American Culture

Everyday harassment

  1. #metoo

Suck it up. Grow a set. Put on your Big Girl panties. Get over it. #MeToo

The first time I faced sexual harassment was when I was about 10 years old. I was shopping with my parents at the Clarkins discount store out on Fulton Road. My parents let me stop to look at the books and toys by myself with a “Don’t wander off” reminder. A man–maybe a teenager–walked up to me and said, “Hey! Put your hand in my pocket!” He was standing a foot or so away with his hands in his pockets, holding one slightly out towards me. I remember looking up at him, startled, then afraid. And then running away as fast as I could.

I kept running until I found my mom. She looked at me and asked what was wrong. I insisted nothing was wrong–because, somehow, I knew I had done something bad and had to hide it. I never talked about it.

What was in the pocket? Back in those days there were rumors about razor blades or needles in Halloween candy–so that’s what I imagined. Later I realized it was just as likely–probably more so–that his pocket was missing so that I would have found his genitals instead.

When all of the #MeToo stories started and the hashtag showed up in my Facebook feed, I was shocked at how many of my friends posted it. Most of the women I know. I hesitated before posting. Sure, I’ve experienced everyday, run of the mill, annoying behavior. But nothing really bad ever actually happened, right? Do I even have the right to say “#MeToo?”

One of the problems, when I look back over situations, is trying to figure out what was harassment and what was bullying and how were they different? Of course, back then, bullying was usually called “teasing” and it was just something else you had to put up with, preferably by not mentioning it.

So if guys called me “dog” or worse, was that harassment? Or just teasing/bullying? It didn’t really matter.

By the time I was 15 and in high school, I learned another new lesson: how to be careful when walking into the pep rally after school on Fridays for either football or basketball. The band always played “Free Ride” or one of the school fight songs. The gym was mostly dark with spotlights sweeping over the crowd. Sophomores had to sit in the bleachers to the right of the stage. Unfortunately, I often had to cross in front of a group wrestlers and their friends to get to an empty spot. They groped me while jeering and calling me names. By basketball season, I stopped going to the rallies.

High schools are the perfect breeding ground for harassment and bullying–there is an almost-unlimited pecking order of people who cannot stop what those with more power are doing. And the students with power can exercise it overtly: in class, in the halls, in the cafeteria right in front of the adults who should be able to do something. But the adults didn’t help, either.

I started working when I was 16. At an interview for a job I did not get, the man interviewing me asked where I was currently working. “Arby’s,” I told him. “Get out of fast food,” he said, “You’re nothing but cannon fodder to them.” Unfortunately, it was years before I could take his advice and I worked my way through college in fast food.

I started working at Wendy’s at the end of my first semester of college. I stayed until I got a full-time teaching job after my first year of grad school, six years later.

For a while I had a manager named Brad who used to run the closing shift. It was usually a three-person shift–Jeff, Randy and me, plus Brad. One night, while working the drive-through, Brad swung his foot up on to the counter near the window. “You see this foot? You know what they say about the size of a man’s foot, don’t you? 11D!”

I just looked at Brad, shook my head, and said, “I’m dating a 13 triple-E.”

During my first semester of college, I took a theater course called “Oral Interpretation of Literature.” It was a course in reader’s theater and it was great fun. About half-way through the semester, I walked into class early one day and the professor and one other student were the only two in the room. Phil, the professor, looked over at me with a big smile and said, “Hi there!” I said hello and waited to see what was up. “How would you like to be stage manager for Gemini?” I knew the proper response to the head of the department was, “Yes! Of course!”

After class, Mike, the other early student, was waiting outside of the classroom for me. He put his arms around me and said, “You know, I make it with all of the new female stage managers, don’t you?” I smoothly spun (surprisingly) gracefully out of his embrace as I laughed and walked away.

And then women that I did not know started seeking me out. One while changing for a dance class: “Don’t let Mike or Lou get you alone backstage.” “What?” “Don’t let Mike or Lou get you alone backstage.” Another between classes, “Don’t let Mike, Lou, Dan or Phil get you alone backstage.” And more women, in the theater department and on the stage crew.

I made sure I was never alone backstage and I made sure I signalled I didn’t want to be. That was my last theater course.

A couple of years later I was taking a political science course. I got an A+ on my first paper, a book review. I was invited by the instructor to make an appointment to go to his office to talk to him about it. That seemed a little odd and I mentioned it to a friend while riding a campus bus. A woman sitting in front of us turned around and said, “Hey, are you talking about Pete?” He always refered to himself by his first name. “Yes!” “Stay away from his office!” Then a woman across the aisle chimed in, “Is that Pete in poli sci?” “Yeah.” “Watch out–he’ll ask you to make an appointment about your paper, but that’s not what he wants.”

I managed to avoid the office visits.

Most of my professional life has been blissfully free of harassment, except for the two years I worked for David. When I accomplished something especially noteworthy, he used to walk towards my cubicle puckering up and licking his lips and telling me he was so pleased I was going to get a big kiss. He never actually kissed me. He did grab my ankle once in the middle of a meeting with another manager–he said he couldn’t control himself because my socks were sexy. David used to tell us that he carried extra liability insurance, just to head off any inevitable harassment suits.

He balanced out the innuendo with a constant string of contradictory feedback on my work. “Great presentation!” “No, you can’t present at trade shows–you’re just not good enough.” “The guys are such entertaining speakers–like trained monkeys.” “Great materials–let the guys deliver it.” David also kept everyone on pins and needles with frequent tirades, punctuated with screaming and cursing, that carried easily through any closed door. We all wanted to avoid being his target.

It was a mixed blessing when David closed the training department. It took a long time to get used to a quieter, more professional environment. It took even longer to look in the mirror and not hear his voice telling me, “You’re just not good enough.”

I have mixed feelings about writing this. Nothing ever really happened. I was never raped. I was never threatened with losing my job or not getting a job if I didn’t have sex with someone.

But these experiences did have an impact on my choices. They colored my view of my workplace, the quality of my work, and inevitably, of myself.

Even now, I wonder if I am the proverbial “snowflake.”

But I know that doubt is part of the reaction. I realize that “Gaslighting” is too strong of a term for any of my experiences. And I don’t know how collective gaslighting would work. But maybe that’s just how it does work.

We get used to little things and we just blow them off. Acknowledging becomes too close to complaining and that becomes too close to whining and who wants to be that woman?

Suck it up. Grow a set. Put on your Big Girl panties. Get over it.

Grow up. Shut up. Don’t talk about it.

#MeToo

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