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Sexual Harassment: The Water Cooler Conversation

Sexual Harassment: The Water Cooler Conversation

By Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES | November 30, 2017
Senior Editor, ETR

Okay. It didn't happen at the water cooler. It was at an intersection of three cubicles—just a coincidental collection of colleagues crossing one another’s paths. We were talking about topics many of you have also been discussing with workmates, family and friends over the past several weeks—the instances of sexual harassment and assault that have been before the public eye.

Whom do we believe? What should be done? What can we do in our lives and our work to bring this kind of violence to an end?

We Have Answers

On ETR’s in-house Chatter network, one of my co-workers posted, “We have our work cut out for us in educating people across this country about the meaning of consent…. We have answers.”

I was a little taken back by her certainty. Wherever this discussion came up, I seemed to hear so many questions. But as our cubicle group continued its conversation, I was impressed at how many answers did come up.

Reaching Young People

“We need to reach young people to help them understand consent before incidents such as this occur in their lives,” one person said.

“Yes!” I added. “And that’s a great reason for us all to be familiar with ETR’s curriculum supplement on Teaching Affirmative Consent. It’s designed to do exactly that.”

“The supplement is great,” someone chimed. “But it’s geared toward older middle and high school students. We need to be starting way before that.”

“Of course,” said one of our school health folks. “That’s why issues of consent are woven throughout the HealthSmart program.” (HealthSmart is ETR’s K-12 health education program.) “How do you communicate clearly with others? How do you make healthy choices? What are your personal responsibilities for your own and others’ safety? How do you seek help from responsible adults? Long before sexuality is being discussed, students are being taught about things related to consent.”

“But how realistic is it to expect true change in the culture about consent?” someone asked. “This stuff has been going on for so long.”

“That’s why we should encourage people to read Gina Lepore’s column on changing norms about consent,” a colleague suggested. “She lists all these great reasons to reach youth with the new messages. And the way she explains it makes complete sense. I think it’s totally achievable.”

“But are people actually seeing changes in children and youth?”

My turn to have an answer. “You need to look at Laura Perkins’ post about the time she shared the movie Young Frankenstein with a group of family friends,” I said. “The group included some 10 to 13-year-olds, and it didn’t go at all as she expected. Segments the adults thought were hysterically funny struck these kids as wrong. The situations were non-consensual. The kids commented on that—because the culture is changing. It’s inspiring!”

What Are Your Answers?

There was a lot more to this conversation. We talked about our own #MeToo experiences. We discussed the challenges and victories we’ve seen in our children, their friends, our nieces, nephews, students. We shared opinions about what should happen to the public figures now under scrutiny for harassment and assault (and, like the rest of the country, did not come to agreement).

I love working for an organization that not only has high awareness about such issues, but also has high-quality prevention materials to share with others. I hope you are fortunate enough to work among colleagues of this caliber. Every one of us can take steps to turn this tide, and it is a fine time to step up and speak up to make a difference.

If you’re not familiar with ETR’s materials on consent (including this pamphlet, this poster, our new pull-up banners, and some of our condom holders, in addition to the links above), I hope you’ll take a look.

And what about your own work, your own students or kids? How are you responding to questions or situations that raise the matter of consent? I’d love to hear about your insights, resources and experiences.

Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES, is Senior Editor at ETR. She can be reached at



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