The barbershop

FARGO-A barber shop is the ultimate male domain, a place where men can relax and talk about subjects they might not speak about elsewhere, where sarcasm and off-color jokes are common, and where women are seldom seen.

Graver Barbers in downtown Fargo is typical. There's a 1936 Harley Davidson motorcycle sitting on one side of the shop. A large metal grille from an old Chevrolet is mounted on a wall. The waiting chairs are leather and the magazines available for browsing are typical men's fare: Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics, Bow Hunter, and Sports Illustrated. It's a decidedly male space.

So what do men in such a barber shop think about the seemingly daily revelations about powerful and famous men accused of sexual harassment and misconduct?

"It's long overdue because there are a lot of pigs out there," said one man, a real estate appraiser. "I think it's about time - for women's sake."

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All of the half-dozen customers interviewed, along with the two brothers who run the barber shop, Joel and Ryan Brehmer, agreed that if the sudden flood of accusations, resignations and firings prompts men to treat women with greater respect, then that is a welcome change.

Everyone interviewed, including the barbers, were middle aged or older. They are old enough to remember how things used to be. Some found shocking what was tolerated in an earlier time and are glad male behavior has progressed.

"I can still vividly remember coming out of college, wearing a three-piece suit at the bank, and thinking, Jesus, this is just like the fraternity," said a retired businessman. "Some of the stuff these guys were getting away with at the bar after work was like, 'Wow.' I remember guys (who were) married, many children, and they were out there with the younger girls my age and just literally grabbing 'em right here and then grabbing 'em there. There were no repercussions."

Several acknowledged they have been guilty in the past of behavior that would today be considered sexual harassment, but wasn't widely perceived that way when they did it.

None admitted to doing anything as serious as grabbing a woman in the workplace or in a social setting, or worse. But they said things, made lewd comments, lingered in looking a little too long. The customers were promised anonymity in exchange for talking.

"Sometimes the way I treated women wasn't the best," said one.

All said standards about what is acceptable have gradually changed over time and that they have adjusted to those changes.

The real estate appraiser recalled an incident from the 1970s when he lived in Miami and had a food franchise that required him to set up displays in grocery stores. One day he encountered a woman and was struck by her beauty. He was married, had kids, but told her she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

"She thanked me," he said. "But if I did that now, I'd probably be arrested."

Discussions about the impact of the allegations and changing norms gave way to expressions of concern and many questions.

Will the pendulum swing too far? Will men be falsely accused and judged guilty without proof, their lives ruined? How do you determine guilt when there are no witnesses other than the two people involved? Should a man be punished when he's old for something he did when he was young? Are the expectations different for a comedian than a congressman?

The most persistent questions concerned what is allowed and what isn't in the changing climate. Where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior? The men said they are now unsure how to act.

Most people would agree that certain behaviors are absolutely forbidden - grabbing or groping, asking a woman to remove her shirt, demanding sex, making lecherous comments - but there is a large grey area about which there remains significant disagreement and uncertainty.

"What can and can't you say?" said one man, a heavy equipment operator. "You better know who you're talking to. You gotta watch it."

"Do you dare put your hands on a woman's shoulder anymore?" asked barber Joel Brehmer.

"You don't dare tell a woman that she looks nice now," said a farmer from Arthur.

Perhaps the most enlightened approach came from the youngest man interviewed. He's 45, the manager at a construction equipment dealer, married and the father of two young girls.

"I don't feel like I'm walking on eggshells," he said. "I'm not trying to change my behavior. I do my best to stay gender-neutral on things. If it's not something I'm going to say to a guy, I'm not going to say it to a woman."

Conversation turned to a recent example of an official at the Fargo Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments who killed himself after learning he might be fired. He had been disciplined for sexual harassment, among other issues.

The man received a written warning for violating the agency's sexual harassment policy. According to the warning, when a female colleague made a work-related suggestion, her supervisor said, "See, she's not just a pretty face. She has brains, too." The woman later wrote, "I felt objectified."

Most of the men gathered at Graver Barbers said they didn't consider what he said sexual harassment and that the organization and accuser went too far.

"I think that's ridiculous to be written up for something like that," said one.

"That's pretty sensitive," said another.

"It used to be a compliment," said the farmer. "Now, it's sexual harassment."

But another observed that it's hard to judge such an incident without witnessing it. Most agreed that what is acceptable varies from person to person and according to the situation, and that it's important to be mindful of those nuances.

"It depends on the context," said a retired construction worker. "You almost have to be there to know if there was some body language or facial expression that made it not a compliment. I definitely want to make sure that I don't say the wrong thing to the wrong person."

The salon

MOORHEAD - At Details Salon in south Moorhead, the topic dominating conversations is the flood of recent sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations in the news.

Owner Tim Williams said it's no surprise - the topic has consumed the country as of late.

"When we talk to clients in here, they really are opposing on each side of it," said Williams, 56. "It's really interesting how detrimental women can be to each other in the process. And I think it can be very difficult."

Though opinions and perspectives shared in the salon are as varied as the hairstyles, the consensus is overwhelming: This is a watershed moment underscored with the #MeToo movement and Time magazine recognizing silence breakers as their Person of the Year.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, chatter and noise fills the salon as "Silent Night" and other holiday music plays on the overhead speakers. There are wisps of hairspray followed by the routine roar of a blow dryer.

As is the case with salons, clients feel comfortable talking openly - even with something as sensitive as sexual harassment and assault - and the conversation shifts from personal stories to high-profile cases from here, Hollywood and beyond.

"Whatever happened to Bill Cosby?" "Did you hear what Pamela Anderson said?" "What was the thing with Taylor Swift?"

Jaws drop in the room when former Olympic gymnastics team physician, Larry Nassar, is brought up, and several said they were shocked to hear about accusations against Garrison Keillor and Charlie Rose; freaked out to hear about TV host Matt Lauer's "panic button" under his desk to allegedly trap victims; and they questioned the severity of reported inappropriate behavior from former president George H.W. Bush.

Then Williams brought up President Donald Trump: "A person who is supposed to be like a father figure for the entire country also has these allegations and nothing is being done," he said. "If the boss doesn't have anything following him for that, why does it matter for anyone else? I mean, it's pretty disgusting when the guy is saying 'Go Roy [Moore], Got get 'em Roy.'"

Stylist Bonnie said she hasn't had a lot of clients react to the flood of allegations with "Oh, great!" Rather, many are apathetic or anxious, even annoyed with such reports running ad nauseum.

"It seems like every day it's like, 'Who is it going to be?,'" she said. "I've had a lot of people sitting in my chair; men and women are fed up, saying like, 'How long ago was that?' Not demeaning any victim, but sometimes some of the stories, you're like, 'Really?'"

She said she's dealt with terrible things in her past, but now, at age 56, she wouldn't go back to tell a guy "that he raped more or less."

"It was a different world. What people thought was wrong yesterday, it's going to be completely different tomorrow," she said. "You just wonder, though, who else is sitting there going, 'When is someone going to say something about me?'"

The salon owner asks his client, 93-year-old Arlene, who is getting a classic perm, if men were ever inappropriate toward her and her response is brief:

"I would have one guy that was not too sweet," she said softly. "I think women are talking about it now whereas they didn't before."

The conversation continued across the aisle with 18-year-old Ella, who was trying out a new highlighting technique called a balayage. She said she's been cat-called, a phrase to describe being the target of unwanted whistles, shouting or sexual comments.

At Moorhead High School, where she's a senior, she said there's "definitely this whole spectrum of people," with some students saying recent sexual harassment allegations are just "men being men."

"Some people think that's OK, but it's definitely not," she said. "I think it's great that all these women are able to speak out and find courage in other women to be able to speak out, and these men are finally being held accountable for their actions."

Ella added: "This rise of female empowerment and feminism has definitely shown a lot of teenage boys that you can't walk all over women."

Janet, a 57-year-old woman getting her hair styled after a cut, said that in this era of social media, there's a higher level of accountability. Once-tolerated behavior of "the good ol' boys" is gone.

"Years ago it wasn't mentioned. Back then, very seldom did you hear [about] sexual harassment. It wasn't put in the papers or on the radio," she said. "Back then, if any woman said anything against a man, it was his word against hers."

But owner Williams said there's a "weird double standard" because if a female client would wrongly accuse him of something inappropriate, people would be less likely to believe him.

"I've had some things said and done to me that, if it was the other way around, I would've definitely been called out," he said.

Two local cases that afternoon were brought up, including the case of a West Fargo teacher and a prominent area developer.

A sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the developer was settled in 2004. The West Fargo teacher, accused of having a sexual relationship with a student, was acquitted and reinstated.

Those in the salon expressed sympathy for the accusers in both cases and indicated such outcomes could stifle others from reporting.

"Personally, I think (TV journalist) Megyn Kelly has started all of this," Janet said. "She fought, fought, fought until finally someone did believe her and now finally they're starting to believe these women."

Retired and now working part time, Janet said now "there's no tolerance whatsoever." There are group meetings in her workplace dedicated to talking about sexual harassment, unlike before, and instructions on how to report it.

"Women have come a long way and I'm proud of them," Janet said. "It's about time women took over."