This is one memory I’ve tried to forget. It was one that I haven’t talked about in nearly 10 years. But the conversation surrounding Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain and sexual harassment in the work place has forced me to share my experience in the hopes to convince the doubters and naysayers will try to understand the other side of the coin.
In one of my first jobs, I was a victim of sexual harassment.
The job situation was temporary. It was on an Army base and I was part of a program that gives college students an opportunity to work in short-term positions during the summer before they return to school. My job was only for two weeks and I was the receptionist at a fitness center on the Army base. The fitness center was administered by an older gentleman who was in his 60s and another gentleman who was in his 40s. Both were nice, friendly and eager to help me settle into my short stint as a receptionist. It was my job to greet patrons, answer phones and page people over the PA system if needed. As an 18-year-old, it was a pretty simple gig. Not to mention to smile and look friendly, a common tip many black women receive when they are put in public settings.
The gentleman in his 40s was nice. I learned he had three daughters, one of which was a little older than I was and had flunked out of college. He felt the need to tell me he hadn’t had sex with a woman in five years. I remember feeling slightly awkward when he told me that and looking back, that should have raised a slew of red flags. However, at 18, I was so ready to leave for the two-week period to be over, so I didn’t complain or say anything in return. Just nod and smile and be polite, I told myself.
The situation quickly grew more uncomfortable for me, and soon took a turn for the worst.
The co-worker then began coming onto me and would pretty much violate my personal space (3-feet rule, people). He eventually backed me up onto a counter and kissed me. Of course, I pulled away and didn’t say much of anything. He later told me I should wear a dress the next day (which made me laugh because I didn’t own any dresses except for my prom dress). In a nutshell, he propositioned to perform oral sex on me the next day. Befuddled, I went home, confused, scared and feeling like everything was pretty much my fault. I called the man who is now my boyfriend and confided in him. He encouraged me to speak up and tell the co-worker to not bother me again.
So, I did just that. The next day (after he noticed I wasn’t wearing a dress), I basically told him that I didn’t want him to bother me again. He was a little disappointed and pretty much avoided me for the remainder of the 14 days. On my last day, he was off and before I was scheduled to leave, he called the office and told me, “Good luck in school.” That was the last I heard of him.
When I look back on this situation, I’m not sure if this person thought my age or lack of experience would make me an easy target to take advantage of. I’m not sure if he even truly thought I was attractive. What I do know is standing up for myself and putting my foot down allowed me to exercise control over his push to have sex with him at work.
Fortunately, that’s been the only experience in sexual harassment I’ve had in the work place. However, I realize there are thousands of women out there who are not as fortunate or find themselves in a position where they don’t have anyone to talk to about what they experience on a daily basis. There are women who find themselves believing that if they sleep with their supervisors or co-workers or give into their demands just one time, that sexual harassment will go away. There are thousands of women out there who silently put up with the harassment due to job security threats or the fear of being ostracized for speaking out. There are thousands of women who silently believe that these predators will eventually leave them alone, but often find themselves in an unbearable situation and end up hoping it will go away, coming up with non-conspicuous reasons to get away from the perpetrator, quitting their jobs or deciding to give into the pressure.
There are thousands of men AND women out there who are more than willing to sweep sexual harassment under the rug and the Herman Cain saga is a prime example of what victims of sexual harassment must endure once they go public or make a complaint. Victims of sexual harassment, mainly women, are maligned for being money-hungry bitches and hoes out to make a buck and are willing to do any and everything in their power to bring down so-called successful and well-respected men. It’s a reflection of the denigration and mocking of women who, whether publicly or privately, stand up and put the world on notice about the sexual harassment and violence they’ve experienced. It’s a parallel of the popular warning of the conniving, scorned woman, upset that she didn’t get some promotion or isn’t the flavor of the week at the office, who will do everything in her power to get back at the man who supposedly crossed her.
While the legal system is somewhat more friendly towards an alleged victim’s claims of sexual harassment than during the late 1980s and early 1990s, societal pressure and scrutiny of one’s character and background often curtails many women from coming forward with complaints of sexual harassment, assault and battery. Like victims of rape or sexual assault, the character and life of the sexual harassment victim are often raked through the legal coals, making the woman’s conduct in the work place and her personal life fair game for the public to dissect and judge.
While it’s expected that men would come out in defense of Herman Cain, I’ve been more frustrated and disappointed at some of the women who’ve publicly stood by their man. It’s disappointing to hear and see many women readily degrade and throw these women under the bus, despite the fact that all women will at one time or another face some form of sexual harassment. While we may come from many different races, ethnicities, religions, economic statuses, sexual orientations, nationalities and abilities, the one thing that binds us together as women is we can all point to at least one time in our lives in which we’ve experienced sexual harassment.
Women who object to sexual harassment are not hypersensitive, emotional creatures who can’t take a joke. Women who come forward with sexual harassment complaints are not doing so just to take down powerful men or out to make a quick buck. Coming forward as a victim of sexual harassment is not an easy walk in the park for women as the experience can be emotionally and physically traumatizing and can lead to a lengthy court battle.
Sexual harassment is not and should not be viewed as just a fact of life or a rite of passage into corporate America. Sexual harassment is not and should not be viewed as men just being men or a form of compliment towards a woman. Sexual harassment is entrenched in the lives of many women and I hope my story can put at least one of many faces onto what is an undercover epidemic many seem to believe was left behind in the 20th century.