Have you unwittingly gagged a victim?
At the age of 22, I already have 3 jobs under my belt. These employment opportunities were not the result of successful promotions in my chosen field. Two of them were waitering gigs that I took during university to stay the terrifying mountain of debt looming over my future. After I became a qualified teacher, I took my current job teaching English and Science at a small private school.
Although I have not been participating in the real working world for long, I would say that… Maybe one, no two! Actually in all three of my jobs I have been sexually harassed by patrons, and coworkers.
What can we qualify as sexual harassment?
It is commonly perceived that harassment of this nature is overt, aggressive and often violent. Yes! Sexual harassment is all of the above, and more.
Sexual harassment can also be the discriminatory treatment of people that is characterized by sexually colored remarks, improper touching and sexually demanding behavior in anyway.
So we can agree that this type of harassment is when a person falls victim to unwanted attention of a sexual nature, can we not?
With the preoccupation of society on the nature of these prohibited acts, and the normalization of men’s ambitious sexual prowess, many victims may feel marginalized.
What happens if you are a victim’s employer?
How do you react when an employee steps forward to let you know that they have been made to feel uncomfortable by a coworker?
Here is my story:
The school I am working at asked all the teachers to go on a leadership camp with the student body’s elite. Understandably, everyone declined because it would be painful, and obviously unpaid. It is unfortunate that teachers are expected to do so much shit for free because of our inherently caring nature. I digress. Since I was the newbie and eager to please, the management turned their joint attention to me. After a little begging, I gave in and agreed to go.
Then suddenly it was Friday and it was time for us to leave, and I would be driving in a car with an older male colleague. Let’s call him MR A. After ten minutes of making small talk, Mr A began recounting his first time having sex in extensive detail. Shocked and mildly confused, I tried to divert the conversation to other topics like the giraffes on the side of the road (because they are long too, Mr A). I pointed out the crazy drivers I saw on the road. I even tried to talk about work! But Mr A was determined to ignore distractions.
He was intent on sharing the intimate insights he had gleamed of himself over the years, and returned to the topic of his penis many times.
A few statements he made that caused me discomfort:
- You look like you are good in bed.
- I’m sure you make your boyfriend happy.
- I’m a natural in bed.
Let me repeat that, it was unwanted attention of a sexual nature and I felt like a victim.
I began to avoid him. When he did approach me, I would say things like “Fuck off”, and “why do you keep touching me? I don’t like it”. Every admonishment was a signal to him to try harder to win my affection. It was during this period of intense distress, my mom did what mothers do best and saved the day.
“I will come fetch you”, she said to me. “There is no reason for you to be made to feel this way”. I was grateful but I knew I had to be professional and contact my boss before making any decisions. So I phoned the headmistress and for the first time in my life, I complained about being harassed by a work colleague. I decided to be frank and honest, even recounting the time he sang a song to my vagina because I thought I would be safe in this powerful woman’s hands.
I told her that the older students had noticed his behavior, and I was unsure if passing the situation off as a joke was appropriate. I was looking for guidance and I was only met with skepticism.
When I finished my story, she said to me: “do you realize that I have to have a disciplinary hearing now?”. Before the call dropped she asked me to clarify my story one more time. “So you are not having a bad time, but he just put the moves on you and you aren’t interested?” She inquired. No, I’m still having a shit time and if I knew this was an attempt by Mr A to have a romantic getaway without his wife, I would have declined to come.
It was in this moment that I wanted all of this swept under the rug as the grey and black bullshit that it was. I told the headmistress that I was only informing her of this in the context of explaining why I would not be staying the whole weekend. “Well when are you wanting to leave?” She asked me. The conversation that followed was an attempt to convince me to stay longer, to protect the students. I felt that this was an unfair expectation of me! The school asked two teachers to go; one of them was supposed to be the aldutier adult, and yet here I was expected to pick up the slack for his unprofessional behavior. If she was so concerned then why did she not arrive on her high horse to iron the problem out? I dissented and left the camp the following day.
At school on Monday, I was ushered into a quick meeting early in the morning with the deputy head, and the headmistress. They asked me if I was sure I wanted to to take this further. It was obvious that they did not have my best interests at heart, and I said no. My argument was that Mr A found his own behavior acceptable, and nothing I could say would change his perspective. I was so surprised when they agreed! They also reminded me that Mr A was that sort of fellow; very friendly and often makes physical contact with the other teachers. They even had the cheek to ask me to be more perceptive and alert to ensure he did not behave too friendly with the students.
And that was where it ended, for Mr A and the school’s management. However where does it end for me? The complex and layered emotions of shame, guilt and anger were difficult to shake off. Particularly as my very real experience over there, when I was isolated and unprotected was interpreted as a petty social misdemeanor in the office. The real problem for management it seemed, was with my frigidity and intensity when handling the situation.
I wonder how could my employers reacted differently, that would have provided me with the courage to correct a troubling situation?
I believe my experience has not happened in a vacuum. Regardless of my employer’s intention, the lack of sensitivity combined with a preoccupation with cooling the problem, marganilised my problem. In order to help your employees, friends and family; be prepared to act with courage! It will be harder, but say “fuck you” to people who feel entitled enough to infringe on other people’s rights. I wish I had been brave enough.