NPR host Michel Martin’s “Tell Me More” segment on her July 31st show asked, “Do women have a responsibility when men misbehave?”
Yeah, a lot of women don’t talk about sexual harassment because they’re worried about retribution, or because they think the man’s behavior is their fault, or because someone will turn around and accuse them of being too sensitive – all worries panelists Danielle Belton, Bridget Johnson and Connie Schultz discussed with the case of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner.
According to the LA Times, as of July 31st, Filner is accused of sexual misconduct by at least eight women who recount everything from comments about their panties to licking a female education official’s cheek. Filner, for his part, insists all that is just a big misunderstanding because he’s a friendly “hugger.”
Sure he is.
But Martin asked what responsibility women have in this situation.
Not what the women did to make Filner slobber on them. But what obligation do the women have to speak up, both for their own sake, and for the sake of other women?
Honestly, I haven’t talked about my own experience publicly before mostly because it’s embarrassing to me—what happened is embarrassing, and the fact that I didn’t do anything about it for such a long time is embarrassing. No, I have to go one further: it’s not just the fact that it took me forever to speak up. It’s the fact that I pushed my discomfort down so much that I didn’t even see the harassment for what it was until someone else pointed it out to me.
Part of the problem is that sensational discussions of sexual harassment skewed my perceptions. TV and movie depictions of sexual harassment, or real-life sexual harassment horror stories that make it to the news, fool us into thinking it’s always easy to be aware of and identify. It’s gross comments about your underwear, it’s your breasts being groped, or lewd propositions about the nearest hotel. But that’s not always the case.
I got hired to work in the office with an editor, and after a couple weeks, I realized that I was cringing when he came to my desk, or when he called me to his computer. It was because he kept touching me.
Not blatantly threatening or sexual touches. More as if I was the office dog. Deliberate pats on the knees, arms and shoulders. A hand on the small of my back when he walked by.
After I realized the hands were making me dread the office, I tried to cope by keeping out of reach: staying on my feet instead of sitting down, or putting the desk between us. The silent dismay whenever he walked up was part of the office landscape. I was his subordinate and it was my job to deal with his habits. It was harmless, anyway. Not hurting me. I was being too sensitive. Right?
A few months later, I got up my courage and asked a colleague from my parents’ generation if she got the wayward hands from our boss. No, she said: he never touched her. She sighed and shook her head in dismay that it was happening to me. But she didn’t suggest that there was anything I could do to stop it.
But it began to bother me more and more. When I was unloading to my therapist a few weeks later (yeah, I’m a depression statistic, deal with it) I mentioned it in passing. She halted me right away and made me back up and tell it again. She insisted that it shouldn’t be happening and that I should report the behavior.
So I went home and thought about it some more. I imagined that a man had been hired, instead of me. Would my boss reach out and pet him? Would the man put up with it if my boss did?
Once I got the reel playing in my head, I realized that the image of one man repeatedly patting another man in the office was bizarre. My boss was treating me differently than he would have treated a male employee.
Just in case you’re saddling up your anti-gender-equivalency horse and declaring that it’s wrong to deny the differences between men and women, I’m not saying that men and women are identical beings. I am saying they should have the same rights, like not being touched in the workplace if they don’t want to be.
So the next time I went back to the office, I resolved to speak up if it happened again. Sure enough, my boss called me to his desk to discuss a headline, and when I suggested a word he liked, he swung his chair around and I saw the hand reaching, as if in slow motion.
This time he got my right elbow as I stood with my arms crossed: a heavy pat, pat, pat. “Good job,” he said.
“I do not want to be touched when I’m in the office,” I replied.
“Oh. Ok,” he said, as if I’d said, “I prefer jazz to classical.”
And until I left the job, it never happened again.
Thinking back on this, I’d say that despite the pernicious narrative that accuses women of fabricating harassment charges or misinterpreting friendly advances out of some kind of misplaced sexual spite, the usual definition of sexual harassment, Bob Filner-style, isn’t enough. You shouldn’t have to live with verbal or physical behaviors that make you dread coming to work, however subtle they are.
My experience with sexual harassment was relatively mild. But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. I wasn’t responsible for it. But I would answer Michel Martin’s question by saying that, especially as a writer, I am responsible for speaking up, in case it helps somebody else wake up to a similar situation and do something to stop it.
Have you experienced sexual harassment at work? If so, how did you deal with it?