I have been subject to inappropriate sexual treatment in the workplace more times than I care to recall, all when I was temping or working in retail in a large metropolis between ages 18 and 23. All my life up to that point, I had been an advocate of girls and women standing up for themselves. I also considered myself to be a jaded and savvy person. But these incidents were unnerving even for me, in large part due to the possible amibiguity of the conduct (and also due to my own youth and inexperience at the time).
The first disturbing series of incidents occurred when I was 18 and working in a large store of second hand books. My job was to shelve and alphabetize endless copies of “review” books that came in for resale, and I found myself often standing in very narrow passage ways among shelves of books, and high stacks of books piled on the floor. There was another employee who invariably managed to rub the entire front of his crotch on my rear end whenever he passed by me. He would then say, “Oh, oh, excuse me, oh I’m so sorry,” with seeming sincerity. The first time I gave him the benefit of the doubt. By the time this had happened two or three times, however, I had privately concluded that the guy was a major perv.
But what to do about it? I was a staunch feminist and I knew, even before Anita Hill, all about the evils of sexual harassment. But I had never imagined myself in this particular situation. I felt that I had an obligation to myself and to others to call this guy on his crap. I imagined the situation possibly escalating and people saying to me, “How could you have let this go on for so long?” But I was also worried about (a) overreacting, (b) accusing this guy unjustly (maybe he was just clumsy) and (c) making a fool of myself.
While I dithered, the situation did escalate. The inappropriate touching occurred again and with greater frequency. There was also an occasion when the guy’s hand accidentally-on-purpose brushed down the entire length of my breast.
My mother was out of town so I approached my dad for advice. For all his faults, my dad has always told me “not to take any crap” and he generally has pretty decent advice for handling confrontations, power struggles, and professional issues. In this instance, however, he blew it off and told me that it was all in my head. In retrospect and with the wisdom of 17 more years under my belt, it’s hard for me to understand all the self-doubt I had -- the guy was blatantly groping me. But for some reason, I bought into the notion that I could be misconstruing the situation. And the thought of possibly embarrassing this guy without cause seemed worse than continuing to be sexually groped on a daily basis!
I dithered some more and of course it kept happening. Finally, I decided to take action. I had always believed that when someone keeps pushing you, you have to do something about it. You have to stand up for yourself. But I decided against reporting him to my boss. I concluded that my boss would likely have the same reaction my father did -- and how could I possibly establish to a third party (I wondered) that this was intentional groping rather than accidental touching resulting from the close quarters in which we all worked. So I opted to possibly make a fool of myself by taking matters into my own hands.
I worried about my co-workers turning on me. I worried about being deemed an uptight nutjob. I worried that I would be mocked for being a prude or for the impotence of my response. (After all, what power did I really have in the situation?) But the next time it happened, my heart pounding, I immediately confronted the guy. I spoke in what felt to me to be an unnaturally loud voice. I didn’t feel particularly confident or particularly intimidating. Physically, I was a lot smaller than the perv and I had the high squeaky voice of a teenage girl. I can’t remember exactly what I yelled, but it was something along the lines of: “STOP GROPING ME. I WON’T HAVE IT."
I knew how easily I could be mocked for this outburst. But the guy basically said, “Hey, hey, hey. Take it easy. I’m really sorry. It was an accident.” And I said something like: “Well, you’re the only one that has these accidents ALL THE TIME. You’re the only one whose CROTCH keeps GRINDING into me.” He kind of shuffled away muttering something about how I shouldn’t flatter myself.
After that, he tried it one more time. And this time, I made a threat. Heart still pounding, I said, “That's it. If you GROPE me one more time, I will TAKE ACTION.” Of course, I had no idea what action I would take. But he said, “What? You going to call the cops on me?” And I said, “Yeah.” Of course, I didn’t actually think the cops would do anything, but from that time onward, the guy stayed away from me.
So I accomplished my objective -- but only after being groped repeatedly, undergoing a lot of angst, and self-doubt, and only because I had all the tools of self-confidence, an independent means of financial support, a strong feminist sensibility, and some rudimentary knowledge about sexual harassment.
I suppose many would say that I did the right thing by taking matters into my own hands rather than reporting the guy to my boss. But I absolutely cannot stress enough how absolutely contrary that confrontation was to my upbringing as an American and as a female. It totally went against the grain to be confrontational, to be loud, to make a fuss, to state out loud and in crude detail what the guy had done, and to refuse to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. (And, of course, in retrospect, I don’t think there was any real doubt.)
While I certainly advocate that women stand up for themselves in these situations when feasible (obviously every situation is different), I also think it is crucially important to understand why women often do not. All too often in sexual harassment and rape cases, people assume consent due to a failure by the woman to put a stop to sexually inappropriate behavior earlier in the game. As a prosecutor, I had one case of a teenage girl whose much older co-worker continually asked her graphic and very personal questions about her sexual proclivities and experiences. She didn’t know what to do so she answered his questions! Eventually, he forcibly raped her (and was convicted). But the defense had a field day with the fact that she had engaged this guy in sex talk prior to the sexual assault and a number of the jurors were, in fact, troubled by her failure to put an end to the guy’s intrusive questioning. From her perspective though, she didn’t want to overreact or seem like a prude. She wasn’t sure if this guy had any evil intent or if he was just being friendly. She testified that it felt “rude” not to answer his questions. Refusing to answer seemed too confrontational and was utterly outside the scope of her experience and utterly outside the scope of how we socialize young girls to behave.
Often people argue that many social interactions are simply too ambiguous to classify as sexual harassment or even as socially inappropriate. Often that may be, and where a judge or jury determines a situation to be truly ambiguous, the accused should have the benefit of the doubt in accordance with applicable legal standards so that we can avoid punishing the innocent or holding them liable. But what people too often forget is that ambiguity also operates a shield for the guilty and a way to deflect attempts by women to address and put an end to troubling conduct before it escalates. We are quick to give the accused the benefit of the doubt, but we are often similarly quick to dismiss claims by women who have not swooped in to correct ambiguous conduct at the very outset before it turns into something worse.