Molly Fisk: Stockholm Syndrome

So here’s the story. Last week I went out to dinner with some good friends. During the course of the meal, I said that an organization where I volunteer was going to have a sexual harassment training. The man I was sitting beside also volunteers there, and without missing a beat he said, “I’ve always wanted to get sexually harassed, but no one ever chooses me!”

Now, this is a stupid thing to say. Anyone who thinks it would be fun to get sexually harassed a) has probably never experienced any kind of harassment, and b) is probably not a woman. Because women know the score about sexual harassment. It was also a fairly hard thing for me to hear, since I was raped as a child, and rape is harassment in its extreme form.

The guy, like many guys before him, was responding to the word sexual, and discounting the word harassment — making a kind of guy-like joke out of the thing. A different kind of man might have asked why we needed the training, or engaged me in talking about it more seriously.

What’s interesting to me, though, is not his reaction, but mine. I didn’t say, “Shut up, you bozo” in a friendly tone of voice. I didn’t get ticked off and give him the double-barrel-feminist-shotgun response, explaining, with dripping sarcasm, how offensive it was for him to say this, not to mention unkind. I didn’t admit that I was one of the women who had spent almost a year organizing the training.

I did this really weird thing: I laughed loudly and played along. I patted him on his knee and said in a sexy voice that if he ever wanted some sexual harassment he should just let me know. Even as I was doing this, part of my brain was yelling in outrage, “Are you crazy?!!? What are you doing? You’re supposed to help stop asinine reactions like this, not foster them for God’s sake!”

It took me three days and one sleepless night to sort it out. He’s a big guy, my friend, and he was crowded in next to me in a booth. I wouldn’t have been able to get out if I had wanted to. He has a big-guy voice. I’d been having a hard day and was exhausted before we even sat down to eat. I think those factors greased the way so that I slipped into the prudent response of my childhood when a large man said anything, which was to agree, no matter what I thought, so I wouldn’t get hurt.

There’s a name for this: it’s called Stockholm Syndrome, after a Swedish bank robbery in 1973 when hostages were taken. It refers to the allegiance of victims to their perpetrators, when those perps have been in control for long enough and the violence or threat of violence has been great enough — the most famous example being Patty Hearst joining her kidnappers in the Symbionese Liberation Army and calling herself “Tanya.” It’s prevalent among child abuse survivors, battered women, and other victims of violent crimes, as well as prisoners of war.

Once I had figured out what was going on, I stopped beating myself up for being a jerk. I’m going to stop beating my friend up for being a jerk, too. People aren’t always careful about what they say, unless they’ve been taught that it matters.

Gentlemen, please consider this story your training in the fact that it matters. It really matters. Don’t be a bozo and crack jokes about it.

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  • Fiona April 8, 2017 at 9:59 pm


    Thanks for this. Many of us have been complicit in instances when others make remarks that are questionable which may compromise our beliefs. You story reminds us anew that we have agency and a voice. Brave of you to share this.

  • Leslie in Oregon April 8, 2017 at 8:13 pm

    Thank you for telling us this story. I certainly was reminded of times I have said nothing in response to that kind of “joke.” Out of curiosity, and no pressure intended, do you think that you will let this friend know that what he said that evening mattered, and how?

  • carol ann hoorn April 8, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    I truly appreciate your honesty in describing your actions and feelings before during and after this encounter. I certainly recognize in myself very similar knee jerk reactions over my long life, also filled with unwanted physical and mental attention from the age of five. Forgiveness of myself has always been the hardest to accept, having learned to blame myself(shown how by parents and others). I still have dreams and flashbacks, always fear and guilt driven, but upon waking and reflection, eventually embrace and re-affirm my love for myself. Kudos to you, Molly, to put it this way and post it, so all might be more aware, regardless of gender or sexual identity.None of us is so enlightened, we do not need to forgive self, others, if we can, and strive for always increasing awareness, sensitivity and respect for self and others. Thank you.

    • Molly Fisk April 8, 2017 at 3:41 pm

      xox 😉

  • Karen Donaldson April 8, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you, Molly.
    By conveying the incident and your process of understanding yourself and the larger issue, we can learn not only how to unpack things for ourselves but why it matters. So important.

    • Molly Fisk April 8, 2017 at 1:47 pm

      thanks, Karen — it was so interesting to go through it and unravel things!