Trigger warning: This piece includes specific incidents of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.
I am appalled and disgusted by the sexual harassment and assault abuses committed against women by Harvey Weinstein, as reported by his victims. I applaud the courage of women he has assaulted to speak out. These revelations and disclosures often have a domino effect. I hope they will result in necessary changes to prevent abuses and protect women.
Unfortunately, sexual harassment against women isn’t limited to the Hollywood film industry. We all know that. I will share part of my own story.
1980s – A financial planning office
When I was an education grad student in the 1980s, earning my English teaching credential, I was working full time for a financial planner in Southern California. He was a husband, a father, a leader in his church, and the facilitator of a weekly Bible study in his home. One day (it was a Friday) while I was seated at my desk, he walked around my desk, came up behind me, and said he wanted to look at what I was writing. I remember the assignment. I was writing a letter to a client whose husband had recently died by suicide. It didn’t seem odd that my boss wanted to see what I was drafting. But he stood directly behind me, not off to the side. That made me uncomfortable. I told myself it must be because of his vision problem that he needed to look directly at the screen. We find a way to rationalize the unthinkable — before, during, and after it happens.
After maybe a minute, still standing behind me, he put his hands on my shoulders and started massaging them. He had never done that before. Instinctively, I lurched forward in my chair, moving both my body and my chair on wheels. He removed his hands from my shoulders, but then he stepped forward, put his hands firmly on the back of my chair, one hand on each side, and held my chair securely in place. I felt trapped.
Standing behind me and holding my chair in place, he read aloud part of the letter I was writing. At a point, he stopped reading, and I felt him rub himself against my back. His breathing accelerated, and I froze. I stopped my own breathing. I didn’t move. I didn’t make a sound. Not only could I feel what he was doing, I could see his reflection in my computer screen. I was in disbelief and didn’t have the tools to respond.
When he was finished, he said something about what a good writer I was, left the room, and went into his private office. I felt stunned, shocked, horrified, embarrassed, scared, and started to shake uncontrollably. I didn’t say anything. Feeling lightheaded, my breathing shallow, I stayed seated at my desk and kept working. I got through the rest of the day. We said our goodbyes to each other, and I went home. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. It’s a lonely experience.
The Sunday afterwards, two days after the incident, I finally got angry. I phoned him at his home and told him to meet me at the office right away because I needed to talk to him. He declined, saying he was with his family. I told him either he would meet me right away or I would tell his wife what he had done. He tried to minimize it and insisted we talk on Monday. I said no, that we would talk today. Only after I threatened to tell his mother did he agree to meet me.
In that Sunday meeting, I read aloud to him what I had spent most of the morning writing. I described how awful the experience was and told him never to do that again. I was very clear in what I had written and spelled out how things were going to go from that point on and what the boundaries were going to be. I remember saying, “And because I’m such a good writer, I’m going to write a letter of recommendation for myself that you’re going to sign.” I explained that if he said or did anything ever again like that, I would make good on my promise to tell both his wife and his mother. That Sunday in his office, I had the power.
That incident was the first time I was sexually harassed, or assaulted, in the workplace. Unfortunately it wasn’t the last time a man sexually harassed me in the workplace.
1990s – A middle school
In 1992, I was a teaching librarian in a small timber town on the Umpqua River in Southern Oregon. The harassment began after I declined dates with two different single men on the teaching staff. One man said to me, “There aren’t too many of us [single guys] left around here; you can’t afford to be too choosy.” I replied, “I’ll take my chances.”
The harassment intensified when they learned I was a Lesbian. On weekends, they drove down the quiet, dead-end Paradise Lane where I lived to park and spy on me. On a few occasions, my neighbors phoned me to alert me to their presence. During the work week at the school where we taught, these two men and one other, who was married, made sexually explicit remarks intended to humiliate me. I tried to ignore them, as the school secretary had advised me to do.
Then one day they lured me to an early morning staff meeting, which turned out not to be a staff meeting at all. They had brought a blow-up sheep doll to demonstrate anal sex to me, and threatened to have me fired because of the company I was keeping. I had become friends with a Lesbian sheepherder who had left her teaching job and career some years prior due to harassment. I felt mortified, scared, and sick to my stomach.
Eventually I talked with the school administrators about what was happening to me, but only after incidents of harassment and vandalism against Lesbians living on women’s land had made the local news. My personal experience alone wasn’t enough for me to talk to somebody; sadly, I felt I had to rely on what was happening to my community. The administrators were supportive, but I left that teaching job and my home on the Umpqua River because of the harassment. At least I left with outstanding letters of recommendation from the administrators, and this time I didn’t have to write the letters for them.
2000s – A local government office
In 2000, I was thrilled to start working for the City of Portland, where I was planning to buy a house and make my home. Just a few weeks after I had begun working for the Bureau of Transportation, I declined an invitation to dinner with a man in my work group. He followed up with invitations for sporting events and after-work drinks. Again, I declined and clearly stated I was not interested in a relationship outside of work. He then sent me emails with sexually explicit cartoons.
Because I was still in my probationary period at work and had no allies or mentors, I didn’t report it. Instead, I confronted him and documented everything in a letter I gave him. I described what he had done and how I had responded, demanded that he stop harassing me, and stated my commitment to file a report if he continued the harassment. I thought it was important to document my experience and use the word “harassment,” to name the behavior for exactly what it was. He phoned me at home and said it wouldn’t be necessary for me to report him because he wouldn’t do anything like that again. He apologized and begged me to destroy the letter I had written and to delete the emails he had sent. I said no, and told him never to call my home again.
In 2006, I received my second promotion with the Bureau of Transportation. It meant I would be working with a different group and on a different office floor. It also meant yet another probationary period in which to be tested, prove myself, and earn a permanent status. Within a few weeks, I became aware I had attracted the attention of a man who sat near my cube. He, too, made invitations for activities outside of work which I declined. I told him in person that I wasn’t interested in a relationship outside of work. By then, I was out as a Lesbian at work and felt safe being so. This man responded to my rejection by sending me an email saying he didn’t see why a straight guy and a Lesbian couldn’t go out on a date. He even suggested I bring a friend.
It was time to write another letter. And this time, in addition to writing a letter of documentation, I decided to report him to my new manager, a woman, who said, “Ah, don’t worry; he’s done that to all of us.” That shocking conversation with my manager revealed the man’s 20-year history of sexual harassment against women in the workplace. In subsequent conversations, other female co-workers shared how he had harassed them with unwelcome, inappropriate, rude, demeaning and demanding behaviors and communications. The letter I wrote him was the most angry of the three letters I wrote to men who had sexually harassed me in the workplace. I was fed up; I had had enough.
Sexual predators are strategic in timing their attacks, and they rely on enablers. I was determined not to be an enabler, so I confided in other female colleagues. A group of us decided to pursue the matter with higher level management — to join together, to share our stories, and to demand action. That was a difficult, ugly year. While we women kept our jobs, unfortunately so did the perpetrators of sexual harassment. However, there were other consequences, and we started a file of sexual harassment reports against them. I like to think we made a difference. Both men did stop their harassment, by the way, but I lived with my memories and worked with the discomfort around these men until they retired from the City.
Each incident took so much from me. Each violation ate away at my sense of safety in the workplace, my self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth, my joy, my focus. To experience each violation, to process each experience, to feel and name my emotions, to think through what action I would take, to take that action, and then to deal with the consequences of that action — all of this took enormous time and energy, and it took a physical and emotional toll. Sexual harassment is destructive. It’s important not to minimize that destruction; it’s real.
Even now, after all this time, writing this I feel embarrassed. The Weinstein business triggers memories, and the memories tap into puddles (not pools, at least) of unresolved shame and guilt, and feelings about not being worthy of safety, respect, protection, and the truth of my experience. I have more personal work to do to deepen the knowing of my value, my “good.” I know my value is not based on someone else’s misuse of me, or someone’s praise and bestowal of an award on me, either, for that matter.
The men in these experiences were generally perceived as “good” people — capable professionals, valued members of their communities, leaders in their churches and recreational activities, even caring husbands, fathers, and sons. It’s important, though, that we don’t let someone who is not living up to their potential prevent us from living up to ours.
These sad examples are exceptions to my otherwise mostly positive and respectful professional relationships with men. Perhaps that’s also true of Harvey Weinstein’s victims, but we women shouldn’t have to go to this much effort to ensure our safety in the workplace. And the fact that we feel we won’t be believed, supported, or protected if we report incidents of sexual harassment just adds insult to injury. Predators count on it.
I understand the wide range of reactions women can have after experiencing sexual harassment, assault, and violence. There is no single pattern of response. I also understand the myriad reasons women do and don’t report incidents or take action to confront perpetrators. There is no single “right” way to respond. I responded how I could at the time. Many factors influenced my response, including age, power and authority, sexual identity, fear, insecurity, job security, personal history, and more. One thing is certain: it’s not okay to blame the victim.
I’ll conclude with a reference to an article on why women don’t report sexual harassment (https://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/11112996); I think it’s a good read.
Composed October 15, 2017 — after two weeks of published reports claiming that Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein had sexually harassed and abused dozens of women