Aura for not wanting to have sex with her husband, instead of recognizing that the husband’s actions are what is causing Aura’s actions. For what seems like the millionth time, Abby is blaming Aura for the actions of her husband instead of the husband himself.
By this point, I’ve spent a good deal of time airing my frustrations with Abby’s more than inadequate response to Aura, and I feel that was warranted. I’d like to move on and focus on Aura- because too often, I think, we get so mad at the perpetrator of sexual assault or sexual harassment, that we forget to spend time focusing on how we can help the survivor of sexual assault. So, if I were Abby, here’s what I would have said:
I cannot imagine what you are going through right now, and I am so thankful that you have taken the courageous step to reach out. What you have just described to me is sexual harassment, and if you would like to leave, I wholeheartedly support your decision. You can try contacting a friend or family member for help, or calling this hotline for more information: 1.800.656.HOPE. .
This is sexual harassment because you have not consented to your husband’s action. Consent requires an active “yes,” not simply an absence of a “no.” In your case, you have explicitly expressed that your husband’s actions are unwanted, and as such, what he is doing is non-consensual and constitutes sexual harassment. The fact that he is your husband does not diminish or excuse his actions.
Please do not be afraid to reach out to me, a trusted friend or family member, or the number I listed above. You do not deserve to be treated the way you are being treated, and I am so sorry that you have had to experience everything you described to me.
I hope somehow Aura receives my message, or receives the support and love she needs right now. I hope that one day, we can be a society that refuses to place blame on the survivor, and recognizes Aura’s story for what it is: sexual harassment.