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Judge's View: 'Me, too' hashtag exposes harassment often viewed as 'norm'

"Me, too."

With those two words of a hashtag, thousands of women around the world have shared stories of being sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. Several high-profile men have been accused of treating women unprofessionally at best and criminally at worst. Those men run the entire spectrum of age, race, political affiliation and profession. The only common thread is the conduct itself.

I probably should not be shocked by any of this. For several years as an attorney, part of my practice was employment law, where allegations of sexual harassment were commonplace in the files on my desk. As judges, we certainly see more than our fair share of sexual assault cases. And we all likely know "that guy" who, sometimes fueled by alcohol and sometimes not, just seems to treat women badly.

In spite of all I have seen and heard over the years, the sheer scope of the #metoo movement still caught me off-guard.

And that is why this is such a problem. Many people my age can look at societal norms now versus those in previous generations and say, with some justification, that our society has come a very long way in terms of gender equality and attitudes toward women.

My grandparents were born at a time when women did not have a constitutional right to vote. My parents' generation had far more rigid gender roles than the present, where women were often severely limited in their career opportunities.

When I started law school in the early 1990s, which doesn't seem that long ago, there were only two women in the U.S. Senate and only 28 in the House of Representatives. So it is easy to let that progress blind us to the current extent of the problem.

It shouldn't. Those who brand the current stories coming to light now as political correctness run amuck, or who label the women coming forward as hypersensitive or man-haters are not paying attention.

The sad reality is that most women living in 2017 have grown to expect boorish or even frightening behavior from men as part of our world. Although men certainly can be victims of sexual assault or harassment, I doubt very many men make different daily life decisions because of that threat. Women do.

If the #metoo stories shine a brighter light on this issue, then we are all better for it.

For me, the issue crystallized when I asked my wife if she considered herself to be a "me, too." I already knew the answer, as I remembered a man harassing her at her job when we were first married.

But then she also told me about an incident within the past year, when a man accosted her while she was working, made fairly graphic comments to her about her body, and then followed her out to her car. She didn't tell me at the time because she didn't want to upset me.

As my wife said about #metoo: "I'd be more interested to see how many women could say #notme."

We still have a lot of work to do.

Judge Harris is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District, working out of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He was born in Two Harbors. He and his wife, Barbara, now live in Hermantown with their four children.