Wednesday, March 4, 2009

I still said "No"

Sexual harassment...Or, as my father would say, "Her ass meant nothing to me!" Oh, dad...

Jezebel did a post a few days ago that I really wanted to address here, because I have a lot to say about it. The post concerned an article on AOL (does AOL still exist? Jesus, they gotta be hanging on by a thread) that advises women to not report sexual harassment. The AOL article's reasoning was that HR will immediately question your credibility, rather than work with you. Furthermore, the article reasons that the reporting process can be long and painful, and that you'll most likely be left awkwardly working with your harasser until you quit.

Naturally, the good Jezzies disagree, as do I. They also raise other issues, such as the tendency for outsiders to sympathize with the "nice" men who seem so wrongfully accused.

This topic is really close to me, because in my freshman year of college I had to endure the process of reporting a sexual harassment. At the time, I was working as a bitch for a medical office (Copy these articles! Then sit around and smile at the doctors as they enter the room! Now file!). I was all naive and fresh-faced, straight off the farm and adjusting to a moderately-sized city (now I'm old and haggard and jaded in a gigantic city). One doctor in particular was fairly young, and had just earned a promotion. I'm a bit flirtatious by nature (I call it "sassy," but whatever) and we often spoke and joked around. Because he had been promoted, he was moving to a new office. He asked me one day if perhaps I could do some filing and organizing in it, since he didn't have time. Since my day was already fairly packed and I could not earn overtime, he said he would be happy to pay me out of his own pocket if I stayed late to do the work.

Looking back, and I'm sure to all you savvy readers out there, this request should have set off alarm bells and I should have declined. But like I said, farm-girl. I hadn't yet acquired the finely-honed creeper senses that I have today.

So I stayed to do the work. I would say this is about the time he started coming on to me. At first it was the regular stuff: TMI about his personal life, comments about how cute/skinny I was, asking me about my boyfriend, etc. I think I sensed what he was about, but I felt awkward and rude about shutting him down, so I kept up with all the friendly banter. After all, he was paying me. He was in charge. What was I gonna do? So I kept staying after work with him.

Eventually, I guess he started feeling like this was really going somewhere for him. He started removing his wedding ring when he was around me. One day, I was typing up some labels, and he came behind me and started massaging my shoulders. (WARNING: This paragraph is going to start as a bad HR training video and move into bad soft-core porn territory). I sort of froze and wasn't sure what to do or say. He took my silence as an affirmation, I guess. He was talking this whole time; I'm not sure what, exactly, but it was along the lines of "I really like you." He moved his hands down to my waist, then under and up my shirt. He was grabbing my breasts and kissing the top of my head, whispering things into my ear. And I just froze. The fuck? I mean, I had been sexually harassed before. But not to this degree. And all I could think of was I had NO IDEA what to say or do. I didn't want to have sex with him. I had a boyfriend at the time, and I wasn't interested in cheating on him. And I wasn't particularly attracted to this guy, either. But it almost felt rude to say no. I felt like I had led him on, and it was my fault he was behaving this way. I thought he would be mad if I said no.

But I DID say "no." I regained myself after a moment and pulled his hands away. I told him I had a boyfriend, and I didn't want to do this. He PLEADED for me to have sex with him. No one has to know! I still said "No."

For the next few months, he persisted. He grabbed my ass when no one was looking. He bought me Grey Goose for my birthday (Okay: He asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I said Grey Goose. Can you blame a girl? I wasn't that stupid). He invited me to take shots with him in his office (not with the Grey Goose. This was a separate occasion). He told me that I was sexy over and over and over again.

When he did these things, I was not as firm as I should have been. I should have been colder. I shouldn't have giggled and smiled awkwardly. But that's how we're conditioned to react to men who behave that way. How many times has someone told you to "Smile, sweetie" and you bashfully flash a grin and laugh? We're supposed to be charming. We're supposed to WANT attention from men. So even though I was really uncomfortable with it, at most I would quietly say "stop" or nothing at all, but SMILE or LAUGH.

It was stupid of me. I was young. I know better now. I am a STONE COLD BITCH now, don't you worry.

Eventually I decided that I REALLY had enough. One day I was on a ladder putting books away, when he came up from behind and grabbed my ass. I wheeled around and whacked him with a medical textbook this thick. In the FACE. He laid off for a few days, but then he started again. At this point, I was getting mean. He would grab me and I would turn and shout "STOP" so that everyone in earshot would look. He would make a shushing motion and slink away.

But he would always start up again. I knew that he wouldn't stop on his own. I had to make a report. I walked into my boss' office one day with the door open:

"Alex, can I ask you something? Can we do something about men touching me in this office?"

Alex, thankfully, was great about the whole thing. He was super sympathetic, since he had been similarly harassed by a woman at his last job (Guess she couldn't pick up that he was gay?) But here's how it went down: I had to type up a report, detailing EVERYTHING that happened. Then, I had to give one copy to Alex, and another to the fucking Chair of the department. Then, they had to call in my harasser and speak with him about the accusations. Then paperwork had to be processed. By the end of it all, every secretary in that place had to have known what happened. Although no one said anything to my face.

At one point, Alex asked me what I wanted to happen to my harasser. I knew going into it that he would get a slap on the wrist; it's not like they were going to fire the guy. Basically, the first harassment report is a warning...even if the victim has already warned the harasser multiple times. It's looked at as a mistake. "Oh look, buddy. We all know the front-desk girl is just can't touch her anymore. Sure, we all make that mistake! Ha, women. They don't know what they want, I'm sure she was hard to read. Okay, back to work for you!"

So the harasser gets a mulligan. He gets embarrassed. I get embarrassed. But then...we have to work together. We get stuck in the elevator together. I still have to file for the guy. Where does that leave me?

It leaves me searching for new jobs at 2 AM, that's where. He gets a smack on the hand that everyone forgets about in six months. And I get to find a new job.

So in a way, I can see where the AOL article is coming from. The process IS long, and VERY humiliating. You are subject to scrutiny and criticism (Although I was lucky; in my case, no one asked me to "prove" anything. I'm sure if I wanted to take it further than a report, things would have been different). Everyone has to know that you "let" the guy get to second, you skank. Then, you still have to work with the harasser, and it sucks. And because it sucks, you eventually leave. So that begs the big question: Is it better, given all this, to NOT report that harassment?


Ladies, REPORT THAT SHIT. You know what I got for my troubles? I got that asshole EMBARRASSED AS HELL. He was HUMILIATED. For as embarrassed as I was, at least I didn't have to go talk about the time I molested the front desk girl to my superiors. Boy, was he ashamed. I tend to believe that people like my harasser will always be repeat offenders; but you know, if that humiliating experience at least stopped him from soliciting my replacement, then it was worth it. Really. And at the very least, I'm happy to say that he did not ask me to have sex with him for the rest of my tenure. If my goal was to get him to stop grabbing my ass and asking me to fuck him, then MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. He could barely look me in the eye.

I realize that my case was...lucky, to say the least. My superiors were sensitive. If anyone thought that I was a liar or a whore (and I believe many of them did; my harasser was one of those "nice" men that you would never suspect), they had the good sense to keep it to themselves. My harasser wasn't violent or vengeful, and didn't threaten or intimidate me for reporting him. I realize that this happens to some women, and those situations are terrible. Some women don't have the luxury of finding a new job; I was lucky in this area as well, since I was able to secure a paid internship with a few months of the incident and quit the old one.

I can't make judgments on women who, for reasons that I was lucky enough to avoid, choose to NOT report their harassment. It must be terrible to know that you can't find another job (or REALLY don't want to leave the old one), that your harasser may retaliate, or that your superiors and coworkers might blame or scorn you. What I can say is that sometimes, you gotta sacrifice. I knew when I made the report that it would be uncomfortable, and I knew that I would have to leave sooner rather than later. But knowing that everyone finally knew...that I had made a public declaration that THIS MAN IS BEHAVING INAPPROPRIATELY...I felt vindicated. It didn't matter whether people believed me or liked me. I knew what the truth was, and I had done everything in my power to stop him from violating me again, and from violating other girls. Contrary to appearances, I now had the upper hand: if he still felt the need to harass either myself or someone else in the future, here is all the documentation that it happened before. And maybe the next time he does it, he'll finally get what's coming to him.

I want to encourage everyone who gets sexually harassed, who is made to feel inferior or objectified or violated, to SAY SOMETHING. Do not let them get away with it. And if anyone gets in your way; if anyone makes it hard for you to make your case, THROW A FUCKING TANTRUM UNTIL YOU SILENCE THEM ALL. Don't let your employer handle your case inappropriately; take it higher. Don't let your co-workers make judgments: Tell them they don't know shit. Don't let your harasser threaten you: Tell your bosses or the police about that too, because then he's REALLY fucked. Don't let them make you quit if you don't want to: Stay and make it as uncomfortable for him as it is for you. Don't think that you encouraged it or led him on, and therefore don't have a case: You said no, and that's what you meant. Please. You can have power in this, I promise.


Lucy said...

Nice of you to share something so personal to help others who might being going through something so very horrible.
It helps to have advice from someone who knows what it is they are going through exactly.
How awful for you and I am glad you stood up for yourself, that isn't always easy as you demonstrated in your post.

White Trash Academic said...

Wow, I'm so sorry this happened to you! But, even though this guy was clearly wrong, you still feel like you have to justify your own part in that you should have done this, or didn't do that. You did nothing wrong!!! He took advantage of his power in this situation and good for you that you reported it!!


Herding Cats said...

What an asshole! You should be really proud of yourself for being brave and stepping up!!

Michelle said...

Holy shit, that is some serious stuff. I'm glad you did something about it.

Phoebe Caulfield said...

I know, I shouldn't "justify" myself so much. I still feel like those things are integral to the story, though, especially if it's how others are feeling in similar situations.

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