I was sexually harassed. And I’m responsible.

"I'm a hugger."
“I’m a hugger.”

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?

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26 Comments

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  1. No one should put up with sexual harassment, no matter how insignificant it may seem. You did the right thing by standing up and I sure wish I had known what to do way back in the 70’s.

  2. I worked in the box office in a theatre and this jerk who ran the restaurant attached to it used to visit the b.o. and was always flirting even though his wife worked there and blah blah. I never played into it so I don’t know what he was thinking. I was on the phone with a donor one day trying to transfer him and this guy was talking to other people in the b.o. and he started hitting me on the sides with a twizzler (…I know right? I think he felt it was childish flirting) and I whipped around and told him to stop immediately. He was embarrassed and hugged me and was all apologetic and I was just DONE with it. I reported him. The theatre did nothing about it. And he actively ignored me after that. No one ever said anything to me about it. Apologizing. Except for my awesome manager who I reported it to. She totally understood and couldn’t stand the guy. Nothing happened. I was victim shamed. Total b.s.

    • Twizzler-whipped? What a rotten experience. Such a disheartening example of why women don’t want to speak up. The attention may escalate, or they may get the cold shoulder, lose out on promotions, or perhaps worst of all, be IGNORED by management. I guess it was better to be ignored by this dude than assaulted with candy? But sad all around. I hope you were able to get out of the situation. Thanks for reading and sharing your experience.

  3. I knew a boss was sexually harassing me when I asked if he had any positive comments about me as an EMPLOYEE and the only thing he could think of was that “I was pretty.”

  4. I’ve heard stories of office sexual harassment (one from a relative talking about her work in the ’60s) that made my flesh crawl because no one took the woman seriously when she spoke up. I’m glad you did and really glad he got it and stopped immediately. Also glad you blogged about it to continue setting the example of using our voices.

  5. Your case is interesting because I think it speaks to a different gender issue at well – that of women feeling willing to generally speak up for themselves in the workplace. What he was doing wasn’t right, but as soon as you asked him to stop, he did. So I think another part of the problem is women feeling comfortable enough to simply and directly state what they want (which you eventually did). Just as he probably wouldn’t touch a male colleague, a male colleague would probably also say something immediately if he did. I think this issue can reach into a range of other work issues such as equal pay, promotions, time off, etc., that men tend to speak up and ask for more often than women do. If women shed their timidity on a variety of fronts, then I think that would often promote more successful working environments.

    • The connection between women’s willingness to endure physical and/or verbal harassment and the continuing gender gap in pay is definitely something I thought about while writing this. You’re absolutely right that this taps into a whole host of issues that are not limited to “harassment,” but that have a single common theme: women’s fear of speaking up.

      • Women naturally don’t have the obligation to stand up for themselves, as is seen in the above case, but they can and should be somehow forced, by making some sort of bill perhaps, or by teaching it early in school; to stand up for her sister’s pride. That might just about end that gender issue. As for you being harasssed. and then blaming it upon oneself is just WRONG. not you fault honey. ..not gay though, just havin a say. I would say a man patting another man, younger possibly, perhaps an apprentice, is just natural, and might even go on repeatedly, and will probably remain unnoticed. “Well done” is what a pat means and is a great behavioral communication. Your boss might actually deliberately trying not to discriminate among his subjects, and perhaps unconsciously satisfying his libido awhile….if I may…but forgive my choice of words here.

      • Ending gender discrimination and harassment issues by enacting laws or educational policies that “force” women to stand up? Sorry, brother. US legislatures across the country are already embroiled in a slew of laws dedicated to controlling women. We’ll let you know how that turns out. Women do the right thing by standing up for themselves and for other women, but in the meantime, the proper legislation, fortunately, is aimed at the perpetrators of harassment, making their actions illegal.

        I would argue that any boss, whether his subordinates were male or female, who felt that it was necessary to pat his workers to tell them a job was well done has a serious mis-perception of what’s appropriate in the professional environment, at least in this culture. While it’s appropriate in friendship or family sessions, touching on the job is not “a great behavioral communication,” especially when it’s unwanted. Saying “good job” is sufficient. One of my most irritating bosses ascribed to the touching school – when I worked a retail job years ago, he used to go behind the counter and make all the employees high-five him while the customers looked on. Ugh. I left that job as soon as I could.

  6. The problem is that- actually, I have witnessed that some young pretty 20 somethings willing participate and respond to the inapporopraite touching and get promoted because of it! ( not because they had experience, or were smart–one I am thinking of was in fact was not qualified for the position, but was very cute.)This encourages men in superior positions to keep at it! Men will do what they can get away with and women do need to speak up. Of course, women may lose jobs because they speak up. That is the danger!

    • It is worrisome if some women are exploiting the sexual attention to get ahead in their career instead of exerting their brains. But the bigger problem to me is the overall culture the girls grew up in that makes them not think twice about that treatment. The girls are caught up in a larger issue. It’s a tragedy that women or anyone else gets fired for speaking up about harassment.

  7. Thank you for sharing this!

  8. I really like this, and I especially like and respect that you decided to advocate for yourself. It seems quite possible that he wasn’t fully conscious of what he was doing, and that your assertive yet polite statement was an important wake-up call for him as well. So often we think other people are aware of how they are affecting, and so often they are just missing blatantly obvious social cues. His sexism may have been bred into him; he may not have realized you were the only person in the office he reached out and touched so often. There’s something built into our culture, where men feel they can express that kind of affection for women as if, like you said, women are their sweet little office pets.

    • Great take on an important theme in this discussion: sometimes speaking up affirmatively and politely can work wonders, because these problems may be a matter of an unconscious mindset, and not personal malice or lust. I hope the lady as the sweet office pet will be a thing of the past one day.

  9. Loved this. Shared it. Thanks!

  10. I’ve been thinking about sexual harassment in the workplace a lot lately. My only personal experience (and I’ thankful to have only one) happened when I was twenty and working as a tour guide in my hometown. I was asked to give a group of 14 year-old boys and their rabbi a tour. At the end, the boy wrote in the guest book, “Guide was great: Had big tits.” I was humiliated, tore the page out of the book, tore it into smaller pieces, and threw it away. I didn’t tell anyone until a year later when the same boys came back again and I was supposed to be their guide. I told the (male) manager, who was shocked and took me off their tour, thank God.

    While I was working as a hostess at a well-known Philly restaurant, the owner’s father would often come in. He was always given special treatment: his choice booth, free food, and the most attractive waitress that he could touch however he liked. I’d see him putting his arm around her shoulders or on the small of her back as she put his order into the computer, his hand on her hip as she wrote something down. It was gross. One day, when we were alerted to his arrival, one of my managers said to me and another new girl, “He’ll sexually harass you. Just let it happen.” ?!?!?! Thankfully, he never touched me, but I often wonder, if I had reported it, if I would have been fired for it. (As it happened, they fired me for other non-justifiable reasons a month later.)

    Great post! Can’t wait to read more!

    ~Rachel

    • Sad how many women can probably relate to your experiences. I worked as tour guide in Philly for a couple years and had all kinds of objectionable experiences, from customers putting their hands on me, sometimes WHILE I was giving the tour, and elderly and middle-aged men hitting on me while I was trying to work (I was in my mid-twenties). One of my most embarrassing tour moments was actually from a horrific high-school chaperon. The kids were very well-behaved, but the teacher kept hitting on me in front of all kids while I was trying to talk. It was humiliating and even the 13-year-olds were embarrassed, I could tell they had seen his routine before.

      Sounds awful about the restaurant; I’m sure your leaving that job was for the best in the long run. Thanks for reading; feel free to stop by again and weigh in.

  11. Still conjured by MOM August 15, 2013 — 9:41 am

    So I have a customer service gig and share a large, cubicled out room with 5 ladies, all within 18ft of me. They may touch me on the small of my back or elbow whenever they please. That is all.

    • How nice for you. See, the difference here is that you want to be touched. Imagine you didn’t, and they assumed they could anyway. I probably wanted to be touched by my male boss about as much as you want to be touched by yours.

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