Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Things That Men Should Know About

I was sixteen the first time I was sexually harassed. 

I was working at a one-hour photo store at the mall with a twenty-five-year-old male coworker named Bert. We bonded over bootleg Tori Amos albums and a mutual unappreciation for our manager Tony whose temper can only be described as Satanisque. One slow Sunday afternoon Bert touched my arm and told me that he had a crush on me. Then he leaned in for a kiss. With a forced giggle, I pushed him away and moved to the other side of the printing machine. I didn’t feel terribly threatened because Bert was the stocky type with a doughy-like physique and I was a tough girl with a pair of biceps strong from years of gymnastics and cheerleading; I figured I could easily knock a geek out if I had to. Still, it didn’t stop me from going to Tony and asking him to schedule me on days when Bert wasn’t working. Tony obliged but didn’t ask for more information. Looking back now, I wonder, why didn’t he?

The second time I was sexually harassed, I was twenty-one, already married, and working as an office assistant at an architecture firm in Jackson, Mississippi while finishing up the second of my two useless college degrees. I became friends with a fifty-year-old married man named John, who seemed to have a good head on his shoulders in what was otherwise a chaotic work environment. His office with windows facing a flower-spouting courtyard became my work sanctuary when I wasn’t typing letters or faxing invoices. 

“Why are you here?” he would always ask me. “Clearly this isn’t your dream job. You’re a writer.”

I’d shrug and say, “I don’t have any good ideas.”

Three months into the job, I arrived at work to find an email from John waiting in my inbox. The subject line read: “Book idea.” I opened it and began reading.

Young, lonely married woman works at a job she despises. She friends a lonely, older, married man. They begin a hot, steamy, illicit affair, and eventually leave their spouses to be with each other. The email went on to outline how the affair would start, with detailed descriptions of me pinned against the wall begging for him to put it in, with me bent over his desk moaning, with me on the trunk of his car, my legs over his shoulders as he pumped me full of hot cum.

The words became a blur as my mind tried to accept what my eyes were feeding it. My mouth hung open, my heart beating out of my chest. After the shock wore off, disgust coursed through my body, and after that, betrayal. I had spent hours pouring my heart out to this man; I thought of him as a father. How could he correlate our mutual preferences for cats over dogs and our similar political beliefs into an erotic sex fantasy?

I left work early in tears. I took a shower as soon as I came home. I think the shower must have lasted for hours. Too exhausted to dress, I fell into bed wrapped only in a towel and dialed my mom’s number. By then, guilt had set in. I must have done something. I must have said something. I must have led him on. Otherwise, why would he focus on me? I wasn’t the type of girl that men typically thought of that way. I wasn’t beautiful. (I didn’t know it at the time, but I had been tricked into believing one of the biggest myths of sexual harassment: that it only happened to "pretty" girls. This was a lie. It happened to all of us. The undesirables and the less than 10’s and the picture imperfect alike. We all get a slice of the harassment pie.)

Sobbing, I told my mom the story. She responded with the expected amount of anger and outrage. I think she may have cried too. Before we got off the phone, I asked, “What do I do? Do I tell him?” Him being my then-husband.

“No,” my mom said. “There are some things men should never know about.”

Taking my mom’s advice, I said nothing to my husband when he came home that night. When I went back to work the next day, I didn’t bring up John’s email to anyone, nor did I make my routine stop at John’s office. After days of feeling my distance, he stopped me in the hall and asked, “So I guess you didn’t like the book idea?” All I could do was shake my head. I remember my eyes landing on John’s blotchy red hands. I remember imagining what he imagined doing to me with those hands, and the familiar sickness took over again.

At home, sex life with my husband died on a vine. “Are you cheating on me?” he asked, more than once. I promised I wasn’t. “Then what is it?” he demanded. I would always turn away, mumbling a bogus excuse.

A few months after the email, I finished school. I quit the job at John’s firm, and my husband and I moved back to Australia. My marriage got back on track, but the experience had left a stain just under the surface, one that would reappear throughout the years out of nowhere, in the most inconvenient of circumstances, like during sex (Frustrated husband: “Why are you crying?”) or when I was playing with my children (Concerned four-year-old daughter: “Mommy, why sad face?”). But I had learned my lesson: never get close to a male coworker.

Not that keeping a safe distance mattered. Over the years, more incidents would occur. An executive of a company where I worked took me out to lunch with the premise that he wanted to discuss a promotion, but spent most of the hour ogling my legs, saying in an offhand, casual manner, “Your husband must love those wrapped around him at night” right before asking the waiter for the check. At the same company, another coworker shared with me music from his playlist from time to time, which I didn’t think anything of until his wife called me after discovering love letters he had addressed to my name. “Tell me what’s going on between the two of you!” she had demanded. “Nothing,” I stammered out, just as shocked as she was. Their marriage ended shortly after. With no pesky marital vows to interfere with my coworker’s delusion, his attention grew more aggressive, and his aggression manifested; his music sharing turning into emails that turned into unscheduled stops at my desks that turned into late night calls that I was unable to explain to my husband. I could have told his boss, I suppose, but his boss was the same vulgar man who took me out to lunch years earlier. I could have told my husband, but we were barely speaking (Our marriage was also on the verge of collapsing). In my mind, the only option was to look for a new job, and that’s exactly what I did.

My most recent experience—a member of the janitorial staff at my current job began going out of his way to say hello to me when he picked up the trash from our floor of the building. Mind you, the garbage can was at the other end of the floor; there was no reason for him to pass my office—but he did anyway. This was something I might have not even noticed in my earlier days, but I was 38 now, and my bullshit tolerance meter was at an all-time low. As the days passed, the man became more assertive, butting into my teleconferences to wave hello, interrupting my conversations with coworkers just to say, “Don’t work too hard,” with a wink, sometimes tapping my chair or shoulder to get my attention. It was annoying, but I wondered, could it really be considered sexual harassment? I wasn’t sure. I thought about asking my boyfriend. He was a lawyer and knew about these sort of things from a legal standpoint, if not from a personal one. The thought didn’t necessarily appeal to me – it was impossible to ask my boyfriend a legal question without getting a lecture on the whole Constitution and the entire history of rulings on whatever legality I was asking about – but, I decided, it would be worth sacrificing several hours of my life (in which I would spend most of the time trying to stay awake) to get his professional input (and, to be completely honest, his comfort).

Then I remembered my mother’s words (there are somethings men should never know about), and I changed my mind. I stayed silent.

Months came and went, but the janitor’s unwanted attention never ceased. Some days he’d shake my shoulders. Some days he’d grab my arm. Why do I still have to put up with this BS? I thought. I’m thirty-eight f*cking years old! (Another common myth: Sexual harassment slows down as women age. It doesn’t. In some cases, it only gets bolder.)

On a sunny afternoon six months into the janitor’s daily visits, I went out to lunch with a couple of female co-workers. I saw the janitor as soon as we stepped out of the building. He was leaning against a nearby tree, sucking on a lit cigarette. Our eyes locked. He waved at me. I didn’t wave back. “That guy gives me the creeps,” I blurted without thinking.

A co-worker turned to investigate the object of my angst. Her throat erupted with a low growl. “Me too,” she said.

The others chimed in.


Me too!

I thought I was the only one!

It seemed the janitor had been obtrusive to all of us. Still, I thought, was it sexual harassment? Maybe he was doing it to men too. Maybe he was just over-friendly. After lunch, I pulled my male co-workers aside one at a time and asked them about him. Not a single one even knew who I was talking about. I had all the confirmation I needed. I marched up to the building manager’s office and described the predicament. A week later, the over-friendly janitor was gone.

I was proud of myself—proud and frustrated. Why had I not done this sooner? I mean, not just this occurrence, but all the other times I had been sexually harassed? In every scenario, I had thought I was the only one. But maybe that wasn’t the case. Perhaps the men who preyed on me had indiscriminate taste. The identity of their prey was of no consequence; they only hunted for the chase.

It was the guilt of remaining silent for so long and potentially putting other women at risk that finally led me to talk to my boyfriend. When I described the incidents with the janitor, my boyfriend’s face fell with unexpected shock. “Why didn’t you tell me you were being sexually harassed?” he asked.

“I wasn’t sure if it was sexual harassment,” I admitted.

“Well, it was! I would have told you to go to the building manager a long time ago. Hell, I would have talked to them for you.”

“Oh, and because you’re a man, your voice would have mattered?” I asked, my feminist flag rising.

“No,” boyfriend said, vigorously shaking his head. “Because I love you and you love me, my voice should have mattered.”

When the allegations about Harvey Weinstein came out, I saw people ask, what took women so long to come forward? – to which I answered, what took men so long?

Then I thought about that conversation with my boyfriend. Why didn’t you tell me…

It’s clear from the New York Times’ extensive investigation that the men who circled Weinstein’s life knew what was happening in the secret innuendo meetings that Weinstein held in the darker, more secluded rooms of the company’s office building and in the clandestine rendezvous in hotel rooms. In the absence of women’s visible outrage, however, exactly zero percent of these men spoke out against Weinstein’s actions. Why didn’t they?

Obviously, first and foremost, they were concerned about their careers (It was a well-known fact, Weinstein was an eye for an eye kind of guy). Maybe some men even approved of Weinstein’s actions and followed their boss’s example.

But I tend to think there was a little of the Not My Woman, Not My Problem factor involved too. Professional investment isn’t emotional investment, no matter how you swing it, and some of us have moral compasses that only point north when north is where we’re heading. In the mid-90s, when Gwyneth Paltrow told her then-boyfriend Brad Pitt about Weinstein’s harassment, Pitt confronted Weinstein. At the time I write this, Pitt is the only "significant other” who has been reported as doing so. One could reasonably argue that this was because Pitt felt like he had the invincibility to do so. He's Brad F'ing Pitt. Not everyone had that luxury.

But if that's the case, had other men who were invested in these women’s lives also been told about the harassment and had not spoken up out of fear of retaliation? Or was it because they were never told to begin with?

The first assumption seems like a reasonable (if somewhat crappy) excuse due to the nature of the beast they would have been forced to confront. But in other cases, in the millions and millions of other cases across the country where this happens every day, the same cannot be said; and in those cases, I wonder if those women, like myself, chose to stay silent, and in doing so, unwillingly helped men further remove themselves from taking accountability for our misogynistic culture in which the bad seeds sexually harass and never pay the price for it.

Do heterosexual women need their men to stand up for them? As a feminist, it’s a little disconcerting to write this: but yes, I believe we do—because until we live in a world where a woman’s voice carries more weight than a man’s lies, having allies with a Y chromosome is an important step to safeguarding against sexual harassment – and those potential champions of the testosterone variety start at home. Besides, when you get down to it, it’s not a war between the sexes (men are sexually harassed too, lest we forget, and women can sexually harass other women just as easily as men). This is a war against harassment, and everything that comes with it—the fear, the silence, the guilt, the shame, the systematic unraveling of a person’s self-worth. It’s not a man’s support we’re really asking for; it’s the support of a person for whom we love and who loves us back.

I think back on what my mother told me years ago. There are some things men don’t need to know about. I know what she was thinking: things could get worse. Then-husband might start a scene at my work, confront John, punch him out…or maybe not believe me at all. Maybe then-husband would blame me for the incident. My mom was protecting me from further hurt, but what she was really protecting and encouraging was the silence that surrounds stories of sexual harassment, smothering the voices within.

As women, it is crucial that we speak to the men in our lives—our husbands, our fathers, our sons, our brothers—about what we endure in the workplace, no matter how hard or difficult the conversation. We can no longer protect men from sharing the weight of our trials. These are things that men should know about.

Great sources written by people way far more knowledgeable than I:

Workplace Sexual Harassment Linked To Damaging Mental Health Consequences, Depending On Who’s Doing The Harassing
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