With all the talk of sexual harassment in the media these past couple weeks, I’m not sure about your office, but conversations in the hallways and in the kitchens–only between the women–have been taking place in mine.
We’ve been sharing our stories. Some from our college days, some from our early careers. But we all seem to have a story.
Here are mine:
My college professor
Call me naive. I just didn’t get it. I had a professor, much older than me. Old enough to be my dad, maybe even my grandfather. He wasn’t in shape or attractive. He drove a 1960s era VW.
I was a Lit Writing major, and I was taking his poetry classes. He took a special interest in me.
First it was conversations after class. Then in his office. He took me to dinner, which, as a poor college student, I always appreciated. He got me a gift–a Chinese coin as I was a Chinese studies minor. Then another gift–a first edition of one of my favorite books. I was being groomed.
My boyfriend Todd was really sick and I was having a hard time. Having a safe place to go and sit, having a place where I could release my emotions–which was in my writing–was so necessary for my sanity.
Seriously, I really didn’t get that he was hitting on me.
And then he made his move. A profession of his feelings for me. I was only 20-years old, or so. I was vulnerable. I had no idea what to do. So I dropped his class, changed my major, and avoided my professor.
Many years later and working through my amends, I felt bad that I just ghosted this man. I should have said something. So I tracked him down, and wrote him a letter. Seriously, I was apologizing for getting creeped out by a creep.
He was living in France by then. I was much older, perhaps 25. He called me. From France. We still had toll calls to the Valley and he was calling me from France.
We had a nice call. He apologized. And then the letters and more phone calls started. And it again became very inappropriate, very quickly. This time I found a voice and I was able to shut him down immediately. I never heard from him again.
That chain restaurant
It was’t too long after my professor. I was now about 22-years old. A senior in college. I was a waitress at the local chain hangout known for its really long drink menu, decor, and our flair.
There was an assistant manager who seemed to enjoy taunting me. He would make lewd and suggestive comments. He would leer at me.
I was dating a fellow waiter, and this manager, Mark, would try and separate us (can’t believe I can remember his name). He would let the guy I was dating off really early, keep me working when I had no one in my station. He would make comments to the guy … he would make comments to me. He would block my way. He would corner me. I didn’t feel safe. My guy would try and intervene. But Mark had the power.
And I was not alone. Mark was doing this with other women. All of us in our early 20s. Most of us local college students.
I tried to rally the other women to go to the general manager to complain. You see, these were the pre-Anita Hill days. We didn’t have a term for sexual harassment back then that I knew of. I just knew that was was going on was just icky and wrong. And I knew I needed back up if I was going to speak up.
But that wasn’t the worst part.
Trying to whore me out
The local NFL football team used to hang out in our bar after practice. One night I had a full station, but Mark called me over. That player “over there” would like me to join him. I said I was working and had a full station.
I was told it was okay. Mark would take care of it. Just go on over.
I said, again, I was working.
Mark made it clear that it would be in my best interest to go join the player. I explained in a very colorful way that my father did not raise me that way and I went back to my tables.
I was fired soon after that incident.
When I tried to get a job in other local restaurants, I would be tentatively hired, until they checked my references. Apparently, the restaurant was not giving me a glowing one. We have a word for that now, too: re·tal·i·a·tion.
And so I struggled. I was helping to put myself through college. I only had a few months left until graduation, and I survived on tips. Finally, a friend’s mom was able to get me a job at a local hotel, and I was able to put food on my table. But it was really scary for me. I was incredibly vulnerable and knew it.
Fast forward several years. Anita Hill came and went. We had a new word–sexual harassment–and some new laws. The women at my former restaurant finally banded together and complained to corporate about Mark. A law suit was filed. Mark was fired. The general manager was fired. I heard they tried to find me to testify, but we didn’t have AOL yet, let alone Google. But that’s okay.
My professional years
By the time I made it to the work place, I had learned a few lessons. Downplay my looks. Wear my skirts below my knee. Watch the cleavage. Keep the hair under control.
During the Ally McBeal years, my boyfriend and I were walking through Westwood and he saw a suit he wanted me to try on. During the Ally McBeal years. I let him know that there was no way in hell I could walk the halls in Sacramento wearing a suit like that. I couldn’t remind men that I was, you know, a woman. (I would have rocked the suit, by the way).
In the years following I’ve had a few incidents. Some in professional settings. Others outside of work, but still in an inappropriate setting. I don’t want to feel icky at work or in my meetings, and I shouldn’t have to.
And while I’ve encountered screamers and other inappropriate behaviors in law firms, I haven’t personally experienced sexual harassment. Actually, the opposite.
A few good men
At a prior firm, we did have a client start to obsess over my assistant, calling her and sending her flowers. She reported it to me, and I reported it to the executive director, who took it to the managing partner. The managing partner called the client and explained why that was not okay, and fired the client. I was SHOCKED. But it felt really good. Times, they were a changing.
At a different firm, a different experience, but still pretty awesome. Partner kissed an associate while returning from a pitch. Associate reported it and quit. Partner was dealt with and left the firm shortly after that. We didn’t win the work. And while I felt bad that the associate had left, I still felt inspired that she didn’t hesitate to report the harassment, and the firm didn’t hesitate to resolve it. We had turned the corner.
So what now?
Sadly, the last couple weeks have shown us that not every industry has cleaned up its act. Young, vulnerable women, and men, are at risk of predatory behavior. And it’s not okay. Period.
Sexual harassment is not limited to any one industry (or even work), and sometimes it’s really subtle. One thing is certain, those of us who have or are experiencing sexual harassment are not going to be quiet any longer.
It’s important that women and men share their experiences; that we lift the veil of secrecy and shame.
In the past few hours a new hashtag is blowing up on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. #MeToo.
If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me, too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
Please copy and paste.
We are the face of sexual harassment. I am the face of sexual harassment.
You don’t need a mother, or wife, or daughter to know and understand sexual harassment. Just look around. Just ask. “What about you?” or “Do you have a story?” or, better yet, “Here’s mine.”