“I’m Sick of Talking about Sexual Harassment!”
By Karen Stollznow | August 6, 2013
“I was sexually harassed for four years,” I admitted to a colleague recently. “That’s awful!” he bellowed in outrage and genuine concern, before he promptly changed the subject. Sexual harassment is an uncomfortable topic to discuss with colleagues, especially when you’re the victim. You’re sharing personal details that they feel they shouldn’t know, and would rather not know. When your usual conversation consists of what you watched on TV last night or what you ate for lunch, it’s TMI to hear about your workmate’s sex life.
On the other hand, we’re so swamped with stories of sexism and sexual harassment that some people have become indifferent to them. Take for example the recent “Twitter shaming”. Adria Richards was at a conference when she overheard two guys making jokes she found to be sexist. She took a photo of the men and tweeted it, along with the conference’s code of conduct that prohibits making “sexist, racist or exclusory jokes.” This incident raised awareness about sexism in the tech world but it also resulted in one of the men and Richards being fired by their respective employers. It seemed to many that the whole issue had gone too far.
Sexual harassment is often trivialized. In a three-part story of The Drew Carey Show, Drew receives a fax with an illustration of a near-sighted caterpillar that tries to have sex with a crinkle cut fry. Tickled by the joke, he attaches it to a staff memo with the innocent intention of giving his workmates a laugh. To his surprise, he is soon reprimanded for offending a female colleague. Drew is insensitive to her reaction, and in defiance he tapes the image to his cubicle wall. He is then sued for creating a hostile work environment. The court is sympathetic to the alleged victim but the overall message is clear: she made a big deal over a simple joke. Moreover, she is a prude.
Sometimes we don’t even know how to identify sexual harassment because its methods are changing. Today, sexual harassment is not always as bold, brazen and blatant as the boss who slaps his secretary’s ass. It doesn’t have to involve leering or groping. It happens in a virtual work environment as much as it happens around the water cooler. More people are telecommuting although physical distance doesn’t prevent staff from being targeted by a harasser. Harassment from afar can include sending unwanted communication of a sexual nature, including emails, texts, instant messages, mail, tweets, phone calls, images, Facebook “pokes”, and stalking on networking sites. Unlike an attempted kiss in the copy room, it can take a long time to establish a record of this kind of sexual harassment. (Just be sure to collect all forms of contact, and never move, update your phone, or experience a hardware crash.)
Confronted with these stereotypes and influenced by the various forces of social conditioning, we often don’t know how to react to sexual harassment anymore. Here are some of the attitudes and opinions expressed to me, both directly and indirectly, when I began speaking out about my situation.
When they didn’t know the details, some people reacted with concern that was tempered with cautiousness. “Could you be overreacting?” or “Maybe you misread him?” There was suspicion over the delay in reporting the incidents, “Why didn’t you say something sooner?” and, “Why did you continue to work with him for so long?” Not observing the harassment was a cause for doubt. “I couldn’t tell there was anything wrong!” Some were prejudiced by their positive personal experiences with the harasser, “I know him. He’s a good guy. He wouldn’t do that!” My claims were also dismissed with the old adage that boys will be boys. “It’s a guy thing,” and, “That’s just how men behave.” One man offered a backhanded compliment, “Hey, what guy wouldn’t be interested in you!?”
As often happens in these situations, the blame is shifted to the victim. Like the woman in The Drew Carey Show, the victim may be labeled a prude or “uptight”. She lacks a sense of humor. She’s crazy. She may be portrayed as a troublemaker by the accused and his supporters. To undermine her claims, she might be branded a serial complainer, where sexism and sexual harassment are often confused, “You know, she’s accused other men of sexism before.” The case may be demonized as a witch-hunt, and become a cautionary tale told by those who fear that they too could be branded a “harasser” over the slightest comment or glance. “Watch out, or she’ll accuse you too!” I was held up to scrutiny in this way too. According to gossip about me, I gave him mixed-signals, I led him on, I’m flirtatious, and I’m a dirty little slut.
Alternatively, both the accused and accuser are blamed for the situation. Those who didn’t know the extent of the harassment reacted as though we simply don’t play well together in the sandbox. “Why don’t you two just get over it and move on!” The matter was misconstrued as a lover’s tiff, or that we were a couple in an on again, off again relationship. Others didn’t have time for my problems, “I have my own worries.” One person was surprised that I confided in him, saying, “It’s none of my business.” A number of people commiserated but then moaned, “I’m sick of talking about sexual harassment!”
Some were sympathetic, but from a safe distance. They chose to stay out of it, because they “hate drama.” I didn’t ask to become involved in a real-life soap either. I feel stigmatized by those who feel too awkward to face the situation, or me. I had a mutual friend who barely contacts me anymore, as he is unable to take a “side”. Some people didn’t say what they think until they knew what others think. They waited for an outcome so they could align themselves with the “victor”, but there are no winners in cases of sexual harassment.
To some people the news didn’t come as much of a surprise. They “knew” there was something wrong, especially with the benefit of hindsight. “I thought something was up when you two stopped working together.” Others felt they could finally admit to me what they think about him. “I never liked him.” “I’ve always thought he was a creepy guy!”, “He’s a weirdo!” and, “I unfriended him on Facebook because of the sexist shit he says and the perverted stuff he posts.” One woman confessed, “No wonder my female friends roll their eyes at me when I tell them he’s single!” Fortunately, I had the support of friends and family who witnessed the harassment over the years, and saw the distress, frustration, fear, and anger that it caused me.
This man is a predator who collects girls of a certain “type”. His targets are chubby, shy, lonely, and insecure, just like I used to be. In the early days I looked up to him and was flattered that he seemed to respect my work. I quickly spotted some red flags but I disregarded them. These became too big to ignore, so I called it all off. The rejection was ego shattering to him at first, and then met with disbelief. This was followed by incessant communication of a sexual nature, including gifts, calls, emails, letters, postcards, and invites to vacation with him in exotic places so we could “get to know each other again”. He wouldn’t leave me alone. This wasn’t love. It was obsession. His desperation only increased when I met another man. He continued his harassment as though my boyfriend (who is now my husband) didn’t even exist.
From late 2009 onwards I made repeated requests for his personal communication to cease but these were ignored. He began manipulating the boundaries by contacting me on the pretext of it being work-related. Then came the quid pro quo harassment. He would find opportunities for me within the company and recommend me to television producers, but only if I was nicer to him. One day the company offered me an honorary position that I’d worked hard for, but he warned me that he had the power to thwart that offer. I threatened to complain to his employer, but he bragged that another woman had accused him of sexual harassment previously and her complaints were ignored. According to him, she had been declared “batshit crazy”. Then, he saw me at conferences and took every opportunity to place me in a vulnerable position. This is where the psychological abuse turned physical and he sexually assaulted me on several occasions.
There is an increasing awareness of sexual harassment in some domains. For example, safety at conferences is becoming a concern for organizers. This seems to have been incited by the so-called “Elevatorgate” incident. In 2011, skeptic Rebecca Watson attended an atheist conference as a speaker where she discussed sexism and sexual harassment. In the early hours of the morning a stranger approached her alone in an elevator and invited her back to his hotel room for coffee. She declined. During a YouTube video Watson mentioned this in passing as an example of how not to behave at conferences if you want women to feel safe and comfortable, advising, “Guys, don’t do that.” This resulted unexpectedly in an extreme backlash against her, involving threats, abuse and insults from those who thought she was overreacting, seeking attention, or a man-hater.
However, conference organizers don’t always know how to act when they find sexual harassment. They may panic and overreact, especially when they think they discover an incident. A friend confided a story to me that happened at a conference last year. She was talking to a fellow attendee at a bar when she noticed his eyes drop briefly to her cleavage. “Hey, my eyes are up here!” she joked to him. Little did anyone know that a plain-clothes security officer had been enlisted to keep an eye on the attendees and he had overheard this tête-à-tête. My friend was taken to a room where the officer grilled her. What happened? Was she okay? They could remove the brute from the conference if it would make her feel safer.
This melodramatic response affected her far more than the alleged “harassment” and for the rest of the conference she felt like she was being watched. This is not to downplay real incidents of harassment and assault that are far more common than we’d like to think. Another friend came forward with her story of sexual assault at this same conference. I asked if her attacker was the same as mine and she replied, “No, but the depressing thing is that you’re not the only woman who has asked me this same question, and given yet another name.”
Sometimes an organization under-reacts to the claims. This was my experience. Following “Elevatorgate”, the company introduced a “zero tolerance policy for hostile and harassing conduct”. When I approached them with my accusations they appeared to be compassionate initially. I spent many hours explaining my story over the phone and days submitting evidence. Then they hired an attorney to collect the facts and I had to repeat the process. I provided access to my email account. I also devoted two days to face-to-face discussions about my ordeal. This “fact collector” also collected a lot of hearsay from my harasser, about how I’m a slut and “batshit crazy”. This tactic of the accused is so common it’s known as the “nut and slut” strategy. I soon learned that the attorney was there to protect them, not me.
Five months after I lodged my complaint I received a letter that was riddled with legalese but acknowledged the guilt of this individual. They had found evidence of “inappropriate communications” and “inappropriate” conduct at conferences. However, they greatly reduced the severity of my claims. When I asked for clarification and a copy of the report they treated me like a nuisance. In response to my unanswered phone calls they sent a second letter that refused to allow me to view the report because they couldn’t release it to “the public”. They assured me they were disciplining the harasser but this turned out to be a mere slap on the wrist. He was suspended, while he was on vacation overseas. They offered no apology, that would be an admission of guilt, but they thanked me for bringing this serious matter to their attention. Then they asked me to not discuss this with anyone. This confidentiality served me at first; I wanted to retain my dignity and remain professional. Then I realized that they are trying to silence me, and this silence only keeps up appearances for them and protects the harasser.
The situation has disadvantaged me greatly. I have lost a project I once worked on, I have had to disclose highly personal information to colleagues, and I don’t think that I’ll be offered work anymore from this company. Perhaps that’s for the best considering the way they have treated me. I have since discovered that this company has a history of sexual harassment claims. They also have a track record of disciplining these harassers lightly, and then closing ranks like good ol’ boys. Another colleague assured me this was better than their previous custom of simply ignoring claims of sexual harassment.
To avoid becoming sick of talking about sexual harassment we need to feel some empathy for the victims. It may be harder to empathize with a colleague or an acquaintance, so think about how you would feel if this harassment was happening to your wife, husband, daughter, son, brother, sister, mother or father? Then we need to remember our broader responsibility to protect people in our workplace, communities and society. Underestimating the dangers of sexual harassment, and downplaying or ignoring claims, only serves to embolden the harassers. If they get away with sexual harassment, or they don’t even recognize their behavior, they are at risk of doing it again. Let’s not be sick of talking about sexual harassment, but be sick of being silent about it.