One of the times I was sexually harassed
Why I didn’t do anything about it
This story is not extreme. What happened to me was not “that bad”. The only thing that bothers me to this day is how I reacted. It’s been on my mind lately so I’m writing it down.
When I was in college I had a job at a department store. It was a small chain that you’ve never heard of. First I worked in the accessories department, but I didn’t like it so I tried to get moved to housewares. I did, and I was much happier until one day I was stocking with one of the stock guys and he made a statement about me.
When you’re stocking you don’t have to dress nicely. You don’t talk to the public so you can wear jeans. Which I did. They were skinny. It was in style.
He waited. Maybe on purpose or maybe not, but he waited until no one else was around us. No one heard what he said except me. In fact, even I didn’t hear at first. He spoke so softly and quietly that I had to look at him and ask him to repeat himself. He had my full attention. I was looking right at him. I was listening intently. I think I even leaned toward him to hear him better. It’s a rare gift I’m sure to have someone straining to hear your unsolicited remark.
…and he made a comment about my appearance in my jeans.
I honestly don’t remember what he said. I don’t remember if I even actually heard him clearly enough to know exactly what he said. It doesn’t matter at all, because his follow up was worse.
I didn’t know what to do and I just stared at him I’m sure. There was hesitation probably as well. And then I did what I always do when I am vulnerable and exposed, I blushed. When I blush it’s not like my cheeks get a little pink. My entire face and ears go as red as a tomato. And then he said the words that still make my skin crawl…
“I wonder what else you’re doing when your face is that red.”
Total system failure. Program crash. Pinwheel of death. Buffering… Cognitive dissonance. Whatever you want to call it, that’s what my brain was doing at that exact moment. I was in complete shock. I couldn’t believe that he had just said that to me. He had always seemed so nice, polite, friendly, fatherly even. He had no embarrassment about his statement whatsoever. I think that’s what shocked me the most. He should have been ashamed of himself, so why was I the one feeling shame? No guilt in his eyes. Pride even in his brazenness. He said it calmly and casually as if it was perfectly fine. As if he wasn’t committing violence against me. His words slowly sunk in and my paralysis only worsened as I sobered to the weight of his words.
I should have walked right upstairs to HR at that very moment and reported him. I should have written it down and talked to them about it. I should have asked to be excused for the rest of the day. I should have gone home and told my Mom how violated I felt.
But, I didn’t. I didn’t do any of those things. Ever. I turned away and went back to stocking, choking back tears and trying desperately to avoid making eye contact. I tried to pretend it hadn’t happened. Part of me not even believing that it had happened. How could it have really happened? How could he say that? It was so surreal. I was so frozen. So I did nothing.
What if they didn’t believe me? He had worked there much longer than I had and was well respected. He was an “adult” and I was a mouthy college student.
What if he tried to retaliate? What if he tried to spread rumors about me or harm my character? He could certainly corner me when I was alone. He could make me feel very uncomfortable for the rest of my employment until I inevitably quit.
What if I was dismissed? What if HR didn’t take it seriously? Insisted that I had misheard him. Insisted that he didn’t mean what he had insinuated. Asked for witnesses. Brought him in to tell his side of the story with his calm composure while I sobbed in my seat. What if I was just written off as being an emotional young girl and told that it wasn’t a big deal?
Later, after I had calmed down I thought,
“Fuck this! I’ve got to tell someone.”
So I walked up to the ladies in my department to tell them. I acted miffed and recounted the incident as if I was just going on about the happenings of the day.
“You won’t believe what [person] just said about my jeans!”
I said incredulously and in line with as much of my usually confident demeanor as I could muster. I did not mention the second statement for disgust at the thought of the tainted words in my mouth and distrust of my tenuous emotional control. I was assessing the climate before I exposed my wound.
“Well, you know…”, my manager said, “…they are pretty tight.”
Betrayal number two struck me just as hard as the first. I was right. My fear was justified. I had been invalidated. These women. These women I trusted and cared about. These women who cared about me and treated me like a daughter. These women blamed me for what he had said.
At the time I felt defensive about my pants being appropriate enough and my mind filled with various challenges to their assertion, none of which were the one and only argument to be made, the one I should have made:
Nothing about my appearance or clothing gives anyone the right to make sexual comments about me.